Tag Archive | "HPD"

Open Vacant Buildings to Low-Income Families, Housing Advocates Urge


Within a span of fewer than 10 blocks, three buildings on Courtlandt Avenue tell the South Bronx’s version of New York City’s housing crisis.

On the corner with 161st Street, construction workers complete the last floor of a new, nine-story building. Between 152nd and 153rd, a set of elegant, newly built condos lays vacant, but boarded up to avoid squatters. A block away, a crumbling building is covered in notices to vacate due to perilous conditions, but some windows are open and the premises seem occupied nonetheless.


Eviction notices posted on this vacant Courtlandt Avenue building say the place is perilous. Photo by Alice Speri

Much like other stretches of New York City, this section of Melrose has recently turned into a construction site. Within a few blocks, longtime residents can no longer afford to pay rent, high-rise buildings wait for the cash necessary to complete construction, and brand new condos remain unoccupied, waiting for tenants turned away by the economic downturn.

In the South Bronx alone, 93 buildings are empty, according to the group Right to the City, which is slated to release in the spring the full findings from a survey it did of unoccupied and incomplete developments throughout the city.

With the housing market nearly frozen by the recession and growing numbers of Bronx residents without a home, some city officials and community organizers are considering converting these empty constructions into affordable housing, that is, if they can agree on what affordable means.

The Housing Asset Renewal Program (HARP), a $20 million pilot initiative launched last August by the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development, offers financial support to developers to complete or convert their buildings on the condition that some of the units are put on the market at lower prices.

Experts, however, say the incentive to developers may not be enough to generate interest. Community activists, on the other hand, fear the program won’t benefit those most in need.

The program calls for rents that are affordable to households with incomes at or below $99,800 for a family of four, or $69,900 for an individual. The average household income in the Bronx is less than $34,000.

“HARP won’t benefit folks of low income,” said Nova Strachan, the housing justice director for the Hunts Point-based group Mothers on the Move. The group is one of 15 community organizations that joined Right to the City in conducting its survey of vacant properties. Strachan compared the initiative to the construction of the new Yankee Stadium. “They spent over $300 million to build this stadium, they put a Hard Rock Café right next to a McDonald’s, ” she said. “That’s beautiful, but for the folks that live here and struggle every day, how does that benefit us?”

In the six neighborhoods Right to the City surveyed, it found 601 vacant buildings, a stark difference from the approximately 400 the Department of Buildings estimates for the entire city.

Right to the City’s member organizations are calling for the conversion of the vacant buildings into housing for families with lower incomes than what the HARP guidelines call for.


On Courtlandt Avenue, between 152nd and 153rd Streets, new apartments lay vacant and boarded up to discourage squatters. Photo by Alice Speri

In short, the city’s definition of what is affordable needs to be rescaled.

“It’s outrageous, $20 million directed at the middle class and upper-middle class is not really an ideal use of funds,” said John Tyus, a Bronx native and spokesman for the group Families United for Racial and Economic Equality. Tyus added that the money appears to be a bailout of irresponsible developers.

To be eligible for financing through the Housing Asset Renewal Program, a project must be a completed or partly constructed, unoccupied, residential building where the owner is unable to either complete construction or sell or rent a sufficient number of units. The money available is intended to convert market-rate units to affordable units and enable the owner to complete construction. A minimum of 50 percent of the dwelling units must be put on the market at affordable rates for at least 30 years.

“This program holds out the promise of addressing the unintended blight caused by vacant sites, while transforming what would have been market-rate buildings into affordable housing for working class New Yorkers,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg said when he launched the program.

As many as 400 units could be converted as part of the pilot program, Department of Housing representatives said. Preference will be given to projects in neighborhoods that have been hit particularly hard by the downturn in the housing market and projects that need less subsidy to be completed.

Though the initial deadline for applications was set for the end of December, no contracts have been announced yet, and the deadline was extended to April 1, leaving many in the community believing that the program was unsuccessful.

In Riverdale, a Bronx neighborhood where vacant luxury condos are a common sight, not one developer had signed up for the program, Bronx Borough Director Mike Lugo said at a Community Board 8 meeting last November. Several people at the meeting said they had never heard of the program.

Instead, faced with a stall in sales, the developers of the Solaria luxury high-rise in Riverdale opted to auction off the 54 condos in the complex, for prices as low as 56 percent of the original listings.

Many think the city’ s program does not offer enough of a financial draw for developers, who have made huge investments into these properties.

“Many of the bigger developers are financially stable and can warehouse their properties until things get better,” said Tyus, of Families United for Racial and Economic Equality.

But Tyus added this was an opportunity policy makers should take advantage of.

“The city is in an excellent position to negotiate with the developers and the banks,” said Tyus. “To have them all take a little bit less and provide a great deal more.”

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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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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.

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