By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Steve Banks, the Legal Aid attorney who has championed efforts to compel the city to house the homeless, is not directly involved in the Noble Drew Ali fight but said it highlights the city's housing problems.
"Nobody should be removed from their homes to make way for someone who has already lost theirs," said Banks. "I think the city agrees with us that people should not be displaced. But all of these things are symptomatic of the fact that for years the city has had no real housing policy and the current administration has inherited that legacy."
Part of that legacy is the sustained failure by authorities to address Noble Drew Ali's long-standing ills.
"Last year we had no heat, no hot water," said Laura Smith, 84, a retired machinist who was one of the project's original tenants. "I have this big rat hole under my sink, leaks coming down from I don't know where. The ceiling fell in. Then they told me I was behind in my rent and took me to court," she said.
Catherine Coley, who has lived in the complex for 18 years, said she desperately tried to find another apartment to get away from conditions that led her to stay up at night with a baseball bat to keep rats away from her three children. "I had three brokers looking for another place for me and my kids; there's nothing out there for people like me," she said. In June, she said, she was served with eviction papers by Eshel Management, the firm brought in by Farrakhan to run the project.
Farrakhan, who is currently running for state assembly in east Brooklyn as a candidate of both the Green and Republican parties, said his efforts to turn around the project were undone by uncooperative tenants, politicians, and bureaucrats.
"We were in a quandary," he said. "We were fighting every day to keep the drugs out and there was vandalism every time we fixed the elevator."
He said the decision to bring in the homeless was spurred by the potential revenue stream made available by city emergency payments, and a desire to help. "We wanted to do something to help the homeless," he said.
Tenants scoff at those claims. "We'd go to the management office to see about something, there'd be no one there," said Bernadine Evans, who has lived at Noble Drew Ali since 1974. As she stood in the complex's barren asphalt courtyard last week, an ambulance arrived to aid a homeless woman who had collapsed. Nearby, a handful of contractors unloaded tools for work on the homeless family units. "See there," Evans said, pointing to one of the homeless apartments. "Those apartments are gorgeous; they got lights in the ceiling, fire extinguishers in the halls. We're here 30 years; we don't have that. Sometimes we don't have lights in the hall."