Friday, May 6, 2011

City owes Mott Haven tenants jobs, advocates contend

The New York City Housing Authority has reneged on a decade-old commitment to put job-hungry tenants to work making the buildings they live in cleaner and healthier, according to housing advocates.

Advocacy groups in the South Bronx are trying to change that.

A tinny voice called out from a windy sidewalk to residents in Mott Haven’s Mitchel Houses in mid-April, persuading them to join a march through the neighborhood to pressure the city to provide them with green jobs.“Yeah you, looking out your windows,” shouted Cerita Parker of Longwood-based housing advocacy group Mothers on the Move, through a megaphone. “This is for you.”

“If you live in NYCHA housing, you have a right to NYCHA jobs,” she continued. “That’s a right, not a privilege.”

Activists are demanding Housing Authority officials live up to a 2001 commitment to spend 15 percent of the agency’s labor costs putting tenants to work on renovation and construction projects in the buildings they live in.

In a 2004 audit, the city’s Comptroller’s office found the agency had put barely half that amount into its Resident Employee Program. Then, in a 2008 follow-up audit, the Comptroller found that the Housing Authority had fully addressed only one of six recommendations it had made following the earlier audit.

“A serious lack of NYCHA management oversight and commitment to the [program] resulted in program goals not being achieved,” read the 2008 report. “By not enforcing REP requirements, NYCHA allowed contractors to largely ignore the REP provision of their contracts.

But last year, when advocates approached NYCHA’s Environmental Coordinator, Margarita Lopez, requesting the city follow through on its pledge to create green jobs, “she told us, ‘we’re not an employment agency,’” says Nova Strachan of Mothers on the Move.

Members of Mothers on the Move say they have tried unsuccessfully to get a meeting with Lopez since October.
Housing Authority officials did not respond to requests for comment at press time.

More than two-thirds of public housing tenants responding to a survey conducted by Mothers on the Move and the Urban Justice Center earlier this year said they want jobs that would help improve housing conditions and air quality. Nearly all identified poor air quality as a factor contributing to health problems in their buildings.

Cockroaches, rats and mold, all of which are prevalent in NYCHA buildings, are known asthma triggers. Hospitalization rates for Bronx children under five with asthma were more than triple those of their Manhattan counterparts in 2008, the last year for which statistics from the state’s Department of Health are available.

The Bronx unemployment rate, 12.7% as of February, is more than three percent higher than the national average, and over five percent higher than Manhattan’s, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor.

A.D. Wade moved to the Mitchel Houses 15 years ago, and was diagnosed with asthma ten years later.“I can’t leave the house without this pump,” he said, holding up an inhaler.

Nathaniel Jones, a job-hunting former resident of the Mitchel Houses who stopped at the rally to take a brochure, said the two children he raised there were both diagnosed with asthma while infants.

Nova Strachan says employing NYCHA tenants to fix up their buildings would reduce triggers for disease in the buildings, while addressing job needs.

But while a green jobs initiative would be mutually beneficial, she maintains, residents should be hired for long-term jobs they can later parlay into private sector opportunities, rather than the kind of short-term jobs NYCHA has previously provided.

“We need more than a two or three-month job. It needs to be a career,” she said. “It seems like these jobs are setting people up for failure.”

New report says hiring NYCHA tenants for green jobs, repairs would lower unemployment, save money

Green jobs could be the silver bullet for problems faced by New York City Housing Authority residents, from drafty windows and moldy bathrooms to obesity, according to a new report by South Bronx community groups.

Training and hiring hundreds of residents to build green roofs, make repairs and install energy-efficient appliances would save NYCHA money, reduce unemployment and improve public health, the report stated.

"Green jobs are a win-win," said Nova Strachan, housing organizer for Mothers on the Move. "People that live in public housing need jobs and our public housing developments need repairs."

NYCHA residents in the South Bronx lack access to leafy public spaces and supermarkets with fresh produce, according to the report. Green roofs built and tended by residents could address both problems.

"There's a reason we call the projects the concrete jungle," said Yves Filius, 26, a Mott Haven Houses resident.

Based on surveys by Mothers on the Move and the Urban Justice Center, the report urged NYCHA to launch a South Bronx Green Jobs Institute. It claims the agency could start by training 500 residents to retrofit NYCHA buildings, requiring a $5 million investment, with $1.2 million coming back to the agency in rent from newly employed residents.

Projects could include installing new ventilation systems and fixing leaks that lead to asthma-aggravating mold. The institute would help pay for itself through energy savings, said Lindsay Cattell of the Urban Justice Center.

But NYCHA is facing a $42 million deficit and can't afford to operate an institute of its own, said Margarita Lopez, the agency's environmental coordinator.

