These days, the housing crisis seems a distant memory in many areas of Brooklyn, as buyers arrive at overcrowded open houses in Park Slope and Cobble Hill, ready to sign a contract on the spot and sellers from Red Hook to Greenpoint vie to set new neighborhood records. But the crash and its aftereffects have not vanished from the borough, as the plight of tenants in a trio in Sunset Park buildings illustrates.
While billionaires grapple over ever-loftier trophies, tearing out onyx to install carrara or vice versa, the tenants of 545, 553 and 557 46th Street in Sunset Park are still mired in the foreclosure crisis, living in decaying buildings with 684 housing violations spread over 51 apartments, according to the department of Housing Preservation and Development.
New York City’s public housing complexes are small cities unto themselves, sealed off from the grid and flow of surrounding streets, pinwheels of bricks and concrete with scant patches of green. Built in 1956, Forest Houses, a 46-building New York City Housing Authority complex in the Morrisania section of the Bronx, is characteristic of its era. Besides the fact that the buildings top out at two stories, they do not relate to their immediate environment, let alone the environment.
More than 50 years later, affordable housing remains one of the city’s greatest challenges (if not its greatest). The architecture, on the other hand, has improved considerably. Arbor House, a privately-owned 124-unit, housing complex that abuts Forest Houses, opened today at 770 East 166th Street. It boasts not only energy-efficient features and a living green wall, but also a 10,000 square foot hydroponic rooftop farm.
STATE OF THE UNIONS
As promised, the City Council overrode the mayor’s veto of Intro 730, a bill dubbed the HPD Transparency Act, by a unanimous vote. Speaker Christine Quinn defended the 46-0 override saying, “This piece of legislation, which is simple in many ways, it’s just transparency. It’s just the info. Why don’t we want to have the info behind our Department of Housing out there? Why don’t we want New Yorkers to have all the facts out there.”
The bill has been criticized for it’s wage reporting standards, which opponents say adds an onerous bureaucratic burden for small firms and MWBEs. Opponents of the bill argue that the supposed transparency of the bill would do little to ensure quality construction. Just knowing how much someone gets paid does not guarantee a better building, the ostensible reason for the bill. When asked about how the bill might still achieve this, the speaker stood by Intro 730.
On March 23, Wendell Walters plead guilty to two counts of racketeering and bribery. As the assistant commissioner for development at the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, he oversaw billions of dollars in city contracts to build and repair the city’s vast stock of private affordable housing. The projects only grew over the past decade as Mayor Bloomberg launched a program to create or rehabilitate some 165,000 units of affordable housing.
During that time, the kickbacks to Walters also grew, totaling some $2.5 million over the course of a decade involving at least 10 different affordable housing developers in the city. Some payments were made in coffee cups, others in thick envelopes stuffed into Walters’ golf bag as he and the builders took in a round of golf. Among the gifts received was a brownstone on 139th Street in Harlem, free renovations to the townhouse and a honeymoon in Greece.
When he was arrested last October, Walters was paraded in front of the Brooklyn Federal Court House. Like so many perps, he was caught by surprise and still wearing his morning clothes, a black fleece pullover and black sweatpants. Tall and handsome with a shaven head, the 49-year-old Walters looked shocked, embarrassed, dismayed.
So was Matthew Wambua.
Affordable Housing or Lack Thereof
Last Friday morning, Felix Guzman woke up early, grabbed his fishing pole, and headed over to the East River for some catch and release fun. For 40 years he has lived in the same building on Academy Street in Inwood and in that time he has “seen a lot.” So when he got back to his apartment around 11 am and saw that his street was teaming with newscasters, elected officials, cameramen, and local community members, he wasn’t surprised. They’d been there before. “It’s always been tough here,” Mr. Guzman said. “I’m glad they’re doing something about it.”
The building in question was 552 Academy Street, a crumbling 72-unit brick building located across the street from Mr. Guzman’s apartment. A year ago he had stood outside and watched as dozens of tenants dragged their belongings onto the sidewalk, confused and frightened and wondering where they would relocate to next.
The building, the city told them, was unsafe, which was why they had to vacate the premises. Although Mr. Guzman had never been inside, he heard rumors that at times the units lacked gas, running water, and electricity. “This is what happens when you get these slumlords and all they care about is the money,” Mr. Guzman said, referring to the building’s landlord, Rachel Arfa, whom the City blames for the hazardous conditions.
Affordable Housing or Lack Thereof
“We’ve been doing it the same way since before we had email,” affordable housing developer Martin Dunn lamented, speaking to The Observer about the grueling process through which New Yorkers have historically had to apply for subsidized housing in the city.
Council Speaker Christine Quinn put it even more starkly in her 2011 State of the City address, when she called on the Bloomberg administration to find a way to digitize and streamline the process: “In a 21st century world—where you can do everything online—we still make people apply for housing using 18th century technology.”
Today is the day, as they say, and as of working hours, NYC Housing Connect should be live, the first one-stop shop for subsidized housing online.
Yesterday, The Journal (rightly) complained the lack of progress at two major affordable housing projects, Hudson Yards and Willets Point. This got The Observer wondering about another, though: whatever happened to Hunters Point South, which was approved the same day almost four years ago as the Willets Point project.
Things are moving along quite nicely, it turns out.
It may seem as though there has been limited tangible progress since Related Companies was tapped to develop the project in February of last year, but that is because most of the work is being done below the surface—with on the banks of the East River and the banks of housing finance.
Affordable Housing or Lack Thereof
It used to house cast offs from some of the city’s oldest buildings, but soon it could house low-income New Yorkers.
The city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development is seeking a developer to turn a Williamsburg warehouse that served as storage for the Landmarks Preservation Commission into an affordable housing development with 50 apartments. The development, at 337 Berry Street, sits on a 15,000-square-foot lot and calls for commercial or community space on the ground floor, as well as about 1,200 square feet of open space for residents.
The views are not too bad, looking out on the Williamsburg Bridge and Manhattan, though the rumble of the J-Train just might intrude on the apartments, as well, barring some good windows.
It’s been six weeks since the apartment building at 2 Thayer Street in Washington Heights had gas or hot water—ConEd shut it off as a safety precaution because of leaks in the pipes. The walls are cracked, pieces of plaster crumble from the ceilings and as of a week ago, the 47-unit building had 94 open violations with the Department of Housing Preservation and Development. But on paper, at least, 2 Thayer Street doesn’t number among the city’s worst buildings. Not even close.
In the past, a building with only two violations per apartment would have had a hard time attracting the city’s attention. In the wake of the housing crisis, as hundreds of multi-family buildings fell into disrepair, HPD relied on individual tenant complaints to gauge the level of building deterioration, focusing their energies on the most egregious violators, the city’s “worst buildings,” which often have 10 or more violations per apartment.
Hundreds more were also in bad shape, of course, and getting worse, as tenants became the victims of real estate speculation gone bust, but inspections and intensive intervention efforts started only after the the building’s racked up an appalling number of violations.
But in late April, not only did a team of HPD inspectors come to check out 2 Thayer Street, but so did deputy commissioner Vito Mustaciuolo, who spoke to a group of tenants gathered in the lobby.
To combat the city’s growing bed bug problem, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development has gone to the dogs. Say hello to Nemo and Mickey, the latest members of the department’s Maintenance Code inspection team. And rather than the vet, the two Beagles were fortunate enough to get their tags—we mean badges—from Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Housing Commissioner Mathew Wambua.
“Awww, look at their little jackets,” cooed Ms. Quinn when she first set eyes on the dogs.