Facing – and Fighting – Years of Decay

28 Nov

I’ve regularly toured dilapidated New York City buildings for the last year and a half. The building I visited Wednesday morning, the former Greenpoint Hotel, is the worst. “Jim,” a tenant there, asked my coworker and I to visit. He looked middle-aged and was a disabled Vietnam veteran who suffered a shrapnel injury that makes his voice sound like a scruffy ninety-year-old. He said that there has been no heat or hot water in the building for ten days– a problem they’ve had intermittently for three years– and he’s called the city repeatedly to complain with no relief.

One of my tasks in the Community Preservation Unit at St. Nicks Alliance is to visit buildings where landlords aren’t fulfilling their legal obligations, particularly to low-income and longtime tenants. We educate the tenants on their rights, help them form associations, and show them how to access resources to solve their housing problems.

Jim’s building is in Greenpoint, a suddenly-chic, historically-working-class neighborhood in North Brooklyn (you may have heard of it as the home of the girls in HBO’s Girls). Inside the building are over 100 single-room units, some barely large enough to fit a twin-sized bed. The tenants share bathrooms on each floor, where the showers are black with mold and leaky sink pipes flood the floors. The halls smell like waste and smoke; the floors, ceilings, and staircases are warping. The only means of cooking are hot plates– a fire hazard– and the windows lack enough fire escapes. Abandoned rooms are left unlocked and filled with refuse. Some tenant’s doors no longer close and have been rigged shut with wire and master locks.

Image(a shower shared by 8-12 people)

As my coworker and I followed Jim down the cold, bright orange halls, other tenants stepped from their rooms, asking who we were and offering information. The tenants are all men; many are seniors, many are disabled, and at least a dozen are veterans. As we spoke, nearly half of them had to excuse themselves to lie down or warm up. Some men who could afford it had bought space heaters, which pose a fire danger in such tiny rooms. One man caught on fire last week and has been in the hospital ever since. They say the landlord keeps an office next door, but refuses to touch the place.

Image(an abandoned room)

The building’s problems are no secret. The city’s website reports over 300 violations in this building. Tenants have been working with a legal services organization for the last three years. Many tenants have filed complaints against the landlord for rent overcharge with the city and won. A 2006 New York Times article detailed the poor conditions and drug problems in the building. But the article made no mention of the landlord’s legal obligations and seemed to imply that all of the tenants were addicts who put up with the conditions by choice, while in reality many tenants are simply seniors, veterans, and others who have no other affordable options.

Almost seven years later, this building remains unchanged. It is the tenants’ reality, day in, day out.

After discussing the tenants’ legal rights and promising to call another local organization to collaborate on following up with a course of action, we left. On our way out, we passed a city council member going into the building, who told us he was hoping to get a story in the Daily News about the place.

These are small but promising steps. But why does it take so long for a community to not only see that some of its most vulnerable neighbors have been living in deplorable conditions, but to then push for and achieve positive and lasting change? There are certainly large obstacles to improving such a building. But, as leaders, we have to ask: how do you get from knowing about a problem to trying to solve it, and from trying to solve it to actually getting the thing done?

By Kelly Wehrle, Public Allies New York (an AmeriCorps program) Class of 2013

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