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Tenants Take Nonprofit Landlord to Court

January 13, 2009

1892In September, 57 tenants living in 1892 Morris Ave. took their nonprofit landlord, Mount Hope Housing Company, to court for neglecting the building and ignoring their maintenance requests.

The city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development’s (HPD) on-line database lists 438 open violations for the address. Forty-one are class C (immediately hazardous), 295 are class B (hazardous) and 102 are class A (non-hazardous). Many of the class C violations are rat-related.

“We’re living like dogs,” said Joyce Hilliard, a third floor resident and president of the tenants association.

Hilliard said a rat bit a sleeping boy about a year ago. Bernice King, the former president of the tenants association, said that rodents repeatedly chew out the insulation and wiring in the back of her stove.

Mount Hope attempted to address the rat infestation in the building last year by cleaning and locking the trash chutes, tenants say, but to no avail.

Residents now take their trash to bins located in the dimly lit alleyway outside, close to where fourth floor resident, David Perez, 17, said he was followed into the building in October and robbed of his cell phone at gunpoint.

Perez’s uncle attempted to obtain the video surveillance tape from Mount Hope but the cameras aren’t working, Perez said.

The elevators are another source of anxiety for Perez who has been stuck in them enough times now that he only takes the stairs.

This winter, the building has often been without heat and hot water, Hilliard added.

At a Housing Court hearing in November, Judge Herald R. Klein ordered Mount Hope Housing Company to fix all class C violations by Jan. 9, the date of their next hearing. But nothing changed said residents.

“We go through this process, we do the right thing but still nothing gets fixed,” Hilliard said.

At the Jan. 9 hearing, Klein adjourned the session until Feb. 17 – to the dismay of residents. 

Klein explained that the adjournment would allow Mount Hope more time to make progress on the repairs.

If they fail to substantially address the demands of the stipulation, tenants can file a motion of contempt, which, if successful, could result in fines for Mount Hope, said Urban Justice Center attorney Marie Tatro who is representing the tenants. 

Some residents have already taken matters into their own hands. Shortly after the November court ruling, tenants in 57 of the building’s 110 apartments – the same tenants who filed the Housing Part action – began withholding rent, Hilliard said.

Mount Hope Housing Company representatives declined to comment citing ongoing litigation. They advised residents with complaints to call their Customer Service Hotline at (866) 279-6388.

The Morris Avenue building, known as St. Edmunds Court, is Mount Hope’s flagship building, the first of 31 acquired by the organization, a non-profit founded in 1986 to address poor housing conditions in the area. They also provide youth development and job training services.  

Veteran resident Patricia Veal said that when she first moved into the building in 1989, Mount Hope staff “went the extra mile” to maintain the complex. She believes the high staff turnover is to blame for the falloff in building maintenance. 

Veal added, “I’m very disappointed with Mount Hope. There’s been a big change, [a] big decline.”

By REBECCA CHAO

Editor’s note: The Mount Hope Monitor is published with support from Mount Hope Housing Company.

Foster Quiet on Future Plans; Several Candidates Eye Her City Council Seat

January 13, 2009

FosterCouncil Member Helen Diane Foster will face a number of challengers should she decide to run for a third term in District 16, which includes the neighborhood of Morris Heights.

Last year, Foster was said to be mulling a run for Bronx borough president, but now that term limits have been extended, she may seek another four years in office when her current term expires at the end of 2009.

Foster failed to respond to phone calls seeking clarification, but the ongoing speculation surrounding her possible candidacy has had some candidates rethinking their plans.

Zena Nelson, president and founder of the South Bronx Food Cooperative, has already dropped out. “I don’t want to deal with the term limits issue going on and feel it’s more important for me to work on the food co-op than deal with politics,” she said.

Carolyn D. Jones, the community liaison for Bronx State Senator, Ruth Hassell-Thompson, will only run if Foster doesn’t, a spokesperson said, because Jones feels Foster is doing a good job and that unseating an incumbent is very difficult.

Candidate Daryl Johnson, 37, said he would run regardless of Foster’s decision. “The district needs much better representation,” he said. “Helen Foster has not been responsive to this community. She’s missed several important votes like congestion pricing. Her staff doesn’t know where she is half the time.”

Johnson pointed out that Foster once gave $127,000 in discretionary funds to the St. Barnabas Hospital Board of Trustees, to which her mother belongs. Since St. Barnabas is not located within District 16, Johnson said the money did not serve Foster’s constituents.

