City records show hundreds of open violations spread throughout the buildings, located in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx, and home to an estimated 2,200 families. The most serious include mold, rats, peeling lead paint, and no hot water.
“We’re talking about years of neglect and questionable practices,” said Melissa Maldonado-Salcedo, community coordinator for Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez, who has advocated for the residents. “The tenants deserve a better place to live.”
The developments—Haven Plaza, Riverdale Osborne Towers, George Hardy Apartments, St. Francis Apartments, West Farms Houses, and Grand Street Guild Houses—have much in common: All are nonprofit corporations with Section 8 contracts and mortgages insured by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). All were established with the involvement of local parishes and still have pastors on their boards. And, until recently, all were maintained by a company called Residential Management Associates (RMA).
Grand Street Guild successfully ousted RMA early last month. Now the other tenants hope to do the same.
“It used to be so nice here,” said Julia Quiñones, 69, a retired machine operator who has lived in George Hardy Apartments for more than 30 years. Now brown mildew coats the bathroom ceiling and mice are on the prowl. For months, she said, the elevator was broken. Unable to tackle six flights of stairs, she’d use one in an adjacent building, riding up to its roof and then crossing over to her own.
Tenants at Riverdale Osborne Towers in Brownsville, Brooklyn, report similar problems. Their complex was recently slapped with a lawsuit by the city for failing to correct serious violations, including massive leaks and uncollected garbage. Board President Father Robert Powers did not return calls seeking comment.
The city ultimately settled the suit, collecting a $1,250 fine and ordering the violations to be corrected. Yet, as of Friday, several apartments still needed major repairs, and the front doorways to the development's four buildings were all unlocked. “This is a hot spot,” said Police Officer Keith Clark, as he walked through the courtyard on his afternoon rounds. “It’s pretty bad.”
John Cameron, president of RMA, knows he has a problem. "I'm appalled by the violations," he said, adding that he's now working with the city and state to find more funding. But he blames the developments' deterioration largely on HUD, which he said was too slow to approve rent increases. "It's a government policy that's created this mess. It's a bureaucracy."
HUD spokesperson Adam Glantz disputed that notion. "Whenever applications are submitted to us, we process them as expeditiously as possible," he said, though he declined to comment specifically on RMA.
Meanwhile, the tenants say they shouldn't have to foot the bill for mismanagement. Residents of West Farms Houses, for example, are facing a 25-39 percent rent increase spread over the next two to three years. "It's crazy," said Minerva De Jesus, a tenant leader at West Farms. "There's no way people who live in the building can afford that." While most of the tenants receive Section 8, which caps their rent payments at 1/3 of their income, roughly 87 families would have to shoulder the hike. A similar 21 percent increase was recently approved for Haven