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.”