Tag Archive | "housing"

Heat and plumbing: Key 311 complaints for the Bronx

Heat and plumbing: Key 311 complaints for the Bronx

The new 311 map displays calls by community board

Kingsbridge Heights and Norwood lead the borough with the most calls made

By Manuel Rueda

Bronx residents call 311 to complain more about plumbing and heating issues than anything else, according to an analysis of the latest numbers released by the city last week.

For the first time since 2003 when the city launched the 311 hotline, New Yorkers can pinpoint what 311 callers are complaining about—by borough, zip code, community board, even buildings and streets—on a colorful interactive, online map.

Until recently, the city just used tables to show what type of complaints New Yorkers made and where the 60,000 daily calls originated.

Through a brief analysis of the City’s 311 Online Request Map, we found that Bronx residents frequently called 311 over the last three months to report housing problems, such as bad plumbing or lack of heat. But during the same period, Bronxites filed few complaints about environmental problems like air quality.

Residents of Community District 7, an area that includes Norwood and Kingsbridge Heights, made the most calls of any other district in the borough with 3,946 complaints filed over the past three months. According to the map, 839 of these calls related to heating, while more than 1,000 had to do with plumbing issues, such as leaks.

In other low-income areas of the Bronx, complaints related to tenants’ rights numbered in the hundreds, but were significantly lower than those made in Community District 7.

Residents of Community District 9 in the eastern Bronx made 438 heating

The 311 Call Center in Midtown (Courtesy DoITT)

complaints, while Community District 2 which includes Huntspoint and Longwood, only made 221 heating requests.

Greg Faulkner, a former chairman of Community District Board 7, and currently the chief of staff for City Councilman Fernando Cabrera, says the high numbers of housing complaints in his district reflect a struggle between low income tenants living in  buildings with housing problems and landlords who are unwilling or unable to guarantee basic living conditions. But he also sees the high number of complaints in CB7 as a sign that people in this part of town are learning to call the city and elected officials.

Sergio Cuevas, a tenants’ rights organizer chuckled with satisfaction when he heard about the high number of complaints coming from the northwest Bronx.

Cuevas lives in 3018 Heath avenue, one of ten dilapidated buildings recently acquired by real estate impresario Steve Finkelstein.

He is part of a group of community organizers that encourages people in these buildings to call 311 and hands out 311 flyers to fellow tenants. For Cuevas these calls are a first step towards putting landlords on the city’s watch-list.

“People are basically lazy sometimes. They get frustrated and they don’t understand they have to call 311,” he says. “They cannot fathom ten minutes of their time doing this.”

Cuevas claims 311 calls have helped some tenants to get housing problems fixed and sometimes calls on behalf of people, who don’t understand how to use the touchtone system.

Environmental issues on the other hand don’t seem to be as pressing an issue for Bronx 311 callers. According to the interactive map, residents of the Bronx have filed less than 50 complaints on indoor air quality since November.

Indoor air quality complaints include lack of ventilation in a building, or bad air quality due to construction, renovation or the use of chemicals.

The number of outdoor air quality complaints, including concerns over car fumes, dust from a construction site, soot or pollution, is even lower. Only one outdoor air quality complaint was registered in the entire borough over the past three months.

Miquela Craylor director of the environmental group Sustainable South Bronx, says local residents are not filing air quality complaints because they don’t understand that they have a right to fresh air. She also believes many are so frustrated with pollution and the response of local government that they don’t bother to complain.

“There’s awareness about the problem when you talk to people in the streets” she says. “But there’s a feeling there’s not much we can do to change it, a sense that this is what happens because we’re poor.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Former Featured, Front PageComments (0)

Rezoning confusion for Norwood’s business owners

A view of Webster Avenue in Norwood. Photo: Elisabeth Anderson

A view of Webster Avenue in Norwood. Photo: Elisabeth Anderson

Many business owners in the Norwood section of Webster Avenue were caught unaware last week when the city began its formal approval process for a rezoning plan to revitalize the commercial stretch.

