Tag Archive | "housing"

Hope for the “Ocelot” Tenants?

Entrance to Manida Street building, Photo by Wanda Hellmund

Entrance to Manida Street building, Photo by Wanda Hellmund

By Wanda Hellmund

It was a moment the tenants in the decaying apartment buildings on Manida Street had sought for more than two years. “Omni bought the debt,” Carmen Rodriguez, head of the residents’ group, declared at a tenant meeting on December 7.

The room–filled with Hunts Point residents who have endured rats, collapsing ceilings and months with no heat or hot water–erupted in applause

It has been a long fight for residents in Manida Street and hundreds of other residents in the decrepit Ocelot-owned buildings all over the Bronx. This is their first victory. But it was a victory with a caveat.

“This is a huge success for the tenants,” said Jill Roche from the Hunts Point Alliance for Children, who represented the Manida  Street tenants. “But there is still a very long road ahead for us.”

On Dec. 2, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the sale of the portfolio of 14 of 26 Ocelot-owned buildings to Omni New York LLC, a low-income real-estate development company, as a boon for residents all over the city. “The sale of these buildings to an affordable housing developer with a track record as strong as Omni’s is a home run for the residents, the neighborhood, and all of New York City,” the mayor said in a statement. “That’s something all of us can cheer.”

“Omni is thrilled to have been chosen as the successful bidder for the Ocelot portfolio,” Omni’s co-owner Maurice “Mo” Vaughn said in a statement.  Vaughan is a former New York Met player. “We look forward to moving ahead with the foreclosure process and substantial rehabilitation of these properties.”

“I want Omni to do right by us,” said Rodriguez, a 35-year-old mother of five, who had help lead the fight against Ocelot Capital Group that bought the four Manida Street buildings and 22 others across the Bronx in between 2006 and 2008, only to abandon them to foreclosure months later.

“We don’t want to be treated like trash no more.”

This pyrrhic victory may have a broader impact on future tenants’ cases against their landlords. “This is a success not only for these tenants,” said Roche. “This is a success for tenants all over the country.”

But the victory is muted. Omni did not buy the buildings outright from Ocelot. It bought their $23.8 million debt from Fannie Mae and Deutsche Bank. As long as the deeds are still held in the hands of companies linked to Ocelot, improvements may take some time.

What does this deal mean for tenants tomorrow? “Not a whole lot,” said Roche at the meeting. “But this is a huge step. It just might take a year or so.”

Omni officials pledged to transfer $1 million in emergency repairs to the current receivers in various buildings, though they are well aware that one million will not go far.

“I think $30 million is the right figure to put these buildings back to where they ought to be,” said Omni manager, Gene Schneur, acknowledging the enormity of the buildings’ decay.

For instance, the Bryant and Morris Avenue receiver claimed in October that he needed $325,000 alone to make capital improvements such as waterproofing, sidewalk repairs and new electrical services.

“Nothing is going to happen until we get the deeds,” said Schneur. “This could take 12 months, this could take 18 months. We hope it doesn’t.”

A spokesperson for Fannie Mae, which owns much of Ocelot’s bad debt, said Ocelot has not been cooperative. “So we had to sell the notes for now to secure the deeds,” said Jon Searles.

Meanwhile, Rodriguez is hopeful. She visited some of the buildings Omni has rehabilitated in the city – a portfolio that includes 2,937 units of affordable housing.

“You should have seen these buildings,” Rodriguez told Manida residents at the tenants meeting. “These buildings looked beautiful!”

Tenants are both excited and skeptical about the new developments.   “We would have preferred a non-profit organization,” said Jonathan Levy, a lawyer for the Ocelot tenants. “But this is the second best option for us.”

Most prefer to hold out hope. “We didn’t have hot water and heat for a year,” said Tamara Taylor, a 48-year old Manida Street tenant and mother of two. “Nobody was there to help us. “I have waited this long. I can wait a few more months.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, HousingComments (0)

A Squatter’s Paradise?

By Fred Dreier

When Janet found the vacant apartment this past summer, it was a mess. He's since cleaned it up and now lives rent free. Photo by Fred Dreier

When Janet found the vacant apartment this past summer, it was a mess. He's since cleaned it up and now lives rent free. Photo by Fred Dreier

Geovanni Janet remembers the first time he pushed open the door to Apartment 4A and peered inside. A tangle of broken furniture lay twisted on the living room floor and old bits of garbage littered the two bedrooms. Someone had ripped the kitchen sink from its fixture; its location was unknown. A moldy aroma wafted through the hallway.

Janet was homeless at the time and says he saw potential in the mess. He stepped across the threshold into his new home and into his new life as a squatter.

