By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Dora Casanas was 88 and ailing in late 2003 when she got word that the monthly rent on her Bronx apartment was leaping from $90 to $500. It was the first increase since 1984, when the city took over the property at 2084 Crotona Avenue but let Casanas, a resident for decades, stay there. The years took a toll. When the new landlord's letter came, Casanas was confined to a wheelchair and suffering from arthritis, elephantiasis, and a pulmonary embolism, but still mounting the stairs to her pad above the auto parts store, where she lived with a widowed daughter and a son battling a serious illness. When the new rent kicked in, Casanas didn't pay. The landlord filed an eviction notice, a judge settled the dispute, and Casanas moved to low-income senior citizen housing. Housing Court case 3773 was closed, just like thousands of other landlord-tenant beefs each year. What made Casanas's saga different was that a city program triggered her exit from the place where she'd lived since 1967.
The program is called Neighborhood Homes, and since 1998 it has helped nonprofit developers around the city renovate scores of abandoned or neglected properties and sell them, primarily to low-income families who get assistance in making the buy. Under the program, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) transfers each parcel to a qualified developer for $1 and awards a subsidyup to $360,000 for the largest propertiesto pay for renovations and a fee to the developer. Once the repairs are done, the developer sells the building and splits the proceeds 75-25 with the city.
Neighborhood Homes is the latest variation on a major theme of New York City's resurgence since the 1980s: the rehabilitation of housing that was abandoned or foreclosed upon. And its timing couldn't be better, as the city weathers a housing crunch and low-income New Yorkers struggle to maintain a foothold in the gentrifying city.
In the Bronx, most of the streets targeted by Neighborhood Homes don't have to worry about gentrification just yet. People there are still dealing with the ravages of neglect, and bombed-out-looking houses are the most toxic aftermath. On an otherwise decent block, a single building that's falling apart or boarded up can mean troublea home for rats, a hangout for criminals, a general sign that something's not right. On a wrecked street, however, a single house that's been neatly painted is a token of hope. Neighborhood Homes is designed to tilt that balance, and it seems to be working in places like East 168th Street, where Bronx Shepherds Restoration Corp. is showing a crisply sided two-story, or on Tinton Avenue, where next to a house that looks absolutely diseased, South Bronx Community Management recently sold a beautifully restored building.
But Casanas's former home doesn't merit such rave reviews. It's one of some 300 properties targeted by Neighborhood Homes, and one of 10 awarded to Joe Cicciu, a veteran developer based in the Bronx's Little Italy. Like most of Cicciu's Neighborhood Homes properties, 2084 Crotona Avenue was deeded to the developer in June 2000. And like most of Cicciu's batch of buildings (and despite $1.4 million overall in city subsidies), not much appears to have been done with it. As other developers around the city have fixed and sold the properties they were awarded, most of Cicciu's are still waiting, appreciating in value thanks to the hot real estate market.
Since 2002, the appraised value of the parcels Cicciu has yet to develop has risen by an average 74 percent. The sales price of houses in Neighborhood Homes is based on the appraised value. So by design or not, the delays in rehabilitating Cicciu's properties increase the likelihood that they will sell at a profit.
"That's the market. It could have gone down," says Cicciu. He insists that so far, all of the proceeds from his sales have gone to finish the work on the next property. "My desire was to adequately house these families. And if it took longer than normal, be that as it may."
The woes of a mere 10 buildings might seem inconsequential in a city of 8 million people. But on the blocks where Cicciu's properties are situated, they can mean the difference between blight and optimism. Blocks make neighborhoods, and neighborhoods make the Bronx. That's why the blue tarp on Belmont Avenue is such a downer.
2045 Belmont Avenue
photo: Patricia Sener
"It's hard for me to sell that property," says Samuel Rivers, a realtor with a gift for understatement. The front of Cicciu's building is shrouded in a blue tarp. The crinkly sheet ripples in the wind, revealing a burned-out structure behind. There's debris on the tiny lawn. Buildings department records include a complaint about "an open and unguarded vacant home that was set ablaze" there, a reference to a fire touched off by a burning car in August 2004, four years after Cicciu accepted the building along with a subsidy of $40,000 to rehab it.