Housing

Shelter system under renewed scrutiny after Hunts Point tragedy

Caroline Aguirre

Apartment 1C is cordoned off as officials investigate the cause of the accident that killed two toddlers.

Policy of paying landlords to make apartments into shelters must change, says councilman

Elected officials have vowed to take action to avoid future accidents like the one that killed two girls on Wednesday, and also discontinue the city’s “cluster-site” shelter system.

Five apartments in 720 Hunts Point Ave., a 90-unit building, are being used as shelters, neighbors said. This sheltering system, where the city pays private landlords to house the homeless, has long been criticized as costly and dangerous, since apartments are not regularly inspected by the city. Mayor de Blasio vowed to end the practice in January, but said it would take three years to phase it out entirely.

The two girls, Scylee Vayoh Ambrose, 1, and Ibanez Ambrose, 2, were killed when a valve blew off a steam radiator in their bedroom. They had third-degree burns all over their bodies and were rushed to Lincoln Hospital, where they died of cardiac arrest.

Neighbors said the Ambrose family moved in sometime in the past year.

“The city is paying the landlords market value and they’re putting them in dumps,” said John Zaccaro Jr., the chief of staff for local Councilman Rafael Salamanca.

The city pays landlords around $3,000 a month in rent for apartments that are then assigned to homeless New Yorkers. The expense of placing a family in a permanent apartment would be one-third of that price, according to Coalition for the Homeless.

“The city is spending too much money on cluster-sites. They should convert these sites into affordable housing,” said Salamanca. “The city needs to find a way to address this homeless epidemic that we have here.”

The current shelter head count is more than 60,000 – 24, 000 of which are children. That is the highest level the city has seen since the Great Depression.

The owner of 720 Hunts Point Ave., Moshe Piller, landed on the city’s list of 100 worst landlords in 2014 and 2015. In November, the Department of Buildings issued a class-one violation against the building. He avoided the 2016 list by working with the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development to correct violations.

Letitia James, the city’s public advocate, spoke outside the apartment complex on Thursday, beside more than 100 white and pink flickering candles in glass jars and a line of teddy bears.

“Why did we engage and offer a contract with someone who was on the worst landlord list?” said James. “The government failed these children and we need a full investigation to make sure this never happens again.”

Salamanca returned to the building this morning to propose council hearings and three pieces of legislation that would do the following:

  • Establish inspections for radiators in buildings contracted through the city;
  • Mandate barriers for radiators, much like the program that requires window guards in buildings with small children;
  • Establish stricter protocols on contracts that the city has with landlords who maintain buildings with violations.

“While this may have been a ‘freak accident’, I believe that city leaders still have the ability and the authority to make changes that could help to prevent this from happening in the future,” Salamanca said.

Violations in shelter apartments are reported to the Department of Homeless Services, rather than the city’s two housing agencies, according to James. The department then only inspects for heat and hot water issues. In addition, even if the family or anyone else had complained to the Department of Homeless Services about the apartment, only the city would know because these violations are confidential.

Even the addresses of buildings with cluster-site shelters are only made available to elected officials. There are 308 cluster-site shelters in District 17 of the Bronx, which includes Longwood, Hunts Point, Melrose, Morrisania, Mott Haven and five other Bronx neighborhoods, Salamanca said.

The four other families that were living in shelter apartments in the building were immediately transferred to other shelters on Wednesday night. But one of the families returned on Thursday, saying they had been thrown out of their apartment without clothes or food.

“This baby needs his milk!” yelled Debbie Higgs, the grandmother of three young children, as she crossed through the building’s lobby. Once they collected their belongings, Higgs said, they never wanted to set foot in the building again.

“Suppose another radiator blows up?” Higgs said, rocking her youngest grandson.

Reggie Stutzman, a pastor at the Real Life Church in Hunts Point and a former member of Community Board 2, said he tried two years ago to create a new committee to deal with homelessness, but not enough other board members had expressed enough interest to get it off the ground. Part of the committee’s tasks would have been to track homeless shelters in the district, and check up on them.

“The homeless population needs a voice,” Stutzman said. “Things like this are here today, gone tomorrow. The issue has to continue to be in front of people’s faces all of the time.”

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