Hunts Point I complex has waited years for help
By Phyllis Cox
|Photos by Phyllis Cox|
|A newly-installed sink quickly lost its finish.||Water damage has made holes in the wall and ceiling of this apartment.|
Mold cakes the walls of the bedroom where Oneida Rodriguez’
s youngest son sleeps. Anthony, who is 8, suffers from asthma, and the mold aggravates his condition.
There is a gaping hole in the bathroom ceiling, and a long open crack on the bathroom wall. The sink is chipped. In the living room, where an asthma machine rests on a table, the windows remain closed, because, Rodriguez explains, “They are like guillotines. When you open them, they slam down.”
Conditions like these have plagued tenants at the Hunts Point I complex of apartment buildings at 717-719, 739-741 Coster Street and 671 Manida Street for years. Now, they hope that change is in the wind.
HUD, the federal housing agency, has foreclosed on the building’s mortgage, and plans to sell it at auction to a nonprofit organization on Dec. 6 at the Bronx County Courthouse. The buyer would replace the Longwood-based South East Bronx Community Organization (SEBCO), as manager of the buildings.
The tenants, who have organized in an effort to win improvements, are pinning their hopes on Nos Quedamos (We Stay), the coalition of residents and business people that helped forge the plan for the Melrose Commons renewal project, a 30-square block development near Yankee Stadium that has been hailed as model of community participation.
Working in conjunction with HUD and the nonprofit housing advocacy group Tenants & Neighbors, the Hunts Point I tenants association, called United We Stand, has met with prospective buyers since HUD foreclosed 10 months ago. After reading their proposals and conducting face-to-face interviews, they selected Nos Quedamos.
“The tenants want better landlords,” said Patrick Coleman, the housing organizer of Tenants & Neighbors and the catalyst for getting Nos Quedamos to the table. “They have their own vision of what they want to happen here.”
For now, though, conditions in the six-story buildings remain bleak. They “have deteriorated even more,”said tenant leader Mildred Colon.
The blue scaffolding erected nearly three years ago to enable workers to install new windows and make other repairs remains in place, but no work has been done.
Tenants complain that they often go without heat or hot water, that pipes leak and that washers and dryers don’t work.
They worry about security, because inadequate lighting under the scaffolding makes it easy to lurk, and the front doors are broken and there is no intercom. Inside the buildings, stair railings are broken and there are holes in floors and ceilings.
In the Rodriguez apartment on a chilly October afternoon when the temperature registered in the low 50s, the small antique radiator used to heat the living room, kitchen and hallway was cold to the touch. State law requires heat to be supplied from October1 to May 31 whenever the temperature outdoors falls below 55.
Rodriguez, who has lived in her apartment for nine years and who works for an oil company, says her firm was willing to install an inexpensive device that regulates the temperature of the liquid in boilers. “Management said they couldn’t come into the building; they didn’t have permission,”she said.
The ceiling of Mayra Tapia’s sixth-floor apartment is water-stained. A tenant for 15 years, Tapia said she needed five pots to catch the water dripping from the leaky roof. There is a gaping hole in the ceiling of her son’s bedroom, as well. A blue jar of incense greets visitors “because the smell is so very bad,”Tapia said.
Maritza Torres, who has lived at 671 Manida Street for 13 years, debates with herself about giving custody of her 17-year-old twins to their father because he has better living conditions. SEBCO, she said, is “playing with our safety and our lives. They don’t fix anything; they tell me only if it’s an emergency. I am scared for my sons.”
Joyce Campbell-Culler, chair of Community Board 2’s housing committee, criticized HUD for allowing SEBCO to continue to manage the buildings while conditions deteriorated. “SEBCO’s long-term relationship with HUD was unfair to tenants,”she said.
The buildings failed three consecutive HUD inspections, but the agency granted SEBCO stay after stay. HUD did not respond to numerous phone calls, and a person who answered SEBCO’s phone said there was no one who could comment on the matter.
Like Nos Quedamos, SEBCO began as an organization that backed tenants. Founded by Rev. Louis Gigante of St. Athanasius Church, it helped arrest the blight that overtook Hunts Point in the 1960s and 70s, and claims credit for building or rehabilitating 3,000 housing units.
Asked what would prevent Nos Quedamos from following the same pattern as SEBCO, Campbell-Culler said, “The tenant association needs a legal binding contract with Nos Quedamos. It is ultra important.” The contract, she explained, “empowers the tenants and keeps the community board involved in the fate of the buildings.”Nos Quedamos is seeking to put together the $10 million needed to secure the mortgage through a combination of financing from private sources, the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development and the housing advocacy organization ACORN and has asked Rep. Jose Serrano for help with federal funds.
There are a lot of reputations at stake to do right by these tenants, said Yolanda Gonzalez, executive director of Nos Quedamos.