Tag Archive | "Ocelot"

Troubled Bronx buildings flipped again

Troubled Bronx buildings flipped again

Dyan Kerr

Dyan Kerr deals with a wall of mold in her Williamsbridge apartment. (STEVEN GRABOSKI/The Bronx Ink)

With a single tap of the finger, mailboxes open at 1585 East 172nd Street in Soundview. It’s a trick anyone can pull off. “Social Security and Section 8 checks have gone missing,” said Andres Rios, the leader of the building’s tenant’s association. Broken mailboxes are just one problem facing Rios’ building, one of six notoriously distressed buildings in Highbridge, Morris Heights and Soundview. The buildings have been in disrepair since 2006, bouncing from owner to owner, each either without a plan to fix them or the money to carry the plans out. The buildings were sold again in September, this time to Bronx real estate agent Anthony Gazivoda, for $21.4 million. Gazivoda paid almost $7 million more than the previous owner, a surprisingly high purchase price that has tenants and housing advocates afraid that the new owner will find himself just as cash-strapped as the previous ones. “There is no financial story that justifies that sale,” said Dina Levy, executive director of the Urban Housing Assistance Board, the advocacy group that has been following the plight of the buildings. “You can twist it but you still can't justify it. There's no amount of rationalization that gets you to $21 million. That's troubling.” Anthony Gazivoda did not respond to numerous interview requests. From the outside, Gazivoda appears to have very few options for turning a profit on the buildings, which house low-income families who cannot afford to pay high rents. Gazivoda is also limited by city regulations, which prevent him from raising many of his tenants’ rents above a small percentage every year. With no clear profit prospects, tenants and housing advocates are worried that Gazivoda will not have the financial means to make the repairs that are desperately needed. Even worse, they fear that he will stop maintaining the buildings altogether, just like the previous owners. “I cannot believe we're here again,” said Levy. “Except this time it's more money, more money than has ever been put on these buildings.” The buildings, which sold for $13.5 million in 2010 to previous owner BXP 1 LLC, had 379 violations of the city’s housing code on Dec. 6. The violations range from broken windows and leaky ceilings to padlocked fire exits, entrances that do not lock, and exposed electrical wiring. Four of the buildings have lead-based paint violations.
History of Neglect Anthony Gazivoda is the fourth landlord in the past five years for the six Bronx buildings. The previous three have not been able to improve the dilapidated conditions in the buildings.
The problems are nothing new in the buildings, which have been poorly maintained since the now-defunct Ocelot group purchased them in 2006. After a bitter power struggle left Ocelot without the money to carry out repairs, the group became an absentee landlord, neglecting maintenance until things were so bad that the city took the group to court and ordered them to repair nearly 3,000 violations and pay a $60,000 fine. They were then sold in 2009 to Queens realtor Sam Suzuki of BXP 1 LLC. Suzuki ended up being no better than Ocelot; under his ownership the buildings racked up over 2,500 housing code violations and two of the Morris Heights buildings made the city’s most distressed list. Angered, the tenants of the Soundview buildings took Suzuki to court where a judge ordered that he make emergency repairs and sentenced him to jail when he failed to do so. The Manhattan-based Bluestone Group took control of the buildings in June of 2010, promising to make repairs and take a long-term interest in the buildings. Yet Bluestone orchestrated BXP 1’s sale of the buildings to Gazivoda a little over a year later, and angry tenants accused the company of doing just enough to sell the buildings for a profit. Tenants were initially weary when Gazivoda took over and reported that, like Bluestone before him, Gazivoda asked for a month to begin carrying out repairs. But since then, tenants in the Highbridge and Morris Heights buildings say that security has improved. “Most of these owners, when they first come here they promise one thing, but then it changes,” tenant Wilfreda Gonzalez said back in September. Gonzalez had high hopes when Gazivoda purchased her building at 1640 Dr. Martin Luther King Blvd. "This owner, at least I can say that he put in the cameras and intercoms.”
Anthony Gazivoda

