Mystery in Spanish Harlem

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Over the last decades, residents of the Pleasant East Apartments in East Harlem have learned to cope with their lackadaisical landlord by using their own money and labor to keep the building clean, tile the walls and floors, and make minor fixes.

So when their landlord, Albert Medina, finally gave up the buildings in early February, the tenants rejoiced. They had no idea they’d soon be getting the boot.

Medina had been getting federal rent and mortgage subsidies from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development through the Section 8 program in exchange for keeping rents low. After he had neglected the buildings for years, though, both the feds and the city public housing authority cut off his payments. On February 9, cash-strapped Medina turned the buildings over to HUD.

As soon as HUD took over, it quickly arranged for repairs and improvements, like a new temporary boiler, new security guards and repairs to the elevators. But three weeks later, tenants got an ugly surprise: a notice to evacuate. Due to “health, safety and security reasons,” the letter read, the 150-apartment complex would be closed July 1. Tenants would have to find a new place to live.

Housing officials say these eight buildings on 117th and 119th streets are in terrible condition. They scored only 2 of 100 on the agency’s 100-point evaluation scale, and only 5 of 100 on another independent rating. “[They] didn’t even come within spitting distance of being characterized as safe,” says HUD spokeswoman Sandi Abadinsky. “There are dead rats decaying in the walls, crime problems, heat problems–absolutely horrendous conditions, among the worst our inspectors have ever seen.”

But tenants are baffled by the assessment, and distraught that they’ll have to move. They also fear that the federal housing agency has another motive: to demolish the buildings, some of which border other vacant and developer-friendly property. ACORN organizers are now working with the tenants to help them stay in the buildings.

Carmen Estrada, who lives in a four-bedroom apartment on 119th Street, says her building’s in fine shape. “It’s in great condition,” she says. “These are strong structures with nice apartments. I feel very safe here.” A tour of about five other Pleasant East buildings also revealed few visible signs of distress or damage. HUD merely says that the apartments have a legion of minor problems: missing doors, leaking pipes, missing tiles, severe mold and rust.

“Some of the apartments are in good condition,” admits Abadinsky. Nevertheless, she adds, “it’s unsafe to live in. How can we spend taxpayer money to keep people in a building that will endanger their health and safety?”

Abadinsky emphasizes that the federal housing agency cannot afford to rehab the properties on its own–“HUD itself does not have the resources to invest in a building this bad,” she says–but insists the buildings would not be demolished, and says that any new owner would be required to maintain the buildings as affordable housing.

An agency architect is now doing an in-depth study to determine how much repairs will cost.

For now, HUD has promised to help the 120 families at Pleasant East find new apartments, and to compensate them for moving costs.

But the tenants don’t plan to go without a fight.

“It’s the kind of building where you leave your key under the doormat in case someone needs to get into your apartment,” says Josefa Garcia, who has lived for 25 years in Pleasant East. “Now they just want us to leave. How can they force us to live in places where we know no one?”