Echoing Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, Johnson’s slogan declares, “Change is coming, be a part of it.”  He hopes to bring change by offering “representation, accessibility and accountability.”

Some of Johnson’s ideas include providing free blood pressure checks in beauty salons, incorporating brain-cooling technology in hospitals to reduce the amount of brain damage for heart attack victims, and increasing local residents’ access to the Internet.

Johnson currently works for a Manhattan brokerage firm. He’s also the long-serving president of the Morris Avenue Tenants Coalition in Morrisania. His campaign Web site is at www.daryl2009.com.

Like Johnson, Carlos Sierra, a Community Board 4 board member, is a fresh face on the political scene. According to his campaign website (www.votesierra.com), he hopes that “one day our community will elect leaders that will put children, health and education as first priorities on their legislative agenda.”

Sierra said in an e-mail: “I have been involved with the community, knocking on doors, and walking down the street with my neighbors. The realities of our economy are placing extra pressure on an already stressed community. We are going to need someone who has come from the trenches to fight in the trenches. I am that person, and I feel that when it comes to District 16 I am the person who will do the best job.”

Sierra came to the Bronx from the Dominican Republic at age 14, unable to speak English and forced to bag groceries to provide for his family. He realized that he “needed to do more,” so he enrolled at Bronx Community College and acquired a Bachelor’s degree at Lehman College.

In 2005, Sierra won an Edward T. Rogowsky internship and interned in Washington, D.C. for Congressman Jose Serrano.  “Congressman Serrano showed me that helping people through public office was a real possibility,” he said.

Adrianne Moses, a Community Board 3 board member and a longtime education advocate, is also running, according to the city’s Campaign Finance Board. Moses didn’t return a reporter’s calls to confirm her candidacy, and doesn’t appear to have a campaign Web site.

Joel R. Rivera, who runs a youth program at Latino Pastoral Action Center (LPAC) in Highbridge, is yet another candidate. Rivera (no relation to Bronx Council Member Joel Rivera) couldn’t be reached by press time. He has a campaign Web site at www.electjoelrrivera.com.

Elsewhere in the west Bronx, Council Member Maria Baez (District 14) has already stated her intention to run for a third term. Like Foster, Baez was term limited – meaning she was blocked from seeking another term in office – until the City Council voted to extend term limits in the fall.

The primaries will be held in September; the elections in November.

 By REBECCA CHAO

School Community Protests MS 399’s Slated Closure

January 9, 2009

More than 150 teachers, students, parents, and supporters rallied outside the Elizabeth Barrett Browning Middle School 399 on Dec. 17 to protest the Department of Education’s decision to close the school through a phaseout process and replace it with two smaller schools.

The sixth through eighth grade school, on 184th Street at Creston Avenue, currently enrolls 712 students. It will no longer accept new students and will shrink a grade at the end of this school year and again in 2010. Meanwhile, two new middle schools will move into the building in September and finally bump out MS 399 in 2011.

Department of Education (DOE) officials notified MS 399 on Dec. 8 amid several weeks of closure announcements. In all, 13 schools across the city are being shut down in this latest round of cuts.

MS 399′s closure is somewhat controversial.

The Children First program, the brainchild of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, began issuing annual progress reports and quality review assessments in 2007. Some schools that have received a progress report grade of D or F, or a quality review score of “less than ‘proficient,’” are being phased out, along with low-scoring schools that have failed to improve over time.

MS 399

MS 399 received a grade D in its 2007/08 progress report and a C for the year prior. But the school was deemed “proficient” in its quality reviews for both academic years.

The school community feels MS 399′s closure is arbitrary and unfair. “Phase out Klein, not 399,” was the persistent and collective chant at the rally.

Representatives from the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), a union, also attended the gathering to voice fury over the school’s closure.

Vincent Wojsnis, a UFT Chapter Leader for MS 399 and a teacher at the school, said the phaseout is history repeating itself. MS 399 moved into the 100-year-old building in 1998 to replace MS 319, which phased out in 2000. Before MS 319, there was another school and before that there were more, he said.

Wojsnis explained that though MS 399 has a history of poor scores, violence, and high staff turnover, former principal Yolanda Torres succeeded in smoothing the school’s gravelly terrain from 2001 to 2006 by reducing gang activity and promoting school unity.

