NORWOOD NEWS

Thursday, December 18, 2003 
Tracey Towers Tenants Object To Rent Hike, by Heather Haddon

Local politicians didn't need testimony from Tracey Towers' residents to feel their pain. They saw it first hand when the community room they secured for a recent meeting was flooded. Another common space smelled distinctively like garbage.

"We are entitled to decent living conditions," said Gerry Powell, 58. "But people are getting disgusted."

Tenants are particularly frustrated that, despite persistent problems, rents are slated to rise by roughly 40 percent over the next three years. And though residents point to a court ruling and stacks of documents putting R-Y Management at fault, it is tenants who need to pay up before repairs begin.

For Lorraine Stuwart, and many Tracey residents, this is a costly insult. "For the last 10 or 15 years, the place has been allowed to deteriorate," said Stuwart, a 28-year resident.

While sympathetic, R-Y President Robert Vaccarello views the increase as a necessity. "No one likes to give rent increases," he said. "But in certain times, things need to be done to keep a facility moving forward."

The dispute centers on the soundness of the amenities and construction in the two towers - which house 869 apartments on 41 floors - more than the apartments themselves. The buildings, built in 1972, have suffered since R-Y acquired the complex in the early 1980s, critics say. "It's historical," said Tony Taylor, current president of the tenants association. "Our complaints are not new."

Still, many longtime tenants, like Taylor, remember the towers' salad days. That's when the Mitchell-Lama complex was the middle-income haven its developers envisioned. Enacted in 1955, the state program built over 100,000 apartments by providing low-interest loans and property tax exemptions to companies who adhered to profits limitations and tenant income cutoffs. Tracey Towers was the second largest Mitchell-Lama erected in the Bronx, and was considered one of the nicest.

"It used to be used for weddings," said Frank Edwards, a 26-year Tracey resident, about one of the complex's common rooms. Tyson remembers when that same space held the annual New Year's party. Now it houses a tall ladder surrounded by debris from the ceiling, which sags from water damage.

"I just came out of a nightmare," said Frank Edwards, Jr. as he left the room. Edwards leads Jujitsu classes for residents, but had to cancel that night's session because of the ceiling. Electrical problems also leave the room chronically dark.

Most of Tracey's hallways are dark. Along the long corridors that lead to the elevators, none of the light boxes function.

Tracey residents cite ongoing security concerns, too. "The building is frightening in the evening," said Stuwart, who is a senior. "You come into the lobby and you can smell the marijuana." Teens use Tracey as a place to party, and the guards do little to intervene, according to Powell.

Other critical building problems- including cracks in the parking lot stairwells- are serious enough to be C violations (the most severe in the city's ranking). But one of the scariest, residents say, is an everyday necessity: the elevator. "You have to pray every time you get in the elevator not to get caught," Powell said. The floor indicators don't work on many of them, and all the elevators shake.

"R-Y promised two years ago to repair the elevators," Taylor said. "All they did is paint the inside."

That promise came after Tracey tenants successfully sued R-Y in Bronx Housing Court. "Their case is certainly egregious," said David Hershey-Webb, the lawyer retained by residents for that case, and a specialist in tenant issues. "There is a long history at Tracey Towers of management not keeping the building up."

Vaccarello defended R-Y's record. "For most of the time, the building was holding its own on the [former] budget," he said. "But in the past four years, it's really been put behind the eight ball." He insists that if the rent increase goes through, R-Y would begin major capital improvements (like replacing the elevators and roof) within months.

Hershey-Webb thinks the building is one of the more mismanaged Mitchell-Lamas. He even charges that building's certificate of occupancy supplied to him by R-Y was invalid.

"It didn't describe the actual property," but a different lot, Hershey-Webb said. "I don't know if the owner has the actual right to collect rent."

Vaccarello said he had no knowledge of the discrepancy. While Hershey-Webb showed the certificate to the Department of Housing, Preservation and Development (HPD), he said they never commented.

HPD seems to favor the hike. "Many of the complaints about the development can only be remedied if there is an increase in funds available to the housing company, which has not had a rent increase in 16 years," said Carol Abrams, an HPD spokesperson, reading from a statement.

Tenants say they understand the need for a reasonable increase. "[The tenants] are just seeking an assurance that ... R-Y is going to solve the problems that have persisted for years," Hershey-Webb said. "That's where HPD doesn't seem to be playing the most constructive role."

As stipulated by the court, R-Y was to correct the C violations before raising rents, with HPD overseeing the repairs. While most of the violations in individual apartments were taken care of, the structural problems remain. But Vaccarello said that rising costs - such as utilities and insurance rates after 9/11 - are to blame for the inactivity.

Local politicians, many who attended a recent meeting with tenants, agree that violations should be addressed first. Both Congressman Eliot Engel and Council Member Oliver Koppell wrote letters to HPD recently stating this opinion.

Despite the support, many tenants have grown cynical. "As far as I'm concerned, HPD is in bed with R-Y Management," Powell said. "Regardless of what documents we present, their mind is set."

Stuwart agreed. "I know in my heart that this raise is going through," she said. Dependent on a fixed income, Stuwart worries about how she can stay at Tracey. "I can't get up and move anymore," she said. "I thought I would live here forever."

While HPD said it is doing a "final analysis," Koppell spokesperson Eleanor Edelstein believes the rent increase will go through in February. "[HPD] is going to assign property managers to monitor the repairs four times a year, which is more than they usually do," she said.

But for Taylor - who has devoted countless hours to the fight - it's a small patch for a large hole. "[Tracey] was poorly constructed when they put it up," he said, looking out on a former handball court, which is unusable thanks to improperly sealed wood. "The concept for affordable housing was excellent, but it can't be used the way it was intended."