By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
But Epstein reasons that NEP drains low-income housing from communities in a few ways. First, entrepreneurs have evicted some NEP tenants who have not been paying rent to HPD. Second, NEP apartments become rent- stabilized at rates set by HPD and the Partnership and registered with the state. Some tenants may not pay the registered rent, which is about 20 per cent higher than the rent charged and rises yearly. When a longtime tenant leaves a low-rent apartment, the next tenant pays the steadily risen registered rent, which may even hit $2000 and become entirely deregulated. "Each of these are incremental steps: evictions get low-income people out of the apartments, and rent hikes make affordable apartments unaffordable."
Armstrong says eviction is only a last-ditch resort. "We recognize people have been living in horrible conditions, but they need to let us know what repairs need to be fixed if they're withholding their rent," he says. "Because when managers take over, we expect tenants to start paying the rent."
Even if tenants were returned to their original apartments, and even if there were no fear of losing Harlem as an affordable community, the prospect of going through NEP is daunting, especially for seniors.
"They say they're going to come and move me with one truck in one load," says Josephine Richardson, surrounded by six rooms of furniture and keepsakes. "They said we could come back, but they're going to make it from three bedrooms to two," which would create an impossible situation, since Richardson lives with a grown son, daughter, and granddaughter. "It's truly aggravating. I'm not looking for an apartment on Park Avenue. I just want a decent place that I can move to with my family and my furniture."
For Odell Johnson, who was a long-time neighbor of Maxine Newman's at 2071 Fifth Avenue, the process has been harrowing. Last October, the 60-year-old Johnson came home to find his usually orderly eight-room apartment ransacked. Johnson says contractors working for Syn-Moie tore through the place, taking a suede coat, a watch, and a camera, among other things. Syn-Moie and Armstrong say the contractors made a mistake, thinking the apartment had been abandoned. "If Mr. Johnson will itemize what he lost, we'll do what we can to replace the property," says Armstrong. "It's a no-brainer."
Things worsened after December, when Syn-Moie relocated Johnson to a studio at 125th Street and Fifth Avenue. One midnight in February, Johnson says, a man with a knife tried to mug him at the doorway to his new home. "I made such a holler," says Johnson, "that he just ran off." Syn-Moie says he's installing security cameras at the building but adds, "The fact is, I can't control what happens outside a building."
Indeed, it is within NEP buildings that the program's promises materialize, and to make the point, the Partnership regularly sends reporters, politicians, and others to 228 West 140th Street, renovated by entrepreneur LeRoy Morrison. It is here that Denise Tuzo found a two-bedroom apartment for herself and her 18-year-old son. "I saw an ad in the Amsterdam News, and I'd seen all the restoration that was happening on the block," says Tuzo. "I've seen these blocks change from being abandoned to having people move in." She pays $683 for a two-bedroom unit.
Does she think rents like hers will drive old-timers out? "With people on fixed incomes, it really squeezes the budget. I think it will become a problem gradually and they'd have to move out altogether." Given her Harlem roots, she doesn't like the idea.
Johnson likes it even less. But even with his eight roomfuls of furniture and collection of jazz books and records in storage, he says he understands the logic of a single man like himself giving up a large apartment for a family. "I don't mind that," he says. "What bothers me is, don't take me for granted, don't shuffle me around and think that I'm an idiot. And don't give me stories and then renege on me."
Johnson is awaiting a promised one- bedroom apartment in a nearby brownstone. Syn-Moie told him it will be ready in June. Johnson has his doubts, and fears he'll end up in a studio. "I feel I've been had," he says. "But I'm not sure. I won't know till June. Ask me then."