“I didn’t have no bed so I slept on the floor in my clothes,” Janet said. “I didn’t even have a pillow. I just used my shirt to keep the light out. I did that for two months. It was rough, man.”

That was back in May. In six months, the 35-year-old Janet transformed the Bronx flat into his home. It’s hardly luxury housing: large holes fill the ceiling, two windows are missing and Janet pours his drinking water from the bathtub faucet. But gone are the days of sleeping on the floor. Janet has furnished his bedroom with a queen-sized bed and a wooden chest of drawers he plucked from a dumpster. He even has a Playstation 2 on loan from a friend.

“It’s comfortable,” Janet said. “Nobody has ever told me to get out.”

The ease with which Janet has lived rent-free in Apartment 4A says a lot about the current housing crisis facing the Bronx. Hundreds of neglected apartment buildings dot the borough because their owners went bust in the sub-prime market crash in 2008. With no cash for upkeep, many of these structures have gone for a year or more without services and supervision. A recent survey by the United Housing Assistance Board (UHAB) estimates that at least 70,000 individual apartments, both inhabited and vacant, sit in various states of decay.

“If a window breaks and you don’t fix it, you are sending a message to the community that nobody is taking care of things,” said Dina Levy, associate director of the UHAB. “Buildings that were in decent condition are now in decline. Some activities that used to be not tolerated in these buildings are now going on.”

Janet’s building, for example, currently sits in an ownership purgatory. Its old owner, Ocelot Capital Group, is a Manhattan-based real estate investment firm that gobbled up nearly 30 Bronx buildings at the height of the housing bubble, and borrowed big sums to pay for the purchases.

After Ocelot defaulted in fall of 2008, Fannie Mae entered foreclosure proceedings on the company’s properties this spring. In early December 2009, the group Omni New York LLC purchased the building. Fore more than one year, the building went without basic services or supervision.

Like Ocelot, other real estate firms borrowed, bought high and went bust. The companies have left a trail of decaying structures, and an open doors for squatters.

“There was no lock on the door, so I just came in,” said Janet, who was living in a homeless shelter at the time. “It was as easy as that. A man doesn’t want to live in a shelter. He wants a home.”

Not all squatters are looking for a home; many come and go, leaving destruction in their wake. Squatters nearly overran the Ocelot property at 621 Manida St. in the Hunts Point neighborhood after vandals broke the locks off of doors. Unwanted entrants dug into the walls to steep metal pipes to sell for scrap. Others used vacant apartments to run drug and prostitution rings.

Tenants there called local police, who now regularly drive by the buildings for signs of unwanted guests.

“It’s a problem you have to stop early,” said Det. Art Warrick of the 42nd Precinct, “because the more people start moving in it becomes a coop for new squatters. They let other people know a building is open. It can become a haven for drugs or crime. We try to get to it before things get out of hand.”

Tenants faced a similar situation across the Bronx at 1744 Clay Ave., another building owned by Ocelot. When management stopped coming to the building in January 2009, repairs and care stopped. After a month, tenants noticed undesirables from the neighborhood loitering in the building’s lobby and on the roof. According to resident Carmen Piniero, it wasn’t long until squatters broke into the building’s four vacant apartments.

Manhattan real estate firms such as Ocelot Capital Group invested heavily in Bronx real estate in 2007. Two years later, many of the properties are in varying states of decay.  Photo by Fred Dreier

Manhattan real estate firms such as Ocelot Capital Group invested heavily in Bronx real estate in 2007. Two years later, many of the properties are in varying states of decay. Photo by Fred Dreier

“A neighbor came to me and said he heard people inside, doing drugs and having sex,” Piniero said. “We went into the apartment and found condoms. People had been doing drugs.”

Piniero said she and her neighbors collectively agreed to call the police on the squatter’s nest. Cops showed up and chased the newcomers off.

“Now we keep our eyes and ears open on the vacant apartments,” Piniero said. “We don’t want people coming into our homes who don’t live here.”

Janet said he isn’t worried that someone in his building might call the police or the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) and have him thrown out. A quick poll of Janet’s neighbors showed that many realize he is indeed living in the apartment without paying rent. But not one neighbor said they felt compelled to call the police on Janet.

The building’s superintendent, Victor Garcia, even exchanges heat and electricity with Janet for work around the building. Janet helps take out the garbage and helped Garcia clean two vacant apartments on the fourth floor.

“Geo – he’s ok. He usually just stays up in his apartment,” Garcia said. “He comes around asking if I have any jobs for him, and if I do, I put in to work.”

