Some tenants still wait for repairs
It’s moving day on Coster Street. At 739 Coster, on the fourth floor, Mariana Lopez unwraps china from a large box in her living room and places each saucer and teacup back in her china cabinet.
She’s happy to be home, in a building that has been thoroughly renovated in the latest chapter of a long-running struggle to make the four-building complex at 717-741 Coster and 641 Manida streets livable.
It has been two years since the New York chapter of the national housing organization ACORN and the local community development corporation Nos Quedamos joined forces to take control of Hunts Point I complex from SEBCO, the South East Bronx Community Organization. Residents, who had suffered in water-damaged apartments and without such basics as heat and hot water, had high expectations for the new management.
Since then, three of the four buildings have been gut renovated, and there are plans to start work on the last building, 741 Coster, this month.
For those like Lopez and her husband Rafael, who spent four months living in another of the buildings while the apartment where they have lived for 26 years was repaired, moving day ended a frustrating chapter in their lives.
But other tenants are still waiting for repairs. And, the wait, they say, is nerve-wracking, because the managers won’t tell them when they have to move out so repairs can begin.
A month and a half ago Tiffany Marion received a generic notice under her door at 741 Coster saying she and her family would be relocated to another apartment in the complex sometime between December 6 and 13. She and her mother packed up, filling their living room from floor to ceiling with cardboard boxes. On December 7, she was still waiting for more news.
“It’s hardest on the kids,” she said, referring to nine-year-old twins. “They have to go to school every day, and we don’t know when we are moving or where we are going.”
When Marion and her mother moved into their apartment at 741 Coster 15 years ago, the place was spotless. Over the years, though, SEBCO failed to address major plumbing problems. Water damage has created a hole in the bathroom ceiling above the shower, and the toilet is so loose it feels like a simple tug could pull it out of the floor.
“We’ve tried to keep livable,” says Marion. “We even painted it ourselves and did the floors.” Still, Marion’s patience is worn, and she isn’t sure the family will return to this apartment after the renovations. “We’re looking for another place,” she says.
Next-door, Concepcion Sanchez’s apartment also suffers from water damage. Until recently mushrooms were growing inside her apartment, encouraged by moisture from leaks, and water bugs would crawl out of a hole in her bedroom floor.
But, Sanchez adds, there have been some improvements. This is the first winter they have had adequate heat.
She says she would like to return the one-bedroom apartment where she’s lived since 2001, once repairs are made. But the wait to hear where she’ll be relocated has started to make her nervous. In August she fell down stairs while at work as a home health aide and is awaiting surgery for her leg. She walks with a cane and finds lifting, moving and standing difficult. Luckily her sister helped her pack up her apartment.
“I need to know I’m going to be on a ground floor apartment,” Sanchez explained. “I’ll be getting surgery soon and I won’t be able to climb stairs.”
She has called Wilma Rivera, Resident Coordinator at ACORN and left two messages. Though she could keep calling, Sanchez feels she really shouldn’t have to.
Ivette Rivera, an upstairs neighbor, agrees. “We don’t want to bother them,” she said. “We just want to know what’s happening. We are people too.”
Meantime, Sanchez and Rivera find themselves digging through the boxes stacked in their living rooms, pulling out things they need for daily life.
The residents of the Coster St. complex are used to advocating for themselves. They’ve been doing it for years. “It was the tenants who got SEBCO out,” says Mildred Colon, president of the Tenants Association.
It took years of tenant agitation to get the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to foreclose. At an auction on December 6, 2007, ACORN and Nos Quedamos became the new managers.
But they weren’t able to start repairs for another year and a half, says Yolanda Gonzalez, executive director of Nos Quedamos. “Let’s get something clear,” she said in an interview. “Just because we got the building in December 2007 does not mean we had access to it right away.”
Gonzalez blames bureaucratic and legal delays, but says what’s important that the apartments remain affordable and residents are happy with the repairs.
A version of this story appeared in the December 2009/January 2010 issue of The Hunts Point Express.