Only 6% of unemployed NYCHA residents have college degrees and the number of households owing the agency back rent is on the rise, according to the report. Of residents surveyed, 97% were interested in green jobs.

But NYCHA already boasts green programs, Lopez said. It has purchased tens of thousands of new appliances, trained residents to plant trees and begun a $371 million push to retrofit its buildings, even hiring residents to green the Castle Hill Houses.

"NYCHA has changed the way we do business," said Lopez, calling it "a green machine for jobs."

The agency has created 200 jobs for South Bronx residents since August 2009, but "is not the Department of Labor" and must focus on housing, Lopez said.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

In the South Bronx, Blight Returns to a Rehabilitated Block

The four-story wreck that is 920 Kelly Street is a South Bronx time machine for Harry De Rienzo. Its broken windows, garbage-choked halls, mold-mottled rooms and smoky stench remind him of what much of the area looked like nearly 35 years ago, when he first arrived to work at a settlement house.

Back then, 920 was among a handful of tidy buildings maintained by a landlord who was struggling against the arson and abandonment encroaching all around. His pluck inspired Mr. De Rienzo to organize the block and its beleaguered residents into the Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association, which renovated three crumbling buildings on the street and started Mr. De Rienzo on a career providing housing for poor and working people.

Half a lifetime later, Mr. De Rienzo is back on the block. But this time he is trying to save 920 and four neighboring buildings, which have fallen into such disrepair that they are considered among the city’s worst, with more than 2,000 housing code violations among them.

If Kelly Street was once an outpost of hope, Mr. De Rienzo and others worry that it may now be a harbinger of trouble for the South Bronx and beyond. In the feverish real estate speculation of the past decade, buildings like these were passed back and forth among landlords and banks. But since the bubble burst, the properties have fallen into financial limbo; many owners cannot keep up on mortgage payments, much less repairs.

“This is a real big problem,” said Mr. De Rienzo, 57, a plain-spoken, streetwise New Yorker who is now chief executive of Banana Kelly. “They thought they could always cash out their equity and flip the property. But when the recession hit, that kind of predatory investing stopped — and the tenants got stuck.”

Back in 1976, the fires that would incinerate so much of the South Bronx had begun to nip around the edges of Kelly Street when Mr. De Rienzo, fresh out of Manhattan College, started working at the settlement house, Casita Maria, running a basketball program.

Cooling down after games, he chatted with local residents about the neighborhood, where a near-bankrupt city was taking over scores of tax-delinquent and abandoned buildings, but doing little to make them livable.

He befriended Leon Potts, whose father, Frank, a hard-working jack-of-all-trades, owned several buildings on Kelly, living with his family in one of them.

“Potts was totally at variance with everything that was going on in the South Bronx at the time,” Mr. De Rienzo said of Frank Potts. “Here was a landlord who was staying put. He used to wake up at 5 in the morning to go to work on the trucks in Hunts Point. Then he’d come back and work on his buildings. He’d be so tired, sometimes I saw him sitting on the stoop, too tired to walk up three steps to his apartment.”

It was wrenching for Mr. De Rienzo to watch adjoining buildings go vacant, but he saw them as an opportunity.

“The city had written off the area,” he said. “Landlords had run away. So all we could do was sweat equity and do it for ourselves, since nobody else was going to do it.”

By the end of the 1970s, the three buildings that prompted the formation of Banana Kelly had been renovated and were being run by tenants. The organization expanded into social services and education. Mr. De Rienzo went to law school, and then to work for a foundation that supported community-based housing groups. And Mr. Potts, long the mainstay of his block, sold his buildings and moved away.

Today, to tour the blocks around Kelly Street is to see a world transformed. On Longwood Avenue, neat, brick town houses line the wide street. Modest apartments have risen from empty lots. Even Little Korea, a stretch of Fox Street famous for its murders, looks suburban with its boxy white homes.

Banana Kelly, the group that helped with the rebirth, did not fare so well. Mr. De Rienzo and others watched with alarm throughout the 1990s as the group sought international attention for its ideas on urban development while neglecting the housing that had been its original mission. In 2002 the state attorney general, spurred by complaints of mismanagement, forced out the group’s leadership.

As part of the deal, Mr. De Rienzo was coaxed into returning temporarily to get the group back on solid financial ground. He wound up staying on.

This year, conditions in the old Potts properties became so bad that two advocacy groups, Mothers on the Move and the Urban Justice Center, began speaking with tenants and city officials. In recent years, the city had placed four of the five buildings in a program that made emergency repairs and then billed the landlord.

Mr. De Rienzo began inquiring about the buildings after he noticed several boarded-up apartments while walking down his old block. A few weeks ago, he joined Mothers on the Move on an impromptu inspection and was alarmed by what he saw — particularly because a number of tenants have H.I.V. or AIDS.