“What rezoning?” asked Maurice Sarkissian, 40, whose Sarkissian Food Service Equipment & Supplies, a restaurant supply business, has been in his family – and on Webster Avenue – for 50 years.

If the plan is approved, Sarkissian and his business colleagues along the corridor may soon find out that it involves less commercial use on Webster Avenue from East Gun Hill Road to the north to East Fordham Road to the south.  The cutbacks would make way for the development of nearly 740 units of affordable housing and 100,000 square feet of retail space.  The goal is to make Webster Avenue a safe, lively and walkable corridor.

The Department of City Planning certified the plan last week, offering it for public review for up to 60 days.  From there, the plan faces several more levels of approval before making it to city council for a final vote.  Community Board 7 District Manager Fernando Tirado, 40, estimated that the vote could happen by March, and that construction could begin as early as the spring.

Sarkissian believes Webster Avenue’s wide boulevard will never be safe for children.  He believes that crime is not caused by businesses, but by poor policing.  The 52nd Precinct reported a five percent increase in crime complaints from early September to early October as compared to the same period last year. Sarkissian blames businesses that are open until 2 or 3 a.m. “They need to cut out all the hangouts,” he said.

Sarkissian defended most of the businesses in the area.  “We keep the neighborhood nice, clean,” he said, adding that businesses like his were vital to the local Norwood economy because they bring customers into the big retail hubs along 204th Street and Gun Hill Road. “To make a neighborhood, you can’t chase good people out,” Sarkissian said.

But Tirado said that the area has to look ahead. “We want some smarter development,” he said.  According to a city planning spokesperson, existing businesses would be grandfathered into the new zoning plan.  They can remain and invest in their properties, and potentially benefit from an expanded customer base and revived corridor.

A number of business owners, like Sarkissian, still felt their futures were in jeopardy, unsure if the changing dynamic of the neighborhood would create public pressure for commercial businesses to leave.

“That’s not too good cause we don’t know where we’re going to go,” said John Joe Bennett, 51, of the plan.  Bennett, a 51-year-old Jamaican immigrant with a wife and eight children to support, owns John Joe Auto.   His shop has been on Webster Avenue since 1992, and he said he felt secure only until his current lease ends, in December 2012.  “My customers are mostly local,” Bennett said.  “If we move, will they follow?”

One customer at an unmarked auto repair shop a few storefronts north of John Joe Auto thought the move was a good one.  Miguel Alcantara, 45, who drives a taxi for New College Car Service, praised the plan, saying “It needs to be safer here.” He said in the future he wouldn’t mind driving to a repair shop further away.

Public pressure could be a factor for Bennett, as his business does not fall within the confines of a three-block sliver of Webster Avenue north of 205th Street that will remain zoned for exclusively auto-industry businesses.

Neither does Edmund Tierney’s business.  Tierney, 50, owns Tierney’s Auto Repair in the same building as Bennett’s.   “if it brings more people to the area, it has to be good,” said Tierney, who lives in Yonkers with his wife and three children.

Residents tend to share Tierney’s optimism.  “It’s not safe at night,” said Floyd Middleton, 44, who lives around the corner from Webster Avenue on 204th Street with his wife and two children.  “There’s a lot of gang-related violence at night.”  He believes the uptick in crime is related to fewer jobs; he has been looking for work himself for nearly a year.  Middleton thinks that bringing more retail positions to the area will help.

“If we develop, it’ll be a good thing,” he said.  He hoped to see large chain stores and a supermarket on Webster Avenue, so his family would not have to trek to Fordham Road or 125th Street in Manhattan for clothes and groceries.

But Chris McDonald, a 43-year-old Jamaican immigrant who is an apprentice auto mechanic at John Joe Auto, scratched his head over that notion.  Norwood is already awash in retail, he noted.  Not to mention his prospects for future work.  “I’ve just started,” McDonald said.  “I’d like to stay a while.”

