Thousands of Bronx Rent Stabilized Apartments At Risk As NYC Begins Phasing Out Homeless Shelter Cluster Sites

Gothamist just reported that thousands of rent stabilized apartments in New York City―the overwhelming majority which are in The Bronx―are in danger of being deregulated as NYC continues to phase out the notorious cluster site homeless shelter program that enticed landlords with on average double the average rents in order to house homeless families.

The average price per unit that the city was paying? $2,451 a month and yes, these were rents being paid in The Bronx too well above what the rent regulated rents were for these units.

At the peak of the program in January 2016, the city had 3,658 cluster units spread across 314 buildings throughout the city and of those, a whopping 2,877 units in 268 buildings were located in The Bronx representing 79% of such sites which turned these residential buildings where multi-generational families lived into living nightmares as landlords greedy with the promise of doubling their rent rolls began pushing those long time tenants away.

Whether it was done through neglect of the properties or the overall lack of safety that existing families felt, the results were the same: Entire buildings were turned into shelters.

I have friends in Hunts Point in one particular building who went through living hell as his landlord tried every means to evict him from his apartment as the building was slowly being turned into a full cluster site. Ultimately my friend won and stayed but at a great emotional toll and a significant drop in quality of life as conditions in his building continued to deteriorate and the landlord’s pockets got fatter.

Things began to change this year after a scathing report from the Department of Investigation in 2015 called, “…clusters the worst-maintained, least-monitored type of shelters, the city was paying landlords and nonprofits $2,451 a month on average per unit. Because cluster site shelters are overwhelmingly in poor and working-class neighborhoods, that figure was more than double the average rent the apartments would have fetched on the market,” according to Gothamist.

By last month, Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Dr Hermina Palacio and Department of Social Services Commissioner Steven Banks announced that the use 842 cluster units at 83 buildings had ended of which 474 units in 48 buildings were located in The Bronx.

But Gothamist points out a big problem:

“Early last year, Mayor de Blasio announced he was going to phase out the cluster site scheme by 2018. He has since extended the deadline to 2021, but in May the mayor touted the removal of more than 800 apartments from the program, saying, “Our homeless families deserve better and we will continue to take aggressive action in closing down the remaining sites and replacing them with better, safer shelters to help them get back on their feet and into permanent housing.”

There’s a wrinkle, though. Data obtained by Gothamist shows that of 3,300 cluster apartments in use at one point in fiscal year 2016, 3,167 were in rent-stabilized buildings. A combination of lax state oversight and landlord-friendly carveouts in the rent laws could make such apartments ripe for deregulation as the city pulls out. And responses to public records requests by the relevant city and state agencies suggest that despite the mayor’s plan to create and preserve 200,000 below-market apartments by 2024, little has been done so far to prevent this.”

Gothamist also points out a story out of many of what Bronxites have gone through:

“It’s too late for Shanae Yates and her onetime neighbors on Vyse Avenue. A Virginia native, Yates has lived in the Bronx since she was a young girl, and has spent most of the past 20 years on the same block near East 174th Street. When she first looked at apartments in the big brick building in 2000, it was fully rent-stabilized, and she was pregnant with her second daughter. The landlord at the time was Wolf Posalski—everybody knew him as Willie—and tenants remember him as exceedingly accommodating. For Yates, he arranged to speed up renovations on a first-floor one-bedroom, so she wouldn’t have to climb stairs.

The building “was always clean,” Yates said. “All of the issues were addressed immediately. They didn’t prolong things.” She recalled that once, when her refrigerator stopped working, she called Posalski at home and, “He said, ‘Don’t worry. Go buy some new bags of ice and we’ll have a new fridge in the morning.'”

Her starting rent was $585, and “when it came time to renew your lease, [Willie] would always work with you.” Sometimes, Posalski didn’t raise the rent at all. “He’d say, ‘I’d rather have people I know living here,'” Yates recalled.

Posalski died in 2007, and his daughter Rochelle took over, making his monthly Sunday rounds, collecting rent personally from each tenant. Within a few years, Posalski’s business partners gained control, and according to public records and seven former tenants, that’s when everything started to change.

The repairs got sloppier, managers began offering buyouts, and bills and legal threats started appearing in the mail, demanding late rent. This occurred even, tenants said, when they had paid on time. Around this time, in the early 2010s, then live-in handyman David Forbes recalls that David Green of the new owner RRW Realty told him, “I could make this a homeless shelter and get $97,000 a month.”

Green is one of 13 cluster site owners on Public Advocate Letitia James’s 100 Worst Landlords list for 2016. Together, the 13 men owned 76 of 300 buildings in the program at one point in fiscal year 2016. City records obtained by Gothamist indicate that a cluster shelter building on Intervale Avenue that is 15 units smaller brings in about $83,000 in rental income a month.

As longtime tenants moved out, shelter residents moved in, and the building deteriorated. There were mice and roach infestations. The building lacked security, according to Yates, and some of the shelter people came with their own problems. Tenants recalled stepping out to find people sleeping on the roof and under the stairs, people drinking, and smoking cigarettes, marijuana, and crack in the hallways.

“You’ve got to watch your kids a lot closer,” former tenant Alicia Galasso said of that time. Prior to that, she trusted her neighbors so much she didn’t lock her door. That changed. “You don’t know people now,” she remembered. “You don’t trust people.”

Tenants say building managers warned them that they couldn’t guarantee their safety if they stayed. In February 2013, the building’s renters received a letter that read, “Please be aware that the landlord is not renewing any leases in the building, at the present time. If you would like to terminate your lease, you will not be penalized.” It was signed, “The Management.” Outside of a handful of heavily regulated processes and taking over apartments for one’s family, landlords are legally barred from withholding renewal leases from rent-stabilized tenants.

Nevertheless, the tenants on Vyse got the message.

“Towards the end people had started just leaving quickly,” Galasso recalled. “They were evicting people, saying people owed rent that they didn’t owe, late fees built up on what they were claiming.”

Faced with the constant pressure and growing chaos, as well as a family illness, Galasso moved out of state, no buyout necessary.

The story doesn’t get any better but this is excellent reporting from Gothamist highlighting one of the many problems with the housing crisis we’re facing.”

Read the full story: Thousands Of Rent-Stabilized Apartments At Risk As NYC Phases Out Controversial Homeless Shelter Program


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Ed García Conde

Ed García Conde is a life-long Bronxite who spends his time documenting the people, places, and things that make the borough a special place in the hopes of dispelling the negative stereotypes associated with The Bronx. His writings are often cited by mainstream media and is often consulted for his expertise on the borough's rich history.