Anthony Gazivoda

But more than a month later, the 11-year resident felt differently about ownership. A leak from the apartment above damaged her bathroom walls last summer, and the tiles have yet to be replaced. “They're giving me the runaround,” said Gonzalez, who has called the landlord repeatedly. “He bought the apartment and he has to fix it.” Gazivoda is both an important and mysterious figure in the Bronx real estate market. The 51-year-old Albanian realtor, who sits on the business development board at Hudson Valley Bank, has been in the real estate business since 1978. Since then, city records show that over 40 real estate companies tied to the Gazivoda family have come share the same 3200 Cruger Ave. address. Altogether, Gazivoda and his family own almost 40 buildings in the Bronx.
Bronx Albanians move into real estate Albanians first migrated to America in 1876, according to Constantine Demo, author of The Albanians in America. But they began to move to New York City in big numbers in the 1960s, settling in the Bronx around Morris Park, Arthur Avenue and Pelham Parkway, said Ismer Mjeku, the publisher of the Albanian Yellow Pages, an annual guide for Albanian personal and commercial contacts all across the countryAs Albanian immigrants were settling in these Italian enclaves of the Bronx, they concentrated in the food and restaurant industry, which until then had been mainly run by Italian families. Gradually Albanians took over the business and, in the 1980s, displaced many Italian owners from those restaurants.In their pursuit of business diversification, Albanians got into real estate and started amassing properties. According to Mjeku, today the Albanian community owns almost a third of all the apartment buildings in the Bronx, although he said there is no official data to support his claim.The 2011 edition of the Albanian Yellow Pages shows at least 26 Albanian-owned real estate companies operating in the Bronx and Mt. Vernon. -Mahmoud Sabbagh
Despite owning so much land, very little is known about Gazivoda himself, and the lack of information is worrying to housing advocates. “Who these people are is not clear to us,” said Levy, who has worked at the Urban Housing Assistance Board for seven years. Levy added that Gazivoda “has a very insular network.” Gazivoda has a mixed record as a landlord. Some of his buildings have no violations, others have as many as 98. And though none of the buildings are as bad as his latest purchases, tenants in his more troubled buildings paint a negative picture of the landlord. Dyan Kerr lives in one of Gazivoda’s older properties with her family at 678 East 225th St. in Williamsbridge, where violations decreased from 58 to 26 from October to December. Despite the drop in violations, Kerr said she has been dealing with mice and mold for over a year. “I’m tired of this place,” said Kerr, who has inch-long mold dots clearly visible in her bathroom. Kerr said that management has cleaned the mold in the past, but it kept growing back. In addition, Kerr revealed brown filth in her kitchen cabinet that she said were mice droppings. “This is how we’re living now because people don’t want to fix nothing,” Kerr said. Bathroom mold is also a problem a few miles away in Belmont, where Shantelle Guzman lives in another of Gazivoda’s older properties. “They paint over the mold and the super doesn’t fix anything, he doesn’t live here,” said Guzman, who lives at 611 East 182nd St. Guzman’s apartment also has holes in the walls, where she said mice enter her one-bedroom apartment. She is also upset about shoddy heating that forces her and other residents to use their ovens for heat and an irregular flow of hot water in the building and would like to leave. Back in Soundview, moving has never been an option for Rios, who has led his tenant’s association through five different landlords in 14 years. If necessary, Rios is gearing up for the next battle. “I like to bark and bite,” said Rios, who showed Gazivoda the faulty mailboxes in front of a group of tenants at a meeting on Nov. 9. Before exiting, Gazivoda assured his tenants that the mailbox problem, as well as the dysfunctional fire alarms, would be addressed. “He said it would be taken care of but that it’s not going to be done quick,” he added, discouraged. “I guess to them it wasn’t a priority.”

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The Soundview Tenants Who Fell Through the Cracks

by Donal Griffin and Matthew Huisman with audio slideshow by Carmen Williams

Martha Castro cannot remember how many mousetraps and glueboards she has scattered around her two-bedroom apartment on East 172nd Street in the Soundview neighborhood of the Bronx. All she knows for sure is that four are in the bedroom where her granddaughter sleeps. "We're not really getting heat," Castro said. "There's something wrong with the pipeline so we don't get no heat. The only place that gets warm in this apartment is the kitchen and the living-room." Her son wants her to move to Florida, away from the cold weather and her home of 21 years. But that would take Castro away from her case in Bronx Housing Court against Hunter Property Management, the company responsible for managing her building and five others throughout the borough.
Residents living in Hunter-owned buildings have problems like rat, roach and mice infestation. Photo by Connor Boals

Rat holes in an apartment in 1585 East 172nd Street. Residents accuse their landlord of not making repairs. Photo by Connor Boals

On Hunter’s watch, the buildings have racked up thousands of housing violations. Residents have accused the company of not being able to afford the repairs. “I might just say ‘to hell with it’ and leave,” said Castro, who is 65. “But I hate to have started something and leave it half undone.” Castro’s is the latest chapter of an all-too familiar story in the Bronx after the real estate crash in 2008, one that pits low-income tenants against their debt-laden landlords struggling with bank repayments. On the side of the residents is an aggressive non-profit, the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board (UHAB), which has helped Castro and other residents organize against Hunter. Based on Wall Street and led by a spiky activist named Dina Levy, UHAB began its campaign in September of this year with flyers accusing Hunter – which is associated with the buildings’ owners, BXP 1 LLC – of not having the funds to repair or even maintain the buildings.
A UHAB flyer organizing a tenants' protest meeting.