In the lobby of 935 Kelly Street, visitors have to step over a pool of water formed by drips from a gaping hole in the ceiling. A pile of garbage and liquor bottles fills a corner. In one of the 32 apartments, Victoria Rosario has laid out brick-size rat traps — she has caught 12 so far — and sealed the holes in the walls with plywood.

At 920 Kelly, doors to empty apartments swing open to reveal garbage and feces-smeared rooms where windows have been knocked off their frames. A smoky odor wafts from the burned-out apartment next to Hector Claudio’s fourth-floor home. Inside, his walls are gray from mildew and soot.

“I threw out my sofa,” Mr. Claudio said in a raspy voice that rose barely beyond a whisper. “I had to throw out my clothes. I have asthma, fatigue and H.I.V. It’s too much. This has to stop.”

Just who owns the buildings is uncertain. While city records list John Abraham as the owner, the city’s housing agency can find no deed in his name. Tenants said they had been dealing with owners at an office on Washington Avenue, but the people who work there said they no longer managed the building because Mr. Abraham had refused to pay for repairs.

Mr. Abraham did not respond to phone messages, and a letter sent by messenger to the address listed in city records was returned as undeliverable.

Ridgewood Savings Bank holds a $5 million mortgage on the buildings. Mr. De Rienzo said he would try to force the bank to either repair the buildings or assign ownership to his community group.

Joseph T. Curcio, the bank’s vice president and marketing director, said that the properties were in good repair when the mortgage was issued “several years ago,” and that he had no idea of their current state. When told of the worst violations, he said, “Oh, my God.”

Mr. Curcio said the bank had begun foreclosure proceedings. “We’re left holding the bag as much as these poor tenants,” he said. “It’s unconscionable the landlord allowed these conditions to exist.”

The city, which continues to make repairs on the buildings, is now in discussion with Banana Kelly to see if the group can take over the buildings and avail itself of loan and repair programs. City officials have also been talking with banks to alert them to loans they have made to owners of similarly distressed properties in other neighborhoods.

For Mr. De Rienzo, who helped Kelly Street rebuild itself brick by brick, his latest crusade is about a much more personal debt.

“After more than 30 years dealing with this block, these people are like friends and family to me, so I can’t just walk away,” he said. “I’m not looking to save the world. I’m just looking to build something that will last beyond me.”

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Report on NYCHA Green Jobs Meeting

MOM: NYCHA Green Jobs Town Hall

On Thursday, October 14, Mothers on the Move hosted a Town Hall Meeting to learn more about NYCHA's Green Agenda for public housing. 55 people attended, with a good mix of local public housing residents, service providers and allies from the Bronx Green Jobs Roundtable in attendence.

NYCHA Green Commissioner Margarita Lopez gave an in-depth report on the challenges and long-term benefits associated with moving NYCHA toward more energy-efficient, sustainable housing solutions for working class and low-income New Yorkers.

Lopez presentation
Some details of Ms. Lopez' presentation:
  • Systematically change every lightbulb and fixtures, thus creating jobs
  • The example of Castle Hill Houses in the Bronx, where average pay was $43.00/hour for ‘greening’ measures-changes they made - these have included installing instanteous water heaters, adding new boilers (old ones were only 55% efficient, new are 90% efficient), planting trees and installing apartment temperature sensors
  • All this creates jobs- field coordinators, steam fitters, painters, laborers, electricians
  • Creation of a “green committee’ at each development to help implement green initiatives, educate neighbors and serve as a resource
  • Long term goals include: geothermal buildings, solar panels (feasibility study with CUNY) and making money from recycling programs

Michelle Pinnock, NYCHA (on Right)

Michelle Pinnock, NYCHA's Senior Advisor for Resident Economic Empowerment & Sustainability, gave a brief outline of NYCHA's Section 3/Resident Employment Program (REP). Section 3 is existing Federal HUD regulation requiring Public Housing Authorities to put roughly 30% of HUD funds toward job development opportunities. Ms. Pinnock's presentation

  • Section 3 is an unfunded mandate - a funding stream is needed to provide sufficient training to residents. In addition, the “greatest extent feasable” language allows a lot of leeway for Housing Authorities to treat Section 3 as optional and not to comply.
  • Privately funded office through the Robin Hood Foundation (her office prepares people for future positions, refers people to GED programs, they also have hotline)
  • NYCHA created the Resident Employment Program (REP) to “give teeth to Section 3”
  • REP large contracts (over $500,000) stipulate that 15% of labor costs have to go to NYCHA residents. The current focus has been on construction projects, but the goal is to shift that to make REP a requirement on all or most projects
Resident Training Academy
Goal - 150 participants this first year (with 75 placed in jobs)- 1,000 total for 500 jobs (perhaps over the next several years??)
  • Unpaid, but provide metrocard and lunch
  • Requirements for participation: Must be a resident on lease, have no criminal history to be hired by NYCHA (not to just participate in program0. Education requirements (they only refer people to places to get GED help)
  • Track 1- basic construction, 8-week training, job placement assistance, 1st class entering third week, 2nd class for women-working with NEW
  • Track 2- janitorial track, 1st cohort beginning of November

Overall the plan seems to be coming from the right place, with good intentions and an understanding that the crisis in housing, unemployment and the environment are deeply connected and have intersecting solutions.