Posted in Bronx Beats, Bronx Life, Bronx Neighborhoods, Crime, Housing, Money, Northwest Bronx, PoliticsComments (0)

Moshe Piller: How a New York Landlord Works the System

By:
Selam Berhe, Sonia Dasgupta, Dan Fastenberg, The Bronx Ink
Laura Kusisto, Clare O’Connor, Thorsten Schier, The Brooklyn Ink

After 18 months of rehabilitation for a broken hip, all that Eta Eckstein wanted was to go back home to her Brooklyn apartment. The 92-year-old Holocaust survivor had lived at 8750 Bay Parkway for 40 years, but when her son visited her apartment while she was still at the Shore View Rehabilitation Center, he found a red eviction notice on the door.

Her son, Zvi Eckstein, continued to pay her monthly rent, but the landlord, Moshe Piller, evicted the long-time resident, claiming she had vacated the apartment. The building superintendent had told the neighbors she was dead. But according to her son’s affidavit, his mother could instead not move back in because the apartment was in such disrepair.

With the help of her family, Eckstein fought the eviction all the way to Housing Court. Piller settled the case after Judge Candy Gonzales warned him: “You’re playing with fire.”

Along with the right to live in her apartment, Eta Eckstein won the right to reclaim belongings that had been stored in an unlocked basement or scattered on the building’s landing. But she also won the right to live with faulty wiring in the living room, a collapsed ceiling in the bathroom, and clogged plumbing, according to her son’s affidavit. Victory for Eta Eckstein meant being allowed back into a building that currently has 99 open violations with the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development, or HPD.

Why would anyone fight so hard to get back into 8750 Bay Parkway? Since Piller took over the building in 2005, tenants say that conditions have deteriorated. But five years of decline do not matter as much to a 92-year-old woman as a lifetime of familiarity. “It’s been her home for over 40 years,” said her grandson, Idan Eckstein.

Like Eta Eckstein, tenants all around the Bronx and Brooklyn live in buildings that have rodents, collapsing ceilings, no heat in the winter and windows that don’t open in the summer, and unlocked security doors that allow people in to urinate and do drugs in the stairs. The system makes it almost impossible to demand better.

They are afraid to make trouble because they lack the language skills to make sense of the complaint process or because their work schedule makes it impossible to go to housing court during the day. The city’s housing bureaucracy struggles with a system that makes aggressive enforcement difficult. And landlords learn how to fly under the radar, paying fines or making minor repairs rather than making expensive improvements.

Eckstein is hardly an isolated victim, and her landlord, Moshe Piller, is not unique. In fact, there are far worse landlords: Piller does not appear on the Village Voice’s list of “10 Worst Landlords,” nor do any of his holdings appear on the HPD’s list of the 200 worst buildings in New York City. Piller, who occupied a berth on the HPD’s 2003 “Major Problem Landlords List,” with 7,313 open violations at 29 buildings, now escapes the agency’s sanction, and his current violations are down to over 1,700.

In an effort to understand how landlords like Piller work the New York housing system, The Brooklyn Ink and The Bronx Ink spent several months following the same process that many tenants do. Like them, reporters from the two websites talked to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, the Department of Homeless Services, the Department of Buildings and the district attorney’s office. They all provided different versions of the same answer: He hasn’t broken the law; there’s not much we can do about the condition of housing for many tenants.

Also like many tenants, we went to Piller’s office to talk to the landlord himself. We made several trips and finally spoke with his property manager, Mike Ross. Ross said they constantly making improvements to the properties, including beginning renovations in three apartments at 119 East 19th Street in the last month since we began investigating the building for this story.

“We’re trying our best,” said Ross. “There’s always more, more and more work.”

***

When a faucet is leaking or the oven is broken, the first step for tenants is to phone the landlord or superintendent and ask him to come fix it. But if residents wait and remind him and nothing is done, the next step is to complain to the HPD.

Under New York law, a landlord is not fined—even if a violation isn’t fixed—unless a tenant or the HPD takes the landlord to housing court. But often tenants cannot take time off work to go to court, according to Legal Aid chief litigator Judith Goldiner, who represents tenants in housing cases. Legal aid can only represent about one in eight tenants who come to complain, due to a lack of resources. For those who go to court unrepresented, the success rate is low.

