Harlem Complex Endangered as Federal Subsidy Expires

If landlord Herbert Wright can hold city housing inspectors at bay, he could turn his 231-unit complex into the type of expensive housing that new Harlemites are willing to pay for. His property, the Ennis Francis Houses, is located at Seventh Avenue and 124th Street, around the corner from a new H&M clothing store. In return for financing during construction of the buildings, Wright has had to take in low-income tenants whose rent payments are supplemented by the federal Section 8 program. The first of two contracts ends in October. His son and manager, Eric Wright, said market-rate housing is not the plan. "My father believes in affordable housing," he said. But he added that his father is weighing his options. As for the newly renovated units that look like they are being kept empty, the younger Wright said they are going to tenants elsewhere in the complex—beginning this week.

The city brought the Wrights to court this month, citing 162 housing-code violations, including lack of heat, leaking ceilings, and peeling lead paint. The aim is to put the building under the control of an independent administrator who would collect the rents to pay for repairs. Eric Wright said that most of these violations are a result of a "witch hunt" when a team of inspectors descended on the complex in November, emboldened by a meeting between the new tenants association and city officials. As for the violations that date back to May, he gives various explanations: The tenant wouldn't let in repairmen, or the violation notice didn't clarify which apartment had the problem.

But Ennis Francis Houses has had a pattern of mismanagement: In December 2002, the complex failed an inspection by the New York City Housing Development Corporation, a quasi-public agency that administers the Section 8 program in the complex. (The complex failed last July's inspection as well.) Beginning in the 1980s, HDC has spent more than $3 million out of a fund meant for capital improvements on the complex's overdue vendor and utility bills, according to spokeswoman Tracy Paurowski. For the past seven months, building workers have not been getting checks regularly. Eric Wright acknowledged that he has missed payroll several times,but said it is because the subsidies from the federal government were delayed.

Considering that the complex has had problems almost from when it was built in 1984, it's curious that the matter is only getting to court now. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development has ultimate authority to make management changes, but spokesman Adam Glantz said it generally follows the lead of the day-to-day administrator, in this case HDC. The development corporation says it supports the current court action, but it has an inherent conflict of interest, since it also holds the mortgage on the building, which could be jeopardized if the rents were diverted to an independent administrator instead of the landlord. Still, HDC cared enough to ask HUD back in 1997 to investigate the Wrights' use of funds. HUD referred the case to the assistant attorney general. The outcome of the investigation is unclear, since the case is sealed, according to HDC's Paurowski. Ultimately, the Wrights were left as managers. HUD's system of delegating supervision for Section 8 buildings while not sharing enforcement powers invites a breakdown in accountability, according to Anne Lessy, the director of New York City organizing for New York State Tenants and Neighbors, which has been assisting Ennis Francis residents. "I don't think it's clearly laid out who's responsible for what," she said.

Judges sometimes give landlords extra time to fix problems instead of turning buildings over to an administrator, a process that could delay final action until after October. "I'd say at least 50 percent to three-quarters of the violations are cured," Eric Wright said. The tenants association, formed last August after a week without hot water and four months after an underground sewage pipe collapsed, claims the fixes are superficial attempts to impress the judge. Kim Smith, chairwoman of the tenants association, said the owner will revert to his old ways unless the building is taken away. "If we weren't making all of this noise," she said, "nothing would get done."

 
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