MS 399 was taken off the state’s list of persistently dangerous schools, and the school selected a mascot (a panther), developed a school uniform policy, and cultivated an energetic and vocal student council. Unlike other struggling schools, MS 399 maintains an active and functioning parent association and leadership council, Wojsnis said.

“The school is now one of the safest places in the neighborhood,” he continued, adding that the current principal, Angelo Ledda, has been working hard to build on the gains made by Torres.

The DOE uses the English Language Arts (ELA) and Math scores when evaluating a school’s performance on the progress report. MS 399′s math scores improved in the 2007/08 school year, but ELA scores plummeted, dragging the overall progress report grade down to a D.

Wojsnis said the drop was “a blip,” as ELA scores had been increasing steadily over the last five years. The neighborhood’s large and growing immigrant population, reflected in the school’s demographics, makes it difficult for MS 399 to achieve high ELA scores, he said. Approximately a third of the school is “limited English proficient,” according to DOE statistics.

“I feel like we’re being penalized because of our immigrant population,” Wojsnis said. He feels the decision to close the school was based primarily on students’ ELA and math scores. “They didn’t look at the other stuff,” he said.

The “other stuff” includes the quality reviews for which the school received “proficient” ratings.

Though class sizes remain the same, the reduced student population allows for more individual attention to students, said DOE spokeswoman, Melody Myers. Smaller schools also encourage collaboration between teachers of the same students rather than just by department. “A social studies teacher with a low-achieving student could work with the student’s English teacher to help the student,” Myers said, adding that any change made to the school is done “to improve student outcomes.”

Wojsnis disagrees. While small group settings are very effective in helping students, smaller schools with unchanged class sizes are not, he said.

MS 399 seventh graders, Michael, Bryant, and Jeffrey, said they were sad to hear about the school’s impending closure. “It’s a good school and it’s only a few kids who mess up,” Michael said.

Yolanda Negron, who has taught ESL at MS 399 for the past 15 years, appeared resigned about the closing. “It doesn’t make a difference,” she said. Shutting down the school is simply “giving it a new number.”

By REBECCA CHAO

Chavez’s Heating Oil Program Goes Up in Smoke

January 6, 2009

SEE UPDATE BELOW

For the past three winters, CITGO Petrolium, a Houston-based oil company and a subsidiary of Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A., has provided several Bronx landlords with low cost heating oil on the condition that they pass the savings onto tenants. The program was expected to continue in 2009, but a press release sent out yesterday announced its suspension.

In the statement, Joseph Kennedy, president of Citizen Energy Corporation, an organization that helped administer the program, said:

Citizen Energy has recently been informed by CITGO that due to falling oil prices and the world economic crisis, CITGO has been forced to re-evaluate all the their social programs, including the heating oil program, which has provided hundreds of thousands of low-income U.S. households with much-needed fuel these past three years. As a result, the heating oil program has been suspended until further notice. It remains unclear how long this postponement, if it is one, will last.

Mount Hope Housing Company, a non-profit that owns and manages 31 buildings in the west Bronx, is one of the affected landlords. “It’s a big hit,” said Pamela Babb, vice-president of development and communications. She said the program also helped fund a number of Mount Hope’s youth programs.

The program had its detractors because of its ties to firebrand Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. The New York Post, for example, reported CITGO’s troubles and the program’s suspension with obvious glee in an editorial today.

But it had it’s supporters too. “The program serves low-income people struggling to make ends meet and serves them well,” Congressman Jose Serrano told the Mount Hope Monitor in 2007. “People who criticize this program because of its linkage to Venezuela and President Chavez are missing the point. There is no shame in a political agenda which helps the poor to lead a better life in any nation.”

Patrice McGleese, a Mount Hope Housing Company tenant who lives in 1895 Walton Ave., said the program saved her more than $100 a month each winter. “It’s unfortunate it’s coming to an end… at a time when every dime counts,” she said. “Perhaps when the economy comes around they [CITGO] will be able to do it again.”

UPDATE (Jan. 7)

CITGO’s heating oil program – which provides discounted fuel to thousands of low-income Bronx residents each winter – will continue in 2009 after all, according to a press release from Congressman Jose Serrano.

On Monday, Citizens Energy Corporation released a statement saying the program had been suspended “due to falling oil prices and the world economic crisis.”

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January 1, 2009

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