Numbers don’t tell the whole story of what it means to live in a Piller building, but they do tell a compelling part of it. The Piller apartment buildings we identified in Brooklyn have 829 open HPD violations . Of those, 219 are Class C violations, which include lead paint and a lack of child safety bars. The buildings in the Bronx have 995 violations, with 297 Class C violations, the most serious violations.

(To see the violations by building, click here)

Piller’s tenants have taken him to court more than 95 times in Brooklyn and the Bronx since 1989. Many of these cases settled, with the landlord agreeing to perform repairs.

Still, the extent of the landlord’s holdings, and therefore the number of violations in his buildings, is impossible to determine, even for city officials. New York City keeps records of all the buildings in the city, but not of the individuals who own them. One of the problems that organizations like HPD face in regulating a landlord like Piller is that he registers his holdings under a corporation, not individual, name. He registers most of his holdings under separate corporations. Eckstein’s building, 8750 Bay Parkway, for example, is registered as “8750 Bay Parkway L.L.C.,” which we confirmed by checking the sign in the lobby.

The Brooklyn Ink identified 14 buildings that Piller owns in Brooklyn and seven in the Bronx. The buildings that are listed under his name were purchased in the early 90s. Most of them are small two- or three-story brick homes in the Borough Park area. They have no violations, and tenants we spoke to generally said he’s a good landlord.

But after the early 2000s, Piller stopped registering buildings under his own name. We searched the names of Piller’s family and his employees, but nothing came up. The only way to know for sure is to visit the buildings themselves, where the registration on the wall says the name of his company, “MP Management,” and his name, Moshe Piller.

After hours of searching city records, old news clippings, and reports by city agencies we found as much as we could about the buildings he might own. Then we went to the boroughs to confirm which buildings are still his, and to find out what it’s like for the people who live there.

Life at 119 East 19th from Brooklyn Ink on Vimeo.

From the outside, nothing seems amiss at 119 East 19th Street, in Prospect Park South, Brooklyn. The railing protecting the flowerbeds outside is freshly painted and the building’s light brown facade has been redone recently, according to the building’s manager, Mike Ross.

Inside the lobby, on white paper with black marker is noted the name of the landlord for the building: “Moshe Piller.”

In the stairwell, the smell of urine is overpowering and at the bottom of the stairs, there’s a rat hole, just one variety of the vermin—such as bedbugs, cockroaches and mice—that crawl throughout 119 East 19th.

The elevator had been out of order for a month when we visited—not for the first time, according to residents. When we came back two weeks later it was still not working.

The building on 19th Street has 152 open violations as of this week, according to HPD. Of those, 52 are Class C, the most serious violations. This is more than twice the number of violations in any other building in the neighborhood, and three times the majority of buildings in general.

Piller purchased the building for $218,000 in 1995. He currently has over $9,000 in Department of Buildings’ fines, mostly for the broken elevator. He charges most tenants between $900 to $1,200 in rent. He pays some of his fines, enough to stay out of trouble with the department.

The first thing that’s noticeable when entering Desmond Fontenelle’s small one-bedroom apartment 6J is a chair placed awkwardly in the middle of the room, which conceals a gaping hole big enough for a person’s foot. “I don’t wanna break my neck walking to the bathroom at night,” said Fontenelle, a gregarious man in his early 40s, with pale brown eyes and a St. Lucian accent.

In the bathroom, a broken faucet has been dripping water into a bucket for years. The floor is soaked and a towel has been placed over the wet patch where the bath leaks. When Fontenelle showers, it floods the apartment of the neighbor below him, so he tries to bathe as little as possible.

The bedroom windows are barred with a locked metal gate and the smoke detector does not have a battery. The stove has also been out of order for years. “I eat mostly at mother’s place these days,” said Fontenelle.

But for other problems, such as the disarray in the apartment and rotting food in the refrigerator, Fontenelle also bears responsibility.

Fontenelle has been living at 119 East 19th for 20 years, before Moshe Piller purchased it 15 years ago. He said he has confronted the landlord numerous times about the repairs. In the last week, men have brought paint buckets up to his apartment and the building manager, Ross, has arranged for someone to come fix the broken oven door.