Janet said he rarely interacts with anyone other than the super. He passes his days working in the building, spending time with his 16-year-old daughter who lives in the neighborhood or watching borrowed DVDs on his Playstation.

Should the buildings in question be open to squatters, or be offered to groups of concerned tenants? Levy believes most will eventually be once again sold to speculators and for-profit companies. Photo by Fred Dreier

Should the buildings in question be open to squatters, or be offered to groups of concerned tenants? Levy believes most will eventually be once again sold to speculators and for-profit companies. Photo by Fred Dreier

“I feel like I gotta help,” said Janet. “I’m not working, so if neighbors need help it’s something to keep my mind focused.”

The housing crisis in the Bronx is reminiscent of the late 1980s and early 90s, when a boom in vacancies and abandoned buildings matched a similar increase in joblessness and homelessness. That period was the pinnacle of New York City’s squatter movement and squatters took up residence in all five boroughs.

Squatter communities, which often included artists and actors, made headlines in Manhattan’s Lower East Side for their militant stand against HPD.

Writer Robert Neuwirth, whose book “Shadow Cities” chronicles squatting across the globe, followed the clashes between squatters and police.

“People were pretty savvy about picking which buildings to squat in,” Neuwirth said. “You had to find a building that was worth less than the taxes owed on it.”

Neuwirth said the squatter communities he followed renovated the abandoned and dilapidated buildings they inhabited.

The Rev. Frank Morales is a Bronx priest and homeless advocate who helped establish squats in the 1970s and 80s. Morales now operates the Bronx-based non-profit Picture the Homeless, which advocates for low-cost housing for homeless people.

Morales is quick to point out the difference between harmful squatting — the kind involving drugs and prostitution — and what his group promotes. Morales defines his form of squatting as “urban homesteading.

“We are not like flies on a piece of food,” he said. “The squatting we’re talking about involves occupation and renovation. The notion is to develop housing based on ideological concerns for the community, not based on the conventional profit model.”

Morales believes the key to addressing the housing crisis is to allow groups like his to organize homesteading camps, and then move them into vacant buildings to work on renovations and live. In 2002, the City of New York turned over 11 city-owned buildings in the Lower East Side for legal squatting in a series of housing cooperatives. Homesteaders had established legal squats in the buildings and worked for years on renovations. Morales said it was a step toward a broader acceptance of homesteading in New York City.

“People have become separated from the naked greed that pumped up the housing bubble and ruined our communities,” Morales said. “There’s the notion that these buildings are there. There are vacancies in them. And there are people living on the street. Why not let someone live in there?”

Others believe the tenants rights groups, not squatters, should be the ones to benefit from the current housing crisis. Levy called the housing dilemma an “opportunity” for established renters to take control of their own buildings.

The building Janet lives in has struggled with ownership woes for more than a year. Janet said he had little trouble establishing his squat on the fourth floor. Photo by Fred Dreier

The building Janet lives in has struggled with ownership woes for more than a year. Janet said he had little trouble establishing his squat on the fourth floor. Photo by Fred Dreier

“It would take a combination of government subsidy, tenant advocacy and some agreements from the banks,” Levy said. “If tenants can find capital sources, I think they have an opportunity to take back a lot of housing in the Bronx from speculators.”

But legal homesteading or tenant ownership in the Bronx would require radical actions by the banks that currently hold the debt on each property. And Levy said neither outcome is likely to happen, unless the city steps in and buys the properties.

“The banks are holding out and looking for more speculators,” she said. “The banks are still looking to get the highest possible value for these stupid loans and there are people out there who are willing to buy.”

Janet said does not think of himself as an activist or a homesteader, just a man who wanted a roof over his head. He said he does not panhandle, but instead finds money doing favors and odd jobs around the neighborhood. He also receives cash from his 16-year-old daughter who lives around the corner.

“It’s depressing,” Janet said. “I know it. It’s not easy for a person to change, but I’ve changed,. All I’m asking for is a job. I don’t want your money. I want to earn your money.”

Janet said that in a perfect world, he’d be able to land a job and begin working toward a new future. IHe would earn enough to buy a van, and then take a job delivering newspapers. He would save enough cash to buy gifts for his daughter and to buy groceries at the Fine Fare grocery store down the street.

He said he’d also earn enough cash to pay the rent.

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, HousingComments (2)

1744 Clay Ave.

by Sarah Omar Wali and Mustafa Mehdi Vural

Workmen with blue shirts labeled “JLP Home Imp. Inc” were a welcome sight for the tenants of 1744 Clay Ave. in East Tremont one fall week in October. Their 73-year-old building has been collapsing rapidly into disrepair for the last two years.  For many, the conditions have become unbearable.

