Dilapidation and Death on Avenue C, December 1979

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As swaths of the Lower East Side are renovated to accommodate well-heeled newcomers, in some corners the squalid conditions of the old neighborhood endure. Residents of 167 Avenue C say their building is falling apart and that the landlord is ignoring calls for repairs.

In one apartment, warped paint and saturated gypsum bulge from the walls. When the toilet in the apartment upstairs gets clogged up, the filthy water seeps through the ceiling and down the walls. At night, rats and roaches creep in through gaping holes in the floor. Their landlord, as it has been for decades, is the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development.

“You can’t even clean something and feel good about it because the [floor] tile crumbles right underneath you,” says Audrey Carney, who has lived in the building with her husband, Thomas, since 1989. Carney adds that past repairs to the apartment only made things worse, with ill-trained workmen using shoddy materials that fell apart after a few months. When gas service was cut off for nearly 11 months last year, the Carneys were forced to cook on single-burner hot plates issued by the city.

Such conditions are not new to the building. In 1979, City Limits reported the death of 63-year-old Abraham Weber, in an apartment at 167 Avenue C that neighbors said had no heat.

Today, the Carneys say that while there is usually heat in the winter, the radiators often malfunction, giving off plumes of steam that have ruined their furniture. At other times, they have lacked electricity.

“Unfortunately, what happened in 1979 can still happen in 2001,” says Margaret Hughes, executive director of Good Old Lower East Side, a 24-year-old tenant advocacy organization. Hughes notes that the city is going out of the business of being a landlord and has transferred ownership of many buildings to private owners. “But most of the time they’re doing that by giving these buildings or selling them to the kinds of landlords who have caused the buildings to go into the city’s hands in the first place.”

Yet this building and its neighbors at 163 and 165 Avenue C are so decrepit that the city has never even tried to find a buyer. An HPD spokeswoman says the city has no plans to divest itself of the property.

Nor are the tenants–recent immigrants, the seriously infirm, and members of the Latin Kings gang among them–ready candidates to take over the buildings themselves, not without serious outside assistance.

A helping hand is what Councilmember Margarita Lopez is now attempting to arrange for them. She recommended that the tenants take ownership of their buildings under the city’s Tenant Interim Lease II program. Residents would be able purchase the building, and a nonprofit organization would rehabilitate the apartments with construction loans from HPD. Finally, the tenants would get intensive training in how to manage the building themselves and operate it as a low-income co-op.

“These three buildings are a perfect example of what’s wrong with the way the city manages its property,” says Lopez. HPD has had several different managers for the building over recent years. But life in the building remains a daily struggle to keep things from falling apart. Carlos Aguilar, who has lived in the building since 1980 with his wife, Carla, long ago gave up on expecting HPD to make repairs. After contractors made numerous failed attempts to fix leaks, Aguilar rigged his own drainage system to keep the water from ruining everything. Says Aguilar, “I finally bought a big book at Home Depot and did it myself.”

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