Fontenelle has tried withholding his $900 rent to pressure Piller to fix the apartment, but this has led to numerous court cases and eviction notices in the mail. Piller has taken him to court 16 times in 15 years for late rent payments – although Ross said they only do this once the rent is at least three months overdue. Fontenelle always agrees to pay, but also uses the opportunity to complain to the judge about the lack of repairs in his apartment, according to court documents we read.

Finally, at the beginning of this year he contacted HPD, which gave Piller a month to do some of the repairs. More than a month later, nothing had changed, so Fontenelle took the landlord to housing court.

“He’s gonna keep taking you to court until you move out,” said Fontenelle. “Then he’ll fix up the place a little bit for the next people and jack up the rent.

“I mean the man deserves his money, but he’s got to give me some services.”

In a phone interview, Ross said that keeping on top of all the repairs in a building with 50 units is a challenge, but that they are constantly working to make conditions better for their tenants. Since we began working on this story, management has renovated two of the units. They’ve arranged for workers to come and paint Fontenelle’s unit and fix the broken stove door.

But the need for repairs is ongoing. Since these problems were fixed, the number of HPD violations in the building went from 148 to 152 this week.

The building has 50 units. Three complaints per unit is standard for buildings around the city, said Ross. But of the buildings in the neighborhood of similar size, most we found had around one-third of the violations in Piller’s buildings.

***

Life at 2860 Grand Concourse from Bronx Ink on Vimeo.

At 2654 Valentine Ave. in the Bronx, men loiter in front of the grilled gate that closes off the front courtyard. The front door of the building gapes open, as if by a strong wind.

Many windows in its upper floor windows are broken and what glass remains is covered with blue-ink graffiti. Rodent feces are visible on the ground floor. On a recent Saturday, a woman sat on the steps leading up to the fourth floor with a syringe beside her, bobbing her head and mumbling, too lost to notice the disdainful look a tenant shot at her as he climbed down the stairs.

Inside the apartments, tenants complain of mold, caving ceilings, crumbling walls, mildew and sinking floors. The building has 164 open HPD violations, of which 44 are hazardous Class C violations. These include rodents, lead wall paint, cascading water from a seventh floor bathroom leak, and lack of heating, among others.

Piller owns 2654 Valentine Ave. and the adjacent 237 E 194th St., registered under Valentine Apartments L.L.C. He owns more buildings under different company names—2860 Grand Concourse and 2874 Grand Concourse, five blocks away, and 2501 Davidson Ave., on the other side of the Grand Concourse. But of all the buildings Piller owns in North Fordham, Valentine Apartments is the most visibly distressed.

William Plasenia and his wife have lived in apartment 4D for the past 13 years. A corner of the ceiling in one bedroom has burst open. The adjacent wall bulges with the weight of water pushing down. The kitchen floor slopes towards toward the center, like an upturned roof pitch. Plasenia says it is sinking. The bathroom ceiling sags and its peeled plaster flails mid air.

Plasenia, who hails from Cuba, speaks little English. He gestured to say that he fears the bathroom ceiling will collapse on his head soon. None of the violations in his apartment, however, show up in HPD files because he doesn’t know enough English to understand the system so said he does not file complaints.

At the buildings we visited, many tenants were non-English speakers who were unwilling to open their doors to strangers. In other cases, tenants were confused about the process for filing violations. Many said they simply call 311, which does not keep track of the number of complaints.

***

How can landlords get away with scores of violations? from Brooklyn Ink on Vimeo.

Even if tenants complain to HPD—Piller’s tenants have made thousands of complaints—there is nothing the HPD can do to bar a landlord from owning or renting property out to tenants.

Under HPD’s Alternative Enforcement Program, introduced in 2007, the HPD can enforce repairs on buildings it deems “distressed” or “hazardous.” Failure to comply could result in a lien being placed against the building. Of the 200 buildings on the most recent list, published on Feb. 15 of this year, none were Piller’s.

HPD can also refer buildings on this list to the district attorney for prosecution. The Kings County DA’s office could find no record of Moshe Piller in their referral files. The HPD declined to comment on whether they had referred Piller to the prosecutor.