A UHAB flyer organizing a tenants' protest.

The tenants and UHAB then held a protest meeting in the lobby of Martha Castro’s building in October, but a Hunter security official called the police, further antagonizing both sides. Hunter’s general counsel, Alice Belmonte, said that the tenants had every right to hold the meeting, but any UHAB activist would be considered a trespasser. “UHAB had already trespassed in the building,” Belmonte said, “by littering it with flyers.” Conditions in the buildings continued to worsen in November as city housing inspectors noted that the property manager had failed to make even basic repairs to broken smoke detectors and bathroom faucets. UHAB and the residents then decided to march into the Bruckner Boulevard branch of the Dime Bank and Savings, the bank that has backed two sales of the buildings in less than three years. Security officers escorted the protesters off the premises and they then picketed outside, attracting some unwanted publicity for Dime. The tenants had contacted bank officials before about the buildings' worsening conditions, but got little in response, according to the advocacy group. "The message at the time was that it's not our problem,” said Dina Levy. "We got a bullshit letter back (and) this blow-off phone call." Indeed, the Dime’s chief lending officer, Dan Harris, had previously stated to Bronxink.org that the bank could do little to help the situation as it was “just the lender.” Andreas Rios, a 13-year resident at 1585 East 172nd Street, said he wrote to Dime Bank personally when his request for repairs to his apartment went unheeded by the building's super. "They explained that if that's the situation, 'We can't get involved,'" Rios said. "That's your problem." But three days after the protest, on Nov. 23, Harris met with the residents and the non-profit. “I think we got their attention,” said Rios. Getting the bank to the table was crucial to putting pressure on Hunter, according to UHAB, and the militant strategy appears to have worked. “We are optimistic that tenant representatives, the owners, UHAB and the bank will have a follow up meeting soon,” said Harris, “where we can air all the issues and find practical solutions which benefit all parties.”
Sam Suzuki, the property developer behind Hunter Property Management LLC.

Sam Suzuki, the property developer behind Hunter Property Management LLC.

But Harris has more to worry about than just negative publicity. Dime Bank had backed the $13.2 million purchase of the six buildings in May 2009 to a company called BXP 1 LLC. This is managed by the same property developer who owns Hunter: Sam Suzuki. This “over-leveraged” position is now a critical problem, according to Levy, while residents like Castro have also stopped paying rent in protest, further weakening the buildings’ financial position. "But (even) if everybody were paying their rent,” Levy said, “the buildings would still have negative cash flow." Dime Savings Bank backed the original $16.6 million sale of the six buildings to the Ocelot group in July 2007. Ocelot had built up a portfolio of almost 30 buildings in Bronx, all of which were backed by Fannie Mae – with the exception of the six Dime-backed buildings. Ocelot’s principals then pulled their investment in late 2008 and sought to sell the entire portfolio to Sam Suzuki. But that deal collapsed earlier this year and Fannie Mae was forced to put its buildings into foreclosure.
A portable heater in one of the Hunter buildings is a necessity. Many of the building have infrequent heat. Photo by Matthew Huisman

A portable heater in a Hunter-managed apartment. Many of the buildings often go with out heat. Photo by Matthew Huisman

While the clamor surrounding the condition of the Ocelot buildings grew in the Bronx over the summer--even attracting the attention of U.S. Senator, Charles Schumer--Suzuki bought six of the buildings in May. The debt on the other Ocelot buildings has since been sold to another developer in a deal praised by UHAB and the city. But Suzuki’s buildings remain out of the spotlight, despite their decrepit state. The six buildings have 2,519 open violations with the Department of Housing Preservation and Development as of Dec. 6. The worst conditions are in Castro’s building on East 172nd Street, which has 528 violations. Two of the Highbridge buildings are now listed amongst the 200 most distressed buildings in the city. The violations include everything from the infestation of rats, roaches and mice to lead-based paint peeling from the walls. "The supers used to paint before and they don't even do that now," Rios said. "There's graffiti all over the place. You can even see the lead from the paint chipping out." The buildings have the potential for even more violations, but many go unreported. A lot of the residents receive a rent subsidy from the city, said Emmanuel Attram, a Ghanaian resident of another Hunter-managed property on nearby 1268 Stratford Avenue, and don’t protest their conditions for fear of losing it. This isn't the only reason. “There are a lot of illegal immigrants in this building,” said Walter H. Clark, another Stratford Avenue resident. “A lot of them won’t complain.” Castro’s court complaint against Hunter has already resulted in a court order from the Bronx Housing Court requiring Hunter to make various repairs to her building. “Some repairs have been made and some have not,” said Steven Di Cesare, Castro’s lawyer. “We can talk to the landlord more or go back to the courts – they’re the options.” Hunter's Alice Belmonte did not respond to questions from Bronxink.org about the company, the court case or about Sam Suzuki, as she said the company had an exclusive deal in place with another media outlet, which she would not name.
Conditions have deteriorated since Ocelot sold these buildings in May 2009. Photo by Matthew Huisman

