Housing advocates take on landlords, support tenants
HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Ousting a New York landlord from his dilapidated complex was a win for Cori Mackey and the Rev. AJ Johnson. But since then, the breadth of Hartford’s housing woes has only expanded for the two. The scale of disrepair and neglect in its subsidized housing has come into sharper, more sobering focus as more tenants come forward, they say, seeking help and a similar outcome.
Mackey and Johnson — executive director and organizer, respectively, for the Christian Activities Council — will not take on every case. They helped organize tenants living in the Clay Arsenal Renaissance Apartments, owned by Queens, N.Y.-based Emmanuel Ku, because the tenants were willing to lead the fight. Mackey and Johnson also believed they had a degree of leverage: Ku’s contract with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development paid him more than $1 million a year to house 150 low-income families, but required he keep his buildings in “safe and sanitary” condition. Mackey and Johnson knew they were neither.
Nearly a year later, HUD stripped Ku of his contract and relocated hundreds of tenants.
“We’ve been called by other complexes where people are happy to say they have bad conditions, and when we ask them to engage, they don’t want to,” Mackey said last week, five months after Ku lost his contract. “It breaks our heart, but we have to walk away. Otherwise we become the next advocacy organization.”
The Christian Activities Council, founded in Hartford in 1851, is not in the business of advocacy, its leaders insist. If the people affected by an issue will not lead the fight — tenants in a ramshackle building, parents at a closing school — Mackey and Johnson say they refuse to speak for them.
“The minute you overlay your expectations on what they’re feeling,” Mackey said, “you’re just living out your own biases.”
Mackey, who is white, knows there is tension in a white woman leading a community agency in Hartford’s North End, a mostly black and Hispanic neighborhood. Johnson, a black pastor who leads Urban Hope Refuge Church, heads up the CAC’s community organizing front.
Nearly always suited, with matching tie and pocket square and the occasional straw boater, Johnson moves among the unacquainted with a pastor’s ease. He is quick to make conversation, but “his greatest strength,” said Denise Best, chair of the Upper Albany Neighborhood Revitalization Zone, is “he knows how to listen.”
The first hurdle in organizing tenants, Johnson said, is “going through the steps of saying this isn’t normal, having them identify that crack in their bathroom that’s been there a long time and they’ve gotten used to.”
Damaged, even dangerous, housing has become normalized in Hartford’s poor neighborhoods, Johnson said. “Re-energizing them is the key to the whole thing. That’s where the real magic is.”
Early in the process, Johnson and Mackey try to find a half-dozen tenants willing to lead, to speak with officials and the media. What follows is a series of rehearsals. “We do a rehearsal as if we’re going to be in a play,” Mackey said. The tenants write scripts. Some of them, playing the part of high-powered officials, dress up in suits. Once, when a bureaucrat was known to drink coffee during meetings, his double showed up at rehearsal with a Dunkin’ Donuts cup.
It’s all intended to familiarize the tenants with an uncomfortable, foreign space, Mackey explained. Most have never met the mayor or a federal housing official.
Mackey described their relationship with City Hall as injected “with a healthy dose of respect.”
“The phrase we live by is: No permanent enemies, no permanent allies,” she said. Mackey and Johnson had criticized City Hall during the Ku saga, saying its inspectors vetted the landlord’s buildings only after public outcry had peaked. But the two credited Mayor Luke Bronin for dispatching inspectors — and personally touring — another similarly ramshackle complex in the North End recently.
“What makes the CAC effective,” Bronin said, “is they’re not speaking for residents.” He vowed to use his levers in the city’s inspections department to pressure the complex’s owners to repair their property, and to “push HUD towards a sense of urgency.”
Mackey and Johnson have since turned their gaze on two other North End complexes: the Infill apartments, 52 units owned by a Brooklyn woman; and the Barbour Gardens apartments, 84 units owned by a consortium of Long Island-based investors. Like Ku’s buildings, both complexes are federally subsidized, their owners contracting with HUD through the agency’s Multifamily Housing program. Private landlords contracting with HUD offer 1.2 million units of housing nationwide, compared to about 900,000 from local housing agencies.
The Infill apartments were the subject of a recent NBC News story, offered as a case study for a national investigation of HUD Secretary Ben Carson’s leadership of the agency. The apartments, owned by Blima Isaacson and managed by Eli Fish, recently scored 21 out of 100 on a HUD inspection, with officials noting mold, vermin and leaking ceilings. Neither Isaacson nor Fish responded to requests for comment.
The Barbour Gardens apartments, by contrast, scored an 81 on an inspection in February. The mark was well above passing, nothing that would raise flags. But in September, city inspectors found more than 200 code violations in 33 units, noting mice and cockroach infestations, water damage and sagging walls and ceilings.
The buildings’ owners — Saeid Soleimani, Mehran Bassalie, Albert Soleimani, Marc Wolfe, Rafiollah Setareh, Yadidia Setareh, David Setareh, and several limited liability companies — were sent notice they would be fined $99 per violation, per day, if the city violations were left unaddressed. A spokesman for Bronin said re-inspections are currently being scheduled.
HUD sent the owners a notice of default in October, warning they had 60 days to fix the deficiencies noted by Hartford inspectors. In May, the agency had renewed its contract with the owners for six months.
A HUD spokeswoman said the owners are “in preliminary discussions to sell the project to an owner with plans for substantial rehabilitation.” A Manhattan attorney representing the owners, Aaron Seligson, did not respond to requests for comment. A Norwich attorney representing them in eviction cases in Hartford did not respond to a request for comment.
The HUD spokeswoman, Rhonda Siciliano, said the agency is relocating two families from the Barbour Gardens apartments for health reasons. Siciliano said she could not specify the health issues, but Mackey, who has been working with the families, said they stem from mold and vermin.
Doctors from Connecticut Children’s Medical Center and the Family Medicine Center at Asylum Hill sent notes to HUD urging the agency to remove children from the apartments. A Connecticut Children’s doctor said health inspectors had visited one of the units and seen mold, mildew, mice and cockroaches.
How, Mackey and Johnson ask, could a building that easily passed inspection in February be deemed a health risk for kids just eighth months later?
The inspections are a “total sham, so fundamentally flawed,” Mackey said. “It forces us to look upriver and say, if this is the only mechanism HUD has to determine if this property needs their attention or not, something’s got to change.”
HUD said last month it was carrying out a “wholesale reexamination” of the inspections, known as REACs, after the Real Estate Assessment Center that conducts them. HUD acknowledged that “REAC’s 20-year-old scoring system needs to be changed to better reflect the physical conditions of the properties where more than two million families call home.”
Siciliano, the HUD spokeswoman, said the apartments’ passing score in February “does not reflect the conditions on the ground at the property now.”
Mackey said there has been no progress in relocating the families. Doctors sent the notes last month. “HUD cannot take credit for relocating them,” she said.
Information from: Hartford Courant, http://www.courant.com