In the meantime, the city continues to send some tenants to buildings we identified as Piller’s as part of its housing program for the homeless.

“You know, it’s very bittersweet sometimes as we send people into these buildings,” said Juanita Fernandez, a housing specialist at The Concourse House Shelter, who sent tenants to 2860 Grand Concourse, a Piller building, as recently as four months ago.

“We have no choice but to move people out after six months,” she said. “But yes, some of the places we send them to. I wouldn’t want to live there.”

***

In the absence of a clear enforcement mechanism, some tenants have organized to put pressure on Piller to fix the buildings.

In 2006, tenants drove two school buses to Piller’s home in Brooklyn and picketed there for a day, according to Xiamara Mejias, 40, who lives in apartment 3B at 2654 Valentine with her husband and three daughters. She’s the tenant organizer for the building and has been fighting the landlord for the past 10 years, relaying tenants’ grievances to authorities and the mortgage holder.

When they went to Piller’s house, his neighbors poked out of their homes to ask what was going on. “We told them your neighbor is a slumlord,” Mejias said. “And they started throwing eggs on us. Eggs!”

Since tenants took their paperwork and pictures to the building’s mortgage holder, the New York Community Bank, Piller has gotten better at repairing violations, according to Mejias. The open violations listed at the HPD today are half what they were in 2006.

Mejias said her bathroom still leaks and the hair salon beneath her apartment has complained. “This has been broken for a year,” she said pointing to her front door, which looks like someone had broken in. What is worse, the front door still doesn’t lock.

But Mejias also sometimes makes it impossible for repairs to get done. The piping in her bathroom is so old and rotten that it needs to be replaced. But when the super agreed to repair it, she told him, “I got three daughters who need to bathe every day. You can come in this morning … you can dig whatever, but when I come back home. I have to find a bathroom in there.’”

The hair salon eventually installed a ceiling to remedy the problem, but full repairs were never done.

Other tenants also get in the way of keeping the building in good repair. A week ago, all the hallway walls were painted a fresh round layer of brown yellow but someone has already sprayed graffiti on the fourth floor walls.

“It is like [the tenants] see this disrepair and they add on it,” said Mejias.

***

Moshe Piller was once one of the city’s most notorious landlords and has now become one of dozens that the city’s agencies just don’t have the time or resources to deal with. But though he may have receded from the public gaze in the last few years, for his tenants the problems in his buildings are real and unlikely to go away any time soon.

More shocking is that these problems are common in far too many buildings in Brooklyn and the Bronx. Like Eta Eckstein, many of the city’s residents have decided that for reasons of financial necessity and fear they’d rather make due than make trouble. Thanks to the weaknesses in a system that was meant to protect them, a place doesn’t have to be comfortable, clean or even safe to call it home.

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Housing, MultimediaComments (1)

New Landlord for Troubled Building but Tenants Are Skeptical

A week after residents of 2710 Bainbridge Ave. announced that they were filing a lawsuit against their landlord because the building was falling apart, signs of improvement could be seen throughout the structure. The changes came about after Semper Fi Management 4 Corp. previously owned and run by Frank Palazzolo — was bought Thursday by another company,  Damberly Realty Services, said city and Damberly officials as well as tenants. The sale took place the same day as several news articles about the conditions of the building and the lawsuit.

“It seems that we are finally being heard, but we needed a courtroom and the help of the media to achieve that,” said Trina Guzman, who lives on the second floor of the Fordham building.

2710 Bainbridge Av.

The building was listed by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development as one of the 200 worst maintained in the city.

On Friday, the two front doors, which tenants said had been broken and without locks for years despite  repeated  complaints, were being replaced. For the first time in almost a year, tenants said, they received official rent statements in their mailboxes. “Before that,” said Cruz Maria Renvill, the daughter of a couple that has been living in the building for 27 years, “the management would simply send someone randomly every month to collect rent.”

Among other fixes that tenants pointed out to the Bronx Ink were new waterproofing on the roof,  repaired walls and ceilings that had been  collapsing and replaced water pipes and radiator valves.

