Shekeema Peters woke up one Saturday morning to the smell of sewage emanating from the ground floor of her apartment building.
After working 12 consecutive days as a medical assistant, Peters had planned to use her two days off to unwind and take care of her young daughter, Mikayla. Donning sweatpants and slippers, she went down to the lobby, only to watch as an inch of wastewater flowed into the elevator through the opening doors.
“It was brown goo and water everywhere,” Peters said. The backup happened again a week later, forcing Peters to carry Mikayla through the lobby on the way to the school bus. “That is the most disgusting thing. You can smell it. It’s so bad. It’s so unhealthy,” she said.
The wastewater is just one of the maintenance issues that have prompted a firestorm of controversy surrounding the Charles Inniss Houses on 132nd Street and Broadway, a project that emerged more than a decade ago as a joint initiative between two local nonprofits: Harlem Congregations for Community Improvement and Neighborhood Artists.
HCCI, which is comprised of Harlem-based churches, maintains that it has been prompt in responding to work orders in the development, and asserts that some maintenance issues are the fault of the residents rather than poor management.
But Neighborhood Artists, a local organization providing arts education to the homeless and indigent, has begun a publicity campaign intended to galvanize residents against HCCI, claiming that HCCI has perpetuated low living standards in the building while illegally funneling money out of the development and unfairly excluding Neighborhood Artists from management decisions.
The war of words between the two organizations escalated two weeks ago, when the New York Post ran an article echoing many of Neighborhood Artists’ allegations against HCCI. Derek Broomes, president and CEO of HCCI, responded with an open letter to the Post, calling the article “misleading” and demanding a public retraction.
‘This building is a time bomb’
The walls of Peters’ apartment are painted an inconsistent white with some areas more pronounced as a result of layers of extra paint. Opposite the kitchen, the wall is divided into two right triangles by a large patch of gray, applied to cover up the mold growing from the water-damaged beams.
A structural problem with the roof means rainwater and melted snow routinely flow down into the walls of the building, causing mold to emerge on surfaces both within individual apartments and inside stairwells. In some patches, a single stripe of white paint covers up the damage, while the outlines of persistent black mold are visible in other areas.
Tenants say that water damage and mold are routine problems in the building. It’s an especially big issue for the Peters family—Mikayla has a tracheotomy as a result of childhood laryngomalacia, which causes the soft cartilage of her upper larynx to obstruct her breathing, and the mold could make it worse.
“My wall just cracked along the door. The beams are cracking in my roof. I don’t want to come in here one day and see my beams on the floor,” Peters said. “This building is a time bomb ticking because it’s going to cave in on us.”
Photos of the building interior over the last year, provided by Peters, show puddles of water forming bulges in the ceiling, as well as collapsing light fixtures and growing patches of mold, the results of water damage.
As a result of the building failing city inspections, Peters lost her Section 8 affordable housing vouchers earlier this year, and only had them restored a few weeks ago. Losing these vouchers permanently would require impoverished tenants to pay rent at the market rate.
“Put it this way: No one here will live in an HCCI building ever again,” resident Andre Smith said. When residents ask for repairs, they are “ignored, placated, and then eventually they show up and do patchwork.”
In the winter, Peters said, she has to put plastic on her windows in an effort to trap as much of the spotty heat as possible. She added that she often burns out her oven on cold mornings in order to provide enough warmth for her daughter.
Who is to blame?
HCCI handled building maintenance until 2010, when it transferred the responsibility to WinnResidential, a property management firm based in Boston. Although Neighborhood Artists President Lavern Williams says HCCI was coerced into this transition following complaints of poor management submitted to the state, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development failed to confirm whether that was the case.
In an email, an HPD spokesman called this move a product of a “joint decision” between HCCI and HPD. When reached for further comment, both the spokesman and HCCI declined to elaborate on what this meant. HCCI wrote in an email that it “agreed with HPD.”
Regardless, Williams places the blame for the current conditions squarely on the shoulders of HCCI, arguing that the organization was not concerned with living standards so much as with turning a profit on the building.
“I don’t think they had our desire to work with homeless people in a serious effort. If it didn’t have dollars and cents attached to it, it was null and void to them,” he said.
However, in an interview last week, Phil Lavoie, a divisional vice president for Winn in charge of the company’s New York portfolio, said the firm had been responsive to tenant maintenance needs, and had performed more than just patchwork repairs.
“We have proof that the restoration occurred,” Lavoie said, adding that problems were only left unrepaired if tenants did not grant access to the space.
Similarly, in the open letter to the Post, Broomes said HCCI buildings were “universally … well maintained.”
The issue of sewage backups has been a major point of contention between the two parties. Williams maintains that HCCI was negligent, and that Neighborhood Artists first brought the backups to the state’s attention in 2010, while HCCI asserts it was the first to do so.
In September 2010, contractors for the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance filed a report on their examination of the building. The report, which was obtained by Spectator, suggests that routine clogging of the drainage system with household items like towels and diapers was responsible for the backups.
The report “revealed certain foreign objects in the sewer line,” said Malcolm Punter, executive vice president of HCCI, who also pointed to a notice Winn had posted in the building on Oct. 7 urging residents not to force household items down the drain. “Those are considered acts of deliberate obstruction of the sewer line.”
However, the report also warns about the need for repairing the structural issues in the roof and adding waterproof decking, neither of which has happened yet.
Fixing the problems
Broomes added that HCCI had applied for state assistance for the mold issue, and said the organization is doing its best to create a livable environment for the tenants using limited funds and despite financial stress.
According to audits released for 2007-2009, HCCI seems strapped for cash on certain repairs. The development was consistently losing money on operating costs and building depreciation, the latter likely a result of the economic recession. In 2008, the development lost roughly $115,000 in net assets and set aside roughly $20,000 for maintenance.
Losses remained constant the following year, with maintenance costs increasing to more than $50,000. Then property management was transferred to Winn, and HCCI did not respond to requests for current audit reports.
Broomes said that the building was still losing money now, that any unplanned repairs had to come from money set aside for charitable purposes, and that HCCI’s dedication to the building was reflected in its willingness to make those repairs.
“You fix something, but you don’t have in your budget the contingency that the glass is going to be broken,” he said. “A student in a computer after-school program is going to lose a seat because we have to pull money to fix the glass.”
Williams was not so forgiving, pointing to the roughly $240 million in government grants HCCI has received and arguing that funding for Charles Inniss had been “squandered to the hilt.”
“As a Christian, I’m embarrassed to say the least for the average minister that is on the HCCI board, or have affiliations with them,” he said. “They should be horse-whipped.”
Despite the conflict, residents like Peters say they just want the building to be safe, regardless of who owns or manages it.
“I’m not in a position where I can move right now. I don’t have the money, so I can’t just pack up and move to the Bronx,” she said. “If we have to live here, can we at least live in good conditions? Can it at least be safe?”
This is the first part of a two-part article on problems with the Charles Inniss Development on 132nd Street and Broadway. The second installment, in tomorrow’s paper, will focus on the history behind the management struggle at the development, as well as allegations of financial fraud that Neighborhood Artists is leveling at HCCI.