The team of repairmen has been hired by JLP Management Inc., which holds a temporary lien on the property.  Five bathrooms have already received new tiles and a paint job. The rest of the repairs for the 42 units are expected to be completed by the end of the month.

Still, tenants in the 38 occupied apartments continue to be overwhelmed by the mold, the collapsing ceilings, and the general decay that accelerated under Ocelot, and later Hunter Property Management LLC.  The tenants have filed 51 complaints with the Department of Housing and Preservation Development (HPD) citing serious problems that include the broken elevator, the unstable structure, and problems with the heat.

According to Carmen Pineiro, president of the tenants association, conditions turned from bad to worse when Hunter took over management of the building in November, 2008. Since then, she said, the tenants lost hot water and heat several times, the elevator went out of service for almost a year, and repairs to holes in the walls and ceilings were neglected.

Niger Harris, who lives in apartment 1C, worries that the derelict conditions will affect the health of her asthmatic 7-year-old daughter, Nyla.  Doctors found that the levels of lead in Nyla’s system have tripled since the two moved into 1744 Clay Ave. along with Harris’s sister.

According to Harris, doctors ordered a Bi-Level Positive Air Pressure (BIPAP) machine the machine when Nyla failed a sleeping test this year. She lost her ability to breathe for five seconds while she was asleep. Doctors warned Harris that her daughter’s health will not improve unless she moves out of the building.

Others stay because they feel a deep connection to the building – even now. For many, 1744 Clay Ave. has been home for over 25 years.  Pineiro said they are connected to the building through memories and experiences and find it hard to imagine living anywhere else.

There is a strong sense of community in the building.   The unlocked security gate doesn’t deter neighbors from keeping their apartment doors open.   While the halls may be stained with dirt by the years of neglect, they are clean enough for children to run and play in while adults stand around the stairs chatting.

Posted in HousingComments (0)

1804 Weeks Ave.

by Sarah Omar Wali and Mustafa Mehdi Vural

The newly painted pink and blue walls in apartment 52 in the building at 1804 Weeks Ave. give the illusion of a well-cared for living space.  But the bright colors provide only a thin cover for the vermin-infested apartment Fernando Diaz shares with his wife and two young daughters.

Outside, boarded-up windows and broken glass leave the impression that the East Tremont building is abandoned.  Inside, graffiti splashes the hallways, doors are missing, and the shaky staircase is pocked by holes. “Don’t Rent Here,” is scrawled on the doors of empty apartments. More than 20 families, most of them Latino, are attempting to survive in this five-story building,which was bought by an Ocelot entity in August 2007. It has been in foreclosure since April of this year.

Twenty-seven of the 33 apartments are occupied and the rent averages $850 a month.  According to the Department of Housing and Preservation’s (HPD) records, tenants have filed 338 complaints in the past year.

HPD took note of the broken windows, trash strewn floors, lack of security and hot water, and put the building under the Alternative Enforcement Program in early 2008.  The year-old program, was designed to identify and fix dwellings in severe distress.  The law allowed the city to sweep in to make necessary repairs, and then slap the derelict owner with a hefty fine.

Yet this program has had little to no impact on the quality of life inside 1804 Weeks Ave.  According to the program’s report, as of Oct. 2007, the owners owed $19,100 as a tax lien to the city for open violations against the building.  This included a $16,500 fee that was carried over from the previous fiscal year on April 24, 2009.  Under the program’s guidelines, the city charges a fee for violations that remain unresolved. This building currently carries 581 outstanding violations, according to HPD.

Diaz has been living on the fifth floor with his wife, Rosie Benitas, and their two daughters Jacquelin, 7, and Tanya, 4, since February. They used to live in a second-floor apartment, but a fire forced them to move upstairs.

Diaz tried calling the maintenance supervisor in the building, he said. But he was told the super would not do any work in the apartment until he received his paycheck.  Diaz understands the super’s dilemma, but said he is more concerned about the mice and rats that could crawl into his daughters’ beds at night.

Using 311, Diaz has attempted to file formal complaints about rodent problems, lack of hot water and falling ceilings.  However, after months of neglect, he decided to at least try and make the apartment cheery.

Diaz painted the walls in bold hues to cover up the holes around the bathroom knobs.   The girls’ room was given a cool turquoise color to divert them from the windows that don’t open–creating an inferno in the summer.

However, most of the damage cannot be ignored, he said.   His bedroom ceiling leaks when it rains, and the crack is edging closer to the light fixture.  At night he lays in bed, staring at his ceiling, hoping that faulty wires will not cause another fire, and force them out once more.

Posted in HousingComments (0)

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