Alternative Enforcement is No Enforcement, Say Bronx Tenants

 

Freezing rooms, lead paint and killer mold are just three of the hundreds of tenant complaints at 1058 Southern Blvd. in the Bronx. The building has recently entered a city-run enforcement program, making it eligible for help. But the tenants don’t want the city’s help: they want to run the building themselves.

Lisa Ortega doesn’t use a bedroom because the walls are covered in mold. Down the hall, mold carpets the hallway, ceiling and bedrooms in Abigail Acevedo’s apartment, where three young children sleep.

“We’ve always had mold,” said Ortega, 44, who has lived in her 6th-floor apartment for 18 years. “It comes back within a year or a year and a half” after the landlord paints over it.

Mold is potentially toxic, making it a class C violation, the most severe under the city’s housing code. The building has 97 C violations, and this year the city took notice. Public Advocate Bill de Blasio put 1058 Southern Blvd. on the worst landlord watchlist, and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) in January entered the building into the Alternative Enforcement Program, a yearlong program of stepped-up enforcement for the worst-maintained buildings.

The program is designed to make it more expensive for an owner to neglect a building than to make repairs. Once a building enters AEP, the landlord has four months to fix outstanding violations, which can include anything from a broken buzzer to lead paint (both of which exist at 1058). If repairs aren’t made, the city fines the landlord $500 per apartment. This process is repeated six months later, for a maximum fine of $1,000 for each apartment in the building.

The building’s owner, Miriam Shasho, doesn’t think the mold is a problem. She said the tenants are creating the mold themselves, under Ortega’s guidance.

“Every building has a few violations,” Shasho said.

Two floors down from Ortega’s apartment, Margarita Roche, 79, keeps her winter coat on indoors and uses a space heater for warmth.

“It’s not cold, it’s freezing,” said Roche.

Across the hall, another tenant uses four space heaters in her apartment, which pushed her electric bill for February above $2,000.

In the last year, 170 of the tenants’ 418 complaints about the building were related to heat. In January, after 25 tenants protested outside HPD’s Bronx office, HPD delivered heating oil to the building.

Lack of heat is also a class C violation, like mold, and is considered “dangerous to life,” said Harold Shultz, a housing consultant and former HPD official.

AEP is too little, too late for tenants who say they’ve struggled for years with inadequate repairs. HPD is authorized to make emergency repairs of mold and lead paint for a distressed building, but the tenants don’t believe these will be any better than the quick fixes Shasho has been ordering for years. Instead, they’re petitioning for an independent 7A administrator.

Under the 7A program, the city names a management company to collect rent and oversee the building until it’s free of violations. Shasho would still technically own the building but wouldn’t be receiving rent; nor could she sell the building.

“Very few buildings go into a 7A,” said Shultz, because it’s so demanding on the tenants. “Very few tenants are organized enough,” he said.

But the tenants at 1058 Southern Blvd. think they have a chance. The building has documented heat issues going back to 1999. The AEP is a stalling tactic for the city to allow Shasho to keep the building, Ortega said.

“They’re trying to slow down the process of her getting in trouble for these repairs,” she said.

So she has refused to let contractors enter to fix the worst violation, hoping to keep them as evidence of negligence.

“This program is supposed to make sure HPD is on the ball,” said Ortega, “but HPD is not a stranger to our buildings. We have called 311 on the building many times.”

The tenants’ long-term is to take ownership of the building and run it as a cooperative, said Ortega. They’re looking at forming an HDFC, or limited-equity coop, which were common in the 1970s and ’80s as low-income New Yorkers rehabilitated abandoned buildings.

“HPD has verbally discouraged us,” said Ortega. “They were trying to say low-income people just can’t manage their own buildings.”

Shultz said the issue is more basic: the city doesn’t have the power to take a building away from the owner just for poor conditions, he said. The only way for tenants to take over a privately owned building is to buy it outright.

“If the owner or the bank is paying the taxes, there’s no way for the city to become the owner,” said Shultz.

Ortega isn’t daunted.

“We can feed a family of five on a nickel,” she said. “That tells me we do know how to budget money. We could manage this building quite easily, I think, by figuring out what is the priority. Not having someone else say, ‘I don’t think you need heat and hot water for a week — that’s not a necessity.’”