Sins of the Father

Rev. Louis Gigante, kin to the Genovese crime family, slips from hero to slumlord

It's impossible to deny the impact his company has made in the South Bronx. He employs more than 300 people, including many from the surrounding neighborhoods. Piles of rubble, hulks of burned-out buildings, and abandoned cars from the Hunts Point of the '70s have given way to fully developed neighborhoods, some even with rows of ranch houses and cars parked suburban-style in driveways. But even as Father G. was transforming the neighborhood, he was accused of working with the Mafia. William Bastone, in his 1989 Voice article "The Priest and the Mob," revealed that Father G. had developed more than 2,000 housing units with roughly $50 million in federal funds by hiring contractors whom authorities deemed mob-connected. But the city was never able to dig up enough dirt. "We never prosecuted them," Manhattan D.A. spokeswoman Barbara Thompson said of SEBCO. "The only time we would run into them was when we were conducting investigations on other companies or individuals, organized crime–related and otherwise. Then we would come up against the contracts they had with SEBCO."

In those days, Father G. was said to play an aggressive game with his rivals. At one point, his main competition for federal funds was Ramon Velez, a man for whom former mayor Ed Koch coined the phrase "poverty pimp." The battle for political power and federal funds became so heated, wrote Jill Jonnes in South Bronx Rising, that Velez called the priest a "maricon" (a derogatory Spanish word for homosexual) and Father G. retaliated by punching Velez in the nose. Today, the elder Velez suffers from Alzheimer's disease and his son runs his housing organization, the South Bronx Community Management Company.

"In the beginning, you had a lot of competition," said Ramon Velez Jr. "There were four organizations fighting to develop community housing. There were turf wars and people jockeying for position." When asked about the fight between his father and the priest, he replied, "There have always been stories about that. They had their differences. Honestly, I don't know. It wasn't dinner-table type of conversation."

739 and 741 Coster Street in Hunts Point
photo: Eirini Vourloumis
739 and 741 Coster Street in Hunts Point

The men made peace and each carved out his own section of the Bronx. Father G. laid claim to Community Board 2's district, on which he sat for 22 years, and rigorously pursued federal money to construct buildings. Harold DeRienzo, the founder of Banana Kelly, another community group in the South Bronx involved in redevelopment, said that Father G. often called him into his office. One such time, seated behind a desk, chomping on a cigar, the priest confronted DeRienzo about his intentions. "What are you trying to do?" he recalled Gigante asking him. "Are you applying for federal funds?" Father G.'s philosophy, DeRienzo explained, was that once you had a rivalry for federal funds no one received money. So he wanted no competition. "The city was bankrupt. The state was out of the housing game. Section 8 was the only game in town," DeRienzo said. "The man has been very successful in developing low-income housing. I've seen him outmaneuver people— planning-wise, business-wise, and politically. As long as I stayed away from the Section 8 applications, there wasn't a problem."

With a hero's reputation still mostly intact in the South Bronx, Father G. is not someone tenants would have expected to fight. "SEBCO brought hope to the neighborhood," said Joyce Culler, first vice chair of Community Board 2 and someone who has worked to rebuild the community through multiple housing scandals. "This is a battle we shouldn't have to fight. How do you break something that was so beautifully built?"

SEBCO was also well-built—now it's a $50 million housing company. But Father G.'s operation is accused not only by its tenants but also by federal housing officials of mismanaging four federally subsidized buildings, known collectively as the Hunts Point I Rehab. SEBCO refurbished them more than 20 years ago, and although it does not own them, Gigante has acted as the de facto landlord. (Gigante said in an interview that the actual owner, Samuel Pompa, is living in Europe and was unreachable for comment.)

The priest, who started winding down his formal parish duties in 2002 and is now retired, wants to purchase the Hunts Point I Rehab buildings, folding them into his portfolio of more than 8,500 developed or managed housing units in the city that he has built up during the past three decades.

Mildred Colon, 51, a longtime resident of one of the Hunts Point I Rehab buildings, started the tenants' association a year ago out of frustration. On August 4, 2006, for example, residents received a $14,390 bill from Con Edison because Gigante's management company hadn't paid it. Her daily calls about the gaping hole in her kitchen ceiling—roughly the diameter of a sewer cover—went unanswered for months. On August 30, she confronted the building super about the lack of hot water in the building. In response, she said, he swung a broom at her and called her a "bitch." She filed a complaint with the police department and called the management company. The superintendent still runs the building.

"I'm fighting because I have lived in the buildings for 24 years," said Colon. "I love my community. But the conditions have gotten so bad I can't continue to let SEBCO take over. Father Gigante said that this is his community, but he doesn't live here. He hasn't saved the neighborhood. He abused the neighborhood. I may be slow to understand his bullshit, but I'm not stupid."

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