Conditions have deteriorated since Ocelot sold these buildings in May 2009. Photo by Matthew Huisman

Suzuki's profile on Linkedin.com describes him as the principal in Hunter, which was registered with New York State's Division of Corporations in November 2008. The profile also states that he was a principal until last year in another company called Vintage Group LLC, which was "responsible for the acquisition and development of over $500 million in real estate developments." In 2008, Hudson Valley Bank foreclosed on one of his properties in Sands Point, Long Island, NY, in order to secure a $2.7 million debt. ChinaTrust Bank recently secured a $3.3 million judgment against the same property. “The Daily News” reported last month that yet another entity linked to Suzuki called Venator Capital LLC had purchased the RKO Keith’s Theater in Flushing, Queens, for $20 million. Suzuki more recently told "The New York Times" that he has yet to close the deal. The New York City property registry does not list any purchases by Venator Capital, however, while the Division of Corporations has no record of the company. According to Suzuki's profile, Venator Capital invests in distressed properties and its expertise is "the acquisition of troubled assets." Martha Castro said she cannot afford to make the repairs to her apartment on her own. Parts of the linoleum floor in her kitchen and bathroom caved in after a fire seven years ago damaged the structural integrity of the building. Earlier this month, Castro paid for a handyman to plaster the walls and paint, yet cracks and discoloration caused by leaky pipes still persist. “The things that have improved here,” Castro said, “they’ve come out of my pocket.” But having invested money and time in her home, she is hesitant to change. “You get settled in a place and you don’t want to move.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, HousingComments (1)

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 (1)

1585-1589 E. 172nd St.

By Matthew Huisman

Martha Castro remembers when she moved into 1585 E. 172nd St. in  the Soundview section of the Bronx. "It was a very beautiful building,"  Castro said. "I've been here 22 years and this is the worst." Between 2006 and 2007, Ocelot bought 1585 and a neighboring building, 1589. After Ocelot ran out of money and abandoned the buildings, conditions deteriorated at a rapid rate. Tenants continued to pay rent, even as they lived with holes in the walls, rat infestations and sparse heat. “All we want is to get our service done and live decently,” said Castro, 65. “It´s a struggle because you want to live comfortable and not having to worry about, `Are we gonna have hot water?´” A company connected to Hunter Property Management purchased the two buildings, along with four other Ocelot properties, in May 2009. Since then, residents have been rebelling against their new landlords.
Residents of 1585 E. 172nd Street are organizing against their poor living conditions. Photo by Matthew Huisman

Police were called when residents at 1585 E. 172nd Street organized a protest in the lobby. Photo by Matthew Huisman

Residents’ anger at the decrepit living conditions bubbled over during a tenants’ meeting on Oct. 14. Castro, president of the tenants association, invited the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, a non-profit organization that helps low-income residents collectively own and govern their buildings, to talk to residents about ways to improve their quality of life. “Management apparently called the police and said there was some disturbance at their building,” said Dan DeSloover of Urban Homesteading.  “We told police the tenants are holding a meeting and they invited us to come. Then they left.” A lawyer for Sam Suzuki, the principal manager of Hunter Management, said her client had no problem with tenants organizing, but the police were called because the UHAB members at the meeting were trespassing. “The buildings have over 3,000 code violations total,” said DeSloover of the six Hunter-owned buildings. “These buildings were under Ocelot before  Hunter and so the people here have had bad, bad conditions for years.” DeSloover and his colleagues from Urban Homesteading are chronicling the conditions that continue to exist in the five-story apartment buildings that butt up against one another. DeSloover said he plans to present this evidence to Dime Savings Bank of Williamsburg, the bank that issued the mortgages initially for Ocelot, then for Hunter in May 2009.  ”It will help make our case if we do get a meeting with the bank,” said DeSloover. “Maybe we can work with them to change ownership and better conditions.” mlh2171@columbia.edu

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.

