Tenants at troubled complex see progress, but problems remain
By Prakirti Nangia
Bethzaida Nieves was seven-and-a-half months pregnant when she began having trouble stepping through her own door. Her belly hadn’t grown too large. Instead, a pipe below her apartment had burst, releasing steam that caused the wooden floorboards to swell, creating a six-inch hump in the entranceway that prevented her door from swinging open.
Nieves, 30, had to ask a friend to rip the swollen wood off. When she did manage to get inside, Nieves worried about other problems: roaches and centipedes; foul smells; no cold water in the kitchen and no hot water in the bathroom.
Now, however, her new baby girl, Jezimaya, yawns in a crib next to a door that opens as it should. The apartment is odor-free and the building noticeably cleaner. Nieves credits her building’s new management team, which took over last April after a long struggle by tenants of the four-building complex at 717–741 Coster Street and 671 Manida Street, formerly called the Hunts Point I complex, to oust their long-time management firm, SEBCO Development Inc.
Problems remain. “The baby sleeps with me, not in her crib, because I saw one or two roaches in it,” Nieves says. She also points out the small openings where her water-damaged walls meet the floor. “The centipedes come through here,” she complains.
Other residents of the complex share this mixture of relief and continued frustration. They have renamed their buildings the Phoenix Estate, but many tenants say the buildings’ rebirth under new management is not complete.
SEBCO allowed the buildings fall into utter despair, said Joyce Campbell-Culler, the chair of the housing and land use committee of Community Board 2. SEBCO collected rent but failed to make mortgage payments. In August 2007, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development foreclosed.
After an auction in December, two nonprofits gained control of the buildings: Nos Quedamos, a Bronx-based coalition of residents and businesses, and ACORN, a community organization of low- and moderate-income families with 1,200 chapters nationwide. The new management team has been in place since April 2008.
Both Ismene Speliotif, executive director of the New York ACORN Housing Corp., and Yolanda Gonzalez, executive director of Nos Quedamos, described the partnership as a “joint venture.” According to Speliotif, while ACORN manages the day-to-day activities of the Phoenix Estate, Nos Quedamos provides important social services. Both organizations maintain direct contact with tenants, they said.
The residents of these five- and six-story buildings, infuriated at SEBCO for the lack of care accorded to their complex, hoped that Nos Quedamos and ACORN would help rejuvenate their buildings. That’s why they named the complex The Phoenix Estate, “like a bird rising from its ashes,” said Colon.
The verdict is relatively favorable. “First and foremost,” said Colon, Nos Quedamos and ACORN “have opened a line of communication, opened their ears to us.” “And hearts,” added Campbell-Culler.
Unlike SEBCO, “If there is a leak, the company tries to alleviate it,” said Sara Lind, 47, a resident of the complex for some 25 years. Stressing that the tenants were in touch with both Gonzalez and Speliotif, she said, “We have their cell phone numbers. If there is a disagreement, we hash it out right there.”
According to Colon, there was no security for three years under SEBCO. Even in broad daylight, she said, going from one building to the next was dangerous.
The new management “has already put in security cameras, changed locks on doors, and put in an alarm system,” said Lind. Thanks to the new measures, a robber has been caught, and the residents who were defacing the buildings by urinating and defecating in public spaces have been identified, said Colon.
A small park belonging to the complex next to 717 Coster Street, which was closed under SEBCO, is now open, she said. In addition to a mini basketball court and a few clean benches, the park’s blackened barbecue stand testifies to its popularity.
Yet, even those who salute the changes made by the new management complain that other longstanding issues have not been addressed. Despite severe back problems, Iris Arroyo, 58, had to struggle to avoid the huge hole next to her bathtub. She feared she would fall through it.
Now, she says, the new management has fixed the hole and installed a rod on the wall for her to hold when she showers, but her radiator still leaks, and the floor of her apartment is sinking. She fears it “could collapse” any time. “They’re better than SEBCO. They’re clean. But they haven’t helped me with the rest,” she said of the new managers.
Give us time, says Nos Quedamos’ Gonzalez. She stressed that the job was not simply “creating housing but creating homes for people,” and indicated that comprehensive renovation of the buildings began recently.
According to Speliotif, 25 vacant units will be used to house residents whose apartments are being reconstructed. The first set of displaced tenants would move back to their renovated apartments in four to six weeks, allowing others to occupy the vacant units while their own apartments are fixed, and so on.
“If we don’t hit any bumps on the way, it will be a two-year process,” said Gonzalez. There are those, however, who would rather not wait that long. Lydia Vega, who suffers from asthma, is impatient with the new management. She still cooks early in the morning, “because when it rains, it rains on the stove,” she said.
SEBCO hung a plastic bag from the ceiling to stem the leak, she said. The new managers have only patched it up halfway, she complained. “They don’t do nothing.”
On the other end of the spectrum are those who face problems but keep to themselves. Leverett Emptage, 48, keeps his red-and-black-themed apartment impeccably clean, but it suffers constant leaks. Emptage’s stove hasn’t worked in three years. Yet he never complained to SEBCO and he hasn’t told the new managers about his problems.
“I never bother them,” he said. “I am just so happy to have my own apartment.”