According to a recent story in the New York Daily News, 90 apartments in Ocean Village, the 11-building ocean-front complex between Beach 56th and Beach 59th streets and Shore Front Parkway in the Arverne section of the storm-ravaged Rockaways, are “off limits” for health and safety reasons. “Water infiltration has created mounting physical issues including mold growth,” the story noted, quoting a report by the head of the New York City Housing Development Corporation, Marc Jahr.
Strikingly, however, the News article was published about three weeks before the storm hit and the residents of Ocean Village—whose name conjures images of a quaint seaside resort that belie the complex’s Brutalist aesthetic—were plunged, like so many others on the narrow peninsula, into more than two weeks of frigid darkness without running water.
According to a woman who was escaping the “madhouse” for some fresh air in the complex’s barren courtyard on November 10th, people were “running up and down the halls at night” and relieving themselves in the darkened stairwells.
One lady in her seventies said she had barricaded herself inside her second floor apartment every night since the power went out.
“People breaking into people’s houses, you’re scared to leave your homes. And there ain’t no police at night,” the woman in the courtyard sighed.
“The wrong things happens when the lights is out,” nodded a dazed-looking man in his twenties wearing a wool cap pulled down to his eyes.
Ocean Village, or O.V. as it is known to locals, sustained significant flooding and related damage during the storm, according to management. And the complex didn’t get its generators—procured from out of state and the Army Corps of Engineers—until almost two weeks after Sandy hit and days after nearby NYCHA buildings had theirs, because, according to a spokesman, “[as] Ocean Village is a private residential complex, we did not benefit from the same immediate Federal response as New York City Housing Authority buildings in the area.” (There were several privately-owned high-rises in the area that had generators up and running before the NYCHA buildings did; it was unclear whether those buildings already had generators on-site.)
As of last Thursday, all but two of the Ocean Village buildings had power. Apparently, saltwater damaged the connections to the transformer and management says it’s working with electrical engineers to correct the problem. In the meantime, those buildings were running on generators. Higher floors were still without running water.
Before the storm
Living in less than hospitable conditions is apparently nothing new for Ocean Village residents, though it didn’t start out that way. The complex was built between 1972 and 1974, on the heels of a “slum clearance” program that razed thousands of bungalows in the eastern part of the Rockaway Peninsula that the city had been using to house the subsidized poor since the late 1940’s, when the area fell out of favor as a summer retreat.
In their stead, the city built dozens of public housing buildings, filling them with those the “clearance” had displaced. It also used state and federal funding to develop dozens of nursing homes in the area. Jonathan Gaska, who has been the district manager of Community Board 14 for 23 years, has long decried what he sees as the city’s traditional treatment of the Rockaways as a human dumping ground. In 2008 Gaska told a reporter that “if you were a problem tenant in public housing, NYCHA sent you here. If you didn’t have a job and weren’t going to get one, then this was the place for you. When the state government started closing their hospitals, they began placing those with mental disabilities here, but without any services.”
Ocean Village was not built as public housing but as a part of the states’s Mitchell-Lama program, under which cities acquired property by eminent domain and provided it to developers to create housing for low and middle-income tenants. Developers received low-interest mortgages, subsidized by the federal, state, or New York City government (Ocean Village was financed with a mortgage loan provided by the New York State Urban Development Corporation, or UDC) as well as tax abatements as long as they stayed in the program.
While long-term residents recall Ocean Village’s better days, according to an August 2012 Housing Development Corporation memo, the property began experiencing financial difficulties early on. In 1984, the UDC and its subsidiary, the New York State Mortgage Loan Enforcement and Administration, began foreclosure actions against the property; while a workout agreement was ultimately reached, the loan has accrued interest totaling $139,000,000 (the original mortgage was $42,198,000). The property has also been operating at a loss since 2008 and currently owes close to $2 million in water and sewer fees and taxes and has deferred capital needs that total approximately $55 million.
Given its financial condition, it is hardly surprising that Ocean Village’s physical condition has also deteriorated. In 2009 and 2010 the property—which comprises 1,093 units, 10 percent of which are eligible for Section 8 subsidies—received HUD inspection scores of 41 and 59 (out of 100) respectively, ratings that were among the lowest in the country and were accompanied by a designation indicating that one or more exigent fire safety/health and safety deficiencies were observed. (In addition to Section 8 subsidies, Ocean Village also receives monthly Interest Reduction Subsidies from HUD.)