“We are fixing the most urgent problems first,” said Omar Quintana, who works for Damberly Realty and supervises the repairs of the entire building at 2710 Bainbridge Ave. The building, according to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, has more than 200 violations. “We have work for more than six months here,” Quintana said.

A year ago, the building was listed by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development as one of the 200 worst maintained in the city. Palazzolo was listed by The Village Voice as one of the 10 worst landlords in the city.

Sean Curoy, who heads the new management company, went to the building to introduce himself to the tenants on Friday and reassure them.  “We pay our superintendents to do a job,” Curoy said to a Bronx Ink reporter. “If they don’t do it, they don’t keep their job. It’s as simple as that.”

Although the news was received among the residents as an encouraging sign of improvement, many remained skeptical. “Since I moved in three ago, I received more than five letters telling me a new management was to take care of the building,” said fifth-floor tenant Edgar Sandoval. “I never saw a difference.”

This skepticism was also shared by Garrett Wright, staff attorney at Urban Justice Center, which is representing the city in the lawsuit against Semper Fi Management 4 Corp. “The fact that it’s a new person running the management company doesn’t change a thing,” he said. “If on May 12, which is when the first court appearance is to take place, the judge decides there are still too many violations, the building will still be taken off Semper Fi’s hands.”

The fact that the work had already started was not enough to reassure some residents. “I believe it when I see it,” declared Enriqueta Garzon, also one of the fifth-floor residents. She pointed at two men fixing the entrance doors and added: “Today, they are removing the doors, but I wouldn’t be surprised if tomorrow they didn’t come back and they left it all like this, without installing new ones.”

Interviews with several residents echoed this sentiment. Toneisha McFadden, who moved into the building six months ago, said she hasn’t been able to cook once in her apartment. “We had a gas leak, and after weeks of complaining about it, they finally came and fixed it,’’ she said. “But they left without connecting us to the gas line and we still haven’t got a meter! They just never came back!”

Two years ago, when workers were sent to repair the leaking ceiling in the Revills’ bathroom, they left all the repairs showing, said Theodora Revills who has been living in the building for 23 years. “It looks terrible, but at least we don’t need an umbrella anymore when we use the toilet,” she said with a grin.

In the stairwells, all of windows are stuck, making it impossible to open or close them; the glass is cracked and the frames are covered in mold. As Enriqueta Garzon climbed the stairs to show her fifth-floor apartment to a reporter, where the ceiling is cracked and leaks whenever it rains, her foot hit a syringe that had been left on the floor next to the wrapping plastic it came in. “We’ve seen everything here; I even found condoms once!” she said, explaining that the presence of the unwanted visitors was a result of the broken front door: “Anyone can come and go as they please, I don’t feel secure at all,” she said.

But the worst, tenants said, is that during last winter, the heating system broke down and wasn’t repaired until the last week of December. “No heat, no hot water; we bought several electrical radiators, but with the winter we had, it just wasn’t enough,” said Theodora Renvill. Her husband, Crucito, continued: “The hot water disappears very often, so we are used to simply boil up two saucepans and washing ourselves like that.”

Edgar Sandoval said he was dealing with a whole other set of problems. His bathtub is blocked, and every time he takes a shower, he has to take out the water with buckets and throw it in the toilet. All this in a bathroom where the faucet doesn’t run and where no light has ever been installed. He said he called the city’s information hotline, 311, hundreds of times, but the HPD “couldn’t do anything because the landlord refused them access to the building.”

These are only some of the complaints residents cited last week. Others include rats running around, mold, holes in the ceiling and in the floor, broken windows, destroyed intercoms, leaky faucets and unlighted hallways.

Frank Palazzolo, the previous landlord, could not be reached for comment.

Curoy, also owner of six other buildings in the Bronx, told the residents that “workers [would] be there every day until the building is finished.” As soon as he heard that, Fidias Gonzalez, from the fifth floor, said: “It’s about time! There’s human beings living in here, too. Not just the rats!”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Health, Housing, North Central BronxComments (0)

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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