Over the last decades, the 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, turned the buildings over to the federal Department of Housing Urban Development on February 9, the tenants rejoiced.
They had no idea they’d soon be getting the boot.
Medina had been getting federal rent and mortgage subsidies from HUD in exchange for keeping rents low, but he neglected the building for so long that the agency cut off his cash flow. After he turned over the mortgage, HUD quickly arranged for repairs and improvements, like a new temporary boiler, new security guards and repairs to the elevators.
Then, just three weeks later, the 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 on July 1.
According to housing officials, these eight buildings on 117th and 119th are in terrible condition, earning a score of only 2 on the agency’s 100-point evaluation scale.
“[They] didn’t even come within spitting distance of being characterized as safe,” said HUD spokesperson 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. Carmen Estrada, who lives in a four-bedroom apartment on 119th Street, pointed out new paint and tile. The building was clean, and the apartment in good shape: her biggest problem is a closet door that has fallen off its track.
“It’s in great condition,” she said. “These are strong structures with nice apartments. I feel very safe here.”
A tour of other Pleasant East buildings also revealed few signs of distress or damage, and HUD has not been forthcoming with specifics on what’s wrong with the building. “Some of the apartments are in good condition,” admitted spokesperson Abadinsky. Nevertheless, she added, “it’s unsafe to live in. I know structure is part of it–I don’t have the exact details.”
An agency architect is now doing an in-depth study to determine how much repairs will cost. Abadinsky emphasized that the federal housing agency would not keep the properties–“HUD itself does not have the resources to invest in a building this bad,” she said–but that any new owner would be required to maintain the buildings as affordable housing. According to ACORN organizer Peter Santiago, who is working with the tenants, one federal official estimated that repairs would cost $9 million.
For now, HUD has promised to help the 120 families at Pleasant East find new apartments, and 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 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?”