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1528 Bryant Ave.

by Alec Johnson and Amanda Staab

From the outside, 1528 Bryant Ave. looks like a decent building. But once inside, it´s clear that years of neglect have taken a toll. Poor wiring, faulty plumbing,crumbling walls and filth caused by both old age and neglect plague the structure. Residents say that their five-story, 21-unit apartment building has not been regularly maintained for years. The city´s housing department has on file 483 open violations against 1528 Bryant Ave., 162 of them registered since October 13, 2008. The most common complaint was the lack of utilities. The building´s rapid decline can be traced from July, 2007, when it was purchased by OCG VII, an Ocelot entity, with Fannie Mae financing. Ocelot imploded in late 2008, however, and Fannie Mae foreclosed on the loan earlier this year. The City has now placed the building in its new Alternative Enforcement Program, under the supervision of Marc Landis, the court-appointed receiver. Irma Aponte and her husband, Eddie, moved into the building 43 years ago and have seen it literally fall apart before their eyes over the past four decades. "It was beautiful when we moved in," said Irma Aponte who said the last few owners have walked away from the building after using it to make a little cash. "As soon as they got a few dollars in their pocket they left," she said. Aponte pointed to a leaky drainpipe in her apartment, which her husband patched up with a soda can and duct tape over one year ago. She said the electricity shorts out constantly, because of poor wiring all over the building. "I can´t have air conditioning," said Aponte who buys whole boxes of fuses when she sees them in stores because they are tough to get. On Aug. 25, the city took over the building after foreclosing on Ocelot. The city´s Department of Preservation and Development then came in to make emergency repairs. Since Fannie Mae foreclosed earlier this year, the city´s Department of Housing Preservation and Development has come in to make emergency repairs. A new roof and front door have been installed, securing the building from drug addicts, who Aponte claimed were wandering into the building to smoke crack in the stairwells. Ramos said the fuse boxes and wiring are scheduled to be replaced soon. One abandoned apartment on the fourth floor has been turned into a pigeon coop, residents say, by someone who lives within the building.  Twenty pigeons roost on a baby crib. Bags of corn lay nearby in a red plastic container. The birds and bird food attract vermin and roaches into the already decrepit building, Aponte said. "I would like to know what they´re going to do with the building," she said, "because we have no landlord."

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1269-1271 Morris Ave

By Alex Berg and Alex Abu Ata

Two weeks after Carmen Perez moved into her apartment at 1271 Morris Ave. in the Morrisania section of the Bronx, the bathroom ceiling collapsed. Water gushed into the apartment she shares with her seven children. That was last November, the beginning of an entire winter Perez endured without heat or hot water. The ceiling was finally repaired only three months ago, 10 months later. Perez’s problems are common to the tenants at 1271 and its sister building next door at 1269 Morris Ave. Many tenants live in rodent-infested apartments with sinking floors, cracked walls and tiling, leaks and broken windows. Last winter, Fidelina Espinal said she had no heat for four weeks in her apartment in 1271. The management company has not been responsive to these problems. "By the time you wait for these people you die," said Linda Gonzales, who lives on the first floor of 1269. Ocelot purchased the buildings for $1.95 million in 2007 from FJF Management, according to the city register. After the real estate investment company ran out of money in July, the building went into receivership. It is currently being maintained by receiver Marc Landis through Treetop Management, a company based in New Jersey. Treetop has been making some repairs to the building to prepare it for sale, according to the superintendent Juan Ruiz, who has lived in 1269 for three years. There are currently 301 violations for 1269 and 237 for 1271, according to the department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD). Different management companies and building superintendents have come and gone in the last couple of years. Many of the tenants, however, attribute much of the buildings' disrepair to Ocelot. "The previous owners? There were a lot of problems," said Ivan Jimenez, who has lived in a fourth floor apartment in 1271 for 30 years. "The super can't do anything unless the landlord gives him the money to do so. But if the landlord doesn't give him the money and the supplies, he can't do anything.” Of the 15 apartments in each building, seven are vacant in 1269 and two are vacant in 1271. There are no locks on the front doors of either building. Peeling paint, trash, condoms, mold and dirt line the hallways on many of the floors. Official complaints in both buildings range from mold to lead, and in 2007, 1271 was named one of the 200 most poorly maintained buildings by HPD. "At one point rats came out of the ceiling,” Jimenez said. “Six rats fell into the tub." Some tenants pay low subsidized rent, around $400, or no rent at all like Perez, whose $1,100 rent is entirely subsidized. Many of the tenants owe tens of thousands of dollars in back rent. Last week, the tenants’ concerns were briefly appeased when the heat came on. But some, like Carmen Perez, are unsure whether they'll continue to live in the building after their lease runs out.

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