HARLEM TENANTS LEFT IN THE DARK

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It was one of the last promises he made before changing gigs from HUD secretary to gubernatorial candidate. In mid- January, Andrew Cuomo told tenants who live in about 125 Harlem buildings included in the biggest housing scam there in memory that his agency would make sure their buildings were safe and habitable.

Now, nearly two months later, hundreds of tenants still suffer with the legacy of the scandal, in which real estate speculators defrauded HUD’s 203(k) program. About 40 inhabited buildings still require emergency repairs, for everything from major leaks to collapsing ceilings. Many still do not have heat and hot water. And last week, the lights went out at 258 West 132nd Street, after $9,000 in electric bills went unpaid.

Under the agreement forged between the feds and M&T Bank and Firstar, the financial institutions foreclosing on tens of millions in unpaid mortgages on the buildings, the banks are supposed to fund emergency repairs and pay bills. HUD, in turn, is required to reimburse them.

M&T has a staffer assigned to building maintenance. But while the banks have attended to problems in some buildings, in others help is nowhere to be found. “This situation is a crisis, and HUD isn’t responding as if it’s a crisis,” said Craig Willse of Goddard Riverside’s SRO Law Project, which is advocating on behalf of the tenants. His organization maintains that HUD should be putting more pressure on the banks.

But Amy Stewart, who is managing the foreclosure on a number of the Firstar mortgages, maintains her bank is doing everything it can and should be to make repairs. Tenants at 258 West 132nd Street “don’t pay rent, they don’t pay utilities,” she snapped. “They’re living there scot-free and now they’re arguing with us about heat and hot water. They’ve been without it for years. Can’t they wait a little longer?”

She claims HUD bears responsibility for delays in fixing the building’s long-defunct boiler system, since the feds demand bids from multiple contractors for each repair job. HUD, however, insists that it authorizes funds immediately for emergency repairs. Standing behind his agency’s commitment to assure emergency repairs at the nearly 500 brownstones around the city affected by the scandal, HUD housing specialist Manny Alvarado told City Limits, “We remain fully committed that all these tenants will receive essential services.”

Right now, tenants want action from whoever will take it. The cold has inflamed arthritic knees and diabetic episodes, and pushed some residents to keep portable gas stoves burning all day and night for warmth. “All I know is that somebody, somewhere doesn’t gave a damn about how we live,” said resident Eddie Ilich. “I just don’t know who.”