By Albert Samaha
By Steve Weinstein
By Devon Maloney
By Tessa Stuart
By Alison Flowers
By Albert Samaha
By Jesse Jarnow
By Eric Tsetsi
Eventually, neighbors heard the screaming and called police. Five or so cops climbed through the window, grabbed the man, and hauled him out of the apartment "like a pig," according to court records. The grandmother and her granddaughter brought a civil suit against Samuel Pompa's corporation, Hunts Point I Associates, and the SEBCO management and security companies, and it landed in the Bronx Supreme Court in 2000. SEBCO and the other defendants argued that they couldn't be held responsible for the crime for two reasons: There was no prior criminal activity in the building alerting them to a possible offense, and the company satisfied its obligation to supply minimal security. In the end, the case was settled out of court, with the management team agreeing to pay the grandmother and her granddaughter, according to their lawyers. Now almost 10 years after this brutal crime, there's less security than before.
The tenants' security problem extends all the way to Washington, D.C. It is unclear how SEBCO has used the tenants' rent money and the HUD subsidy because HUD itself doesn't track how the money is spent. Instead, the owners or managing agents calculate their expenses and submit an audited financial statement to HUD at the end of each year. When the buildings failed HUD's 200405 inspections with those dismal scores of 28, 29, and 39, HUD officials said their only options were to foreclose on the buildings or withhold the subsidy money. HUD considered recommending the projects for its "Mark-to-Market," a program that reduces the federal subsidy to market-level rents but also restructures the mortgage so that the payments are lower, freeing capital for renovations. But 20 years after SEBCO first renovated Hunts Point I Rehab, HUD determined that the projects required complete "gut" rehabilitation. Since the amount of money needed to repair the buildings exceeded that which could be legally mandated within HUD's guidelines, the buildings were disqualified. But even though they knewfrom the results of their own inspectionsthat the residents were living in squalor, HUD reduced the yearly subsidy going into the buildings by roughly $1 million. The result has been a drastic decline in conditions over the past two years. "It is mandated by Congress to reduce the rents to market level," said HUD's VanAmerongen. "We had no options left at that point and no additional resources. We were obligated. We had no choice."
Many tenants said they think they have no choice but to fight Father G. Not all of them are longtime residents. Concepion Samb, for one, explained how she moved to the Hunts Point I Rehab buildings five years ago when she could no longer afford her apartment in a more affluent section of the Bronx. Working as a home health aide, she suffered a cutback in her hours and struggled to cover her bills with the $8.95 that she earned per hour. This is her first Section 8 home, she said. Walking around her apartment, she pointed out the problems in each room. The vent in the bathroom is broken, so there is a constant layer of mold in the shower. A radiator in her bedroom burst last year, leaving a rotting hole by her bed that's spongy when she steps on it. In the winter she wears two pairs of pants, two sweaters, two pairs of socks, and a robe to keep warminside her apartment. "Jesus, in the winter you freeze to death," she said. "I like the cold, but not that cold. It's lousy. I'm not making the money I used to make, so I have to settle for this crap. Just because you need help from the government doesn't mean that the management company should reject basic needs like heat, hot water, and respect. It's humiliating."
The tenants' association is racing to find an alternative buyer for the buildings. HUD began foreclosure proceedings late last year, requiring Gigante to pay the outstanding mortgage payments of $500,000 by November 15 to forestall the process and open the door for a possible sale to SEBCO. HUD paid off the $6.8 million mortgage in August, so although Samuel Pompa technically still owns the buildings, HUD has the right to send them to the auction block. After supporting several funding options to refinance the mortgage and stalling the foreclosure process, HUD has lost confidence in SEBCO's ability to complete a purchase, VanAmerongen said. The details of the foreclosure process are uncertain, but she said that the Hunts Point I Rehab will remain an affordable-housing unit.
It's unclear why Gigante hasn't taken the first step toward ownership by paying down the outstanding mortgage payments. But the tenants have made their grievances known. In addition to meeting with HUD, they sent letters to Congressman Jose Serrano and Senators Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer. The foreclosure proceedings have energized Father G.'s opponents. "In a way, that has clearly focused us," said Tenants and Neighbors representative Patrick Coleman.
There was a time when Father G. was mobilizing people in a far different way. He molded St. Athanasius parishioners into an influential voting bloc, according to Frank Marrero, a Hunts Point resident for 49 years and a current member of Community Board 2's housing committee. But as SEBCO grew, Father G. spent less time in the community and more time fortifying his businesses. "When SEBCO started having problems with the community, who did they bring?" Marrero said. "Father Gigante is a figurehead and he'll stand up in the front of the room and tell them how much he did for the community. You can't argue with the fact that he got things done. But I think they lost touch when they got too big. He's getting older and the organization has lost touch with the community. . . . When I pray, I pray for him to open his eyes so they will fix the buildings."