By Steve Weinstein
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There is evidence to support the tenants' claims. Gigante's management company, Building Management Associates Inc., received a combined yearly rental income of $1.8 million from the tenants and a subsidy from HUD to pay the utility bills and maintain the apartments, according to HUD records. Yet over the past two years, the records show, the utility payments have been in default, and the buildings are falling apart. "We are not satisfied with SEBCO's management," said Deborah VanAmerongen, director of HUD's New York multi-family office.
HUD inspectors evaluated the entire physical structure in April 2004 and gave the tenements a score of 28 out of 100; 60 is failing. SEBCO was given 60 days to make improvements. But two months later, when HUD reevaluated, the score increased only one point, to 29. HUD again demanded that SEBCO make repairs. But when the federal agency assessed the buildings in August 2005, it gave them a score of 39. Inspectors dole out evaluations based on what they find the day they arrive on site, VanAmerongen explained. So an increase in 10 points could mean, for example, that the superintendent cleaned the buildings that morning. "It's still a bad score," she said. "It's very uncommon for buildings to get scores so low."
When asked if SEBCO had enough money to provide heat, hot water, and minor repairs, VanAmerongen replied, "One would think." But she didn't elaborate on whether or not HUD was investigating how the money was used, stating simply, "I can't speak to that." Ruth Ritzema, special agent in charge of HUD's Office of the Inspector General, said that as routine procedure, she could not confirm or deny criminal investigations.
As the buildings have deteriorated, some of the area's junkies, prostitutes, and drug dealers have taken notice and staked out positions in the project's hallways and elevators. One night in September, a strung-out junkie with unruly hair, a dirty white T-shirt, and ripped jeans lurched out of an elevator that smelled of urine. He howled at the tenants before stumbling out the front door. More than two years ago, Gigante's management company removed the security guards who once manned the entrance to the buildings. To make matters worse, tenants said, police broke down the door a year ago in pursuit of criminals and despite multiple complaints from residents, Gigante's management company never fixed it. Father G. told the tenants that his company ran out of money. "Security was given to this building because I put it here," Gigante said at one of the meetings between tenants and management. "But we didn't have enough money, so we had to move them out."
It's a slap in the face to tenants like Evelyn Alameda, a petite, soft-spoken single mother who has encountered prostitutes having sex in the hallway and addicts shooting up in the stairwell in the middle of the afternoon. One night, she said, she yelled at a trespasser to leave the building, but he merely lifted up the sleeve of his shirt, slapped his arm to emphasize a gang tattoo, and then walked on, ignoring her plea. A 13-year tenant, Alameda said she constantly checks her back when walking through the hallways of her home. She has reason to be cautiousa young woman was raped in the corridor almost two years ago by an intruder. "When they took away our safety, they took away our dignity," Alameda said.
Father G. may not have a legal obligation to provide security guards, but by law, his company is obligated to provide minimal security like functioning doors and windows. The problems have festered for years, even when there was security, and once Father G.'s company was held accountable. On August 3, 1997, when guards from Sentry Security were still patrolling the sidewalks, a crazed man dashed into the lobby of one of the Hunts Point I Rehab tenements. With the security guards in pursuit, the man fled up the stairs, jumped the fence, and entered the adjacent building through a rooftop door. At the same time, a nine-year-old girl waited in the doorway of her apartment while her grandmother, 60, put out the trash. As the grandmother was about to enter her apartment, she felt a strange hand on her back. The man was behind her. He shoved the grandmother into her apartment, and according to the court transcripts, terrorized the pair for over an hour.
"He dragged me all over the floor," said the grandmother in court. "Me and [my granddaughter]." The man announced that he was HIV-positive and that he was going to prick the grandmother and granddaughter with a needle. The grandmother made her way to a window to scream for help, but he pushed the pair into another room and brutalized them.
"He grabbed us by our necks," the grandmother said. "I had this bun and he would push it all the way to the back like he wanted to crack my neck. So, he would grab the little girl and slam her to the other side of the room . . . I would take the girl away from him so he would let go of the girl and grab me. He was like an hour hitting me, hitting me up and down with the floor . . . he was hitting me in my entire body. I was struggling with him. I felt this pinch that he gave me. But I didn't pay any attention to it because I was struggling with him so much so he wouldn't harm more my girl . . . we were both screaming so much. Nobody came. Not even security. Nothing. Nobody."