Death and deprivation
The property also has 17 open DOB violations, mostly related to its elevators, some going back as far as 1993. In fact, the death of a security guard by fire in an elevator on Christmas night in 2004 brought attention not only to problems with Ocean Village’s elevators, which had received 12 safety citations in the decade prior, but also to the fact that the public fire extinguisher was in a locked cabinet to which only the security guard had a key—a measure often taken to prevent vandalism. The fire was started in hallway trash can by two teenage boys who had also been setting Christmas decorations on fire; the guard, attempting to remove the smoldering trash bin from the building to protect residents, was burned to death in the building’s slow-moving elevator.
In the summer of 2005, a problem with Ocean Village’s electrical equipment resulted in a three-day blackout, leaving residents without power and, as a result, lights, air conditioning, elevator service and water. The Red Cross and the local ambulance corps came in to assist tenants, some of whom told newspapers that elevators in the complex broke down routinely, stranding elderly residents in the lobby or trapping them in apartments.
Ocean Village’s deteriorated physical plant is not the only threat to residents; violent crime has also plagued the complex, which many locals say has become more dangerous than the area’s notorious public housing projects. Just last June a 23-year-old man was shot outside O.V. in what was believed to be retaliation for another shooting death the month before. The police told the local paper The Wave that a war between two rival gangs had caused the number of gun-related incidents to “skyrocket in recent weeks.”
In the spring of 2011, two Ocean Village residents and another man from Far Rockaway committed armed robbery against four people in another Ocean Village apartment, battering two of their victims in the face with a firearm. In 2010, Queens District Attorney Richard Brown charged 36 people—including a 12 year-old girl—with drug-related charges after a five-month undercover investigation targeting Ocean Village and another housing complex.
Not surprisingly, Ocean Village has had trouble attracting tenants in recent years, and as of July had 315 vacancies.
Multimillion-dollar rescue plan
But Ocean Village’s fortunes should soon improve, now that a long-planned sale of the complex to L+M Development Partners closed last Friday. L+M, which was founded in 1984, has built over 8,000 units of affordable and market-rate housing in the tri-state area, including apartments that transformed what had once been considered one of the worst blocks in Harlem. There, the developers built specifically for low- and middle-income residents, with some apartments designated for people who make less than $35,000 a year and others reserved for those earning over $80,000.
The proposed Ocean Village deal was outlined in the August HDC memo, which recommended the approval by the HDC of a construction loan not to exceed $110,000,000 to finance the “acquisition and preservation” of Ocean Village in accordance with the Corporation’s Mitchell-Lama Restructuring Program.
L+M spokesperson Maya Kriet noted that Ocean Village “will remain 100 percent affordable to moderate income individuals and families pursuant to the Mitchell-Lama housing program” and will maintain its project-based Section 8 contract, which means HUD will continue to provide rental subsidies for about 10 perecnt of its units. She also said the new owners “anticipate that the vast majority of all Ocean Village tenants will receive Section 8 vouchers as a result of the transaction.”
The scope of work, which is scheduled to begin this month, will include, according to Kriet, “items such as kitchen and bathroom upgrades, security improvements, landscaping, facade restoration, and roof replacement, all with an eye towards sustainability and energy efficiency.” The construction will be carried out by L+M Builders, the construction division of L+M. C&C Affordable Management, L+M’s management arm, will manage the property.
In spite of the immediate challenges posed by the effects of the storm the new owners, according to C&C CEO Richard Doetsch, “are looking forward to helping to re-stabilize the community and keep Ocean Village families in safe, high-quality homes for the long-term.”
Those are welcome words to folks like Milan Taylor, the founder and President of the Rockaway Youth Task Force, a two-year-old youth empowerment organization that has been active in civic and community issues and several of whose members live in Ocean Village. Taylor, concerned about the poverty and violence in his community long before the storm, is fearful that the economic and social instability Sandy wrought could result in even more desperation and crime. For Taylor, “if the new [owners are] as honest as they claim to be, [this] sounds like a true blessing for the residents of Ocean Village.”