A Dissident Bumps Against The Status Quo At Taino

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“Damaged Dreams: The Failure of Community Control at Taino Towers” was the name of an article published in City Limits in December 1991. The story detailed the struggles of low-income residents trying to get their housing problems addressed through an ineffectual board and unresponsive management at one of the largest nonprofit and community-owned, yet federally subsidized, rental properties in New York City.

Conflict about management still seems to be a regular part of life at the complex, at least for some. Nearly 18 years later, no one living at Taino Towers today can say that everything there is perfect—Taino’s boilers burst this winter, for instance, and the board’s management recently announced to residents that it secured $3 million to perform needed renovations on the complex’s 15 elevators.

(City Limits also covered Taino in 1979 when it first opened, an article updated here.)

But on Wednesday night last week, more than 150 tenants and a variety of local elected and appointed officials in East Harlem gathered in the cavernous basement gymnasium at the towers to express support for the management of Maria Cruz, the building’s executive director, and give notice to anyone criticizing the towers’ leadership to back off.

With giant posters bearing slogans like “Taino Towers: The Pride of East Harlem” in the background, Taino board chairwoman Lilliana Billini demanded a written apology from local Assemblyman Adam Clayton Powell, who held a press conference the week before alleging illegitimate board elections and fraudulent building operations by the complex’s management.

“Mr. Powell, we want our apology. We are tired of being abused by your office,” said Billini to a raucous chorus of shouts and applause.
The press release from Powell’s office, distributed among residents of the building’s 656 apartments early this month, calls for an investigation into a violation of by-laws by board members during an election and annual meeting in 2006. The advisory also alleges “complete and total mismanagement” by both the board’s leadership and longtime management firm ARCO in maintaining the towers.

Evette Zayas, a 25-year Taino Towers resident and the chief of staff for Powell’s office since 2003, says she circulated the release on behalf of building residents kept in the dark about how the towers are run, and too afraid to speak out about the board’s decisions concerning the sprawling complex of four 35-story buildings that takes up the square block between 122nd and 123rd Streets and Second and Third Avenues.

“What we’re trying to do is open the eyes of the tenants so years down the line, they don’t say the building has gone into foreclosure,” says Zayas.

She maintains that her proposals to expand the number of meetings held by the board with the building’s residents (which are currently held once a year), and distribute the minutes of monthly meetings among tenants, were subverted by both the board as well as management during the 2006 annual meeting.

“This is a low-income co-op,” says Zayas, who advocates greater tenant self-determination, “and they bypassed procedures” in the 2006 elections.

Zayas believes that maintenance at the complex has suffered as a result of the board’s ineffectiveness, and that the board has not taken advantage – despite her offers – of her access to a member of the state legislature and his influence.

But some residents and board members allege a different motive for Zayas’ concern, namely her removal from the executive board in 2000 and the failure of several of her bids at re-election.

“[Zayas] distributed flyers up and down the building, but where’s her support?” asked Edward Gibbs, a resident who protested at Powell’s press event on June 2.

“It’s a control manipulation thing, Adam Powell is a state assemblyman, she is Adam Powell’s chief of staff, so if she doesn’t get her way she calls Adam Powell,” Gibbs said.

The board for Taino towers, through its lawyer Jesse Baker, declined to refute the allegations listed in the press release in detail, citing a lack of evidence from Zayas that any of the board’s by-laws have been violated and standing by their contention that the handling of board elections is done openly in front of the building’s residents.

“If there is someone who is dissatisfied with the business of Taino towers and the way Taino towers is being run, there are steps and there are ways that this can be addressed…This is an attempt to simply smear the board and smear management over their past performances,” Baker said to the assembled.

Baker said during the meeting that any disputes over the way the complex is run should be taken to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development since the towers are a private, yet federally subsidized housing complex.
Tom Waters, senior housing policy analyst with the Community Service Society, says HUD can indeed foreclose on a property it insures if maintenance conditions are poor, regardless of whether the building is controlled by tenants.

But HUD spokesman Adam Glantz says that there have been no formal complaints filed with their agency from either tenants living in the towers or from the non-profit’s board of directors.

ARCO Management President Jeffrey Gold also addressed the audience during the general meeting, thanking the board for what he describes as a “tireless” willingness to work on building issues with his company – which runs the complex day to day – and pointing out that they submit financial audits of Taino operations to HUD.

A powerful person in decisions regarding the operation of Taino towers didn’t have to say a word at last week’s evening gathering, however, as everyone from elected officials to local community figures praised the contributions of Maria Cruz, the complex’s executive manager, for opening the building’s facilities to various community organizations in East Harlem and helping to make the lives of residents safer through the installation of a security gate and surveillance cameras three years ago.

Miguel Soto, 27, a lifelong East Harlem resident and a superintendent at the building for two years, remembers a time when the towers were thought of as “one of the worst blocks in East Harlem.”

And while Soto believes that Taino management is doing what it can as a privately run building without, say, the institutional support of the New York City Housing Authority – which runs many other building in the neighborhood – he also says residents who are critical of problems in their apartments need to be proactive.

“We’re looking for people to come in and give us constructive criticism, not to discredit us but to try to improve” the property, he said.

Zayas said she was hardly cowed by the general meeting on Wednesday, likening it to little more than an orchestrated pep rally for the board and management. And although the next general meeting and elections for new leadership at the board will be held this November, Zayas isn’t hopeful that the board will be open to her suggestions for reform. After all, the makeup would be different if they had followed the rules she thinks they should, requiring more turnover in membership.

“[The board] has been violating the by-laws since 1991 and they’re still violating them,” she maintains.

– Nekoro Gomes

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