MOM looks forward to working with NYCHA to developing resident-led solutions, and to ensuring implementation and accountability so that increasing numbers of local residents benefit from job training and placement dollars available to NYCHA and other agencies.

MOM Leader Luisa Escalera

Big shouts to MOM leaders Luisa Escalera and Matthew Welch for providing excellent facilitation of the meeting and laying out MOM's preliminary recommendations for a NYCHA Green Jobs Pilot Program. MOM Luisa and Mathew are part of the MOM Green Jobs leadership committee that conducted a survey this year on resident perspectives on NYCHA employment programs and green job opportunties. MOM will be releasing a report on these findings in the coming months - stay tuned!

MOM Leaders Luisa Escalera & Mathew Welch

MOM Green Jobs Leadership Team

More photos from the meeting - HERE

Friday, October 1, 2010

Community Meeting on NYCHA Greening Plans!

To all South Bronx neighbors, allies and friends engaged in struggles
to improve public services, public housing, jobs & economic justice,
environmental & food justice and general swagger:
Mothers on the Move is putting you on BLAST!
We have a meeting Thursday, Oct 14 with NYC Housing Authority
Coordinator Margarita Lopez, to hear NYCHA's plans
for "greening" public housing and to present some of our
recommendations for creating a pilot Green Jobs program in public

MOM leaders have put a lot of work into the research phase of this
campaign, as we get ready to release a report in the coming months
detailing resident perspectives on existing job training programs
and offering some policy solutions to the intersecting environmental,
housing and unemployment crises facing our communities.
This meeting will help us clearly understand NYCHA's long term
greening plans, and hone our campaign strategy moving into 2011.
We hope you can join us!!
WHEN: Thursday, Oct 14 @ 6pm
WHERE: Betances Community Center, 547 E. 146th St, at St. Ann's Ave
17 Bus to St. Anns/146th
2/5 Train to 149th St/3rd Ave

For more info contact:

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Giving thanks!

Big gratitude to everyone who came out to our Victory Party last week. Over 75 people showed up to celebrate, eat, dance, drink one too many cups "Painkiller Punch," and share thoughts on the impact of this incredible victory and of Thomas' work organizing with MOM over the past 4 years.

Check out photos of the party HERE

As always with MOM events, it was truly a family affair, and we are especially thankful for all the newly-pledged MOM Monthly Sustainers who stepped up to commit to contributing financially to MOM's work.

NEW SUSTAINER SHOUT OUTS: Tanya Fields, Cassandra Gary, Julien Terrell & Mitch Robinson Ramirez, Omar Freilla & Janvieve Williams-Comrie, Ari Rotramel, Lucretia Jones, Blanca Ramirez, Jesse Lehrer and Thomas Assefa.

You better believe it! Support from our community is vital in sustaining this work - it simply cannot happen without you.

To become a MOM Monthly Sustainer and commit 5, 10 or even 20 dollars a month, go HERE. For more information or questions, email

Stay tuned to the MOM blog for next steps on implementation and accountability regarding the terms of our settlement victory.

The fight is far from over!

Friday, July 2, 2010

Campaign Victory Party & Coverage

To all of our incredible friends, allies, donors, supporters, funders, comrades, colleagues and fellow freedom fighters who have sent messages of congratulations and well-wishes this week - and for your critical support throughout the past few years of this campaign.

We hope you can help us celebrate at our VICTORY PARTY this Friday!

Help us celebrate this historic occasion, and say farewell to our
beloved Environmental Justice Organizer, Thomas Assefa.

WHAT: VICTORY POTLUCK & farewell to Thomas!

WHEN: Friday, July 9. 5-8pm

WHERE: MOM Office - 928 Intervale Ave, Bronx

Please bring a dish to share. RSVP to

Here are a couple hits from the past week:

NY Times:
In Hunts Point, Celebrating an End to Sludge

By Sam Dolnick and Mireya Navarro

Community Legal Victory Banishes South Bronx Sewage Smells

Environmental News Service

Also see our FLICKR SITE for photos of last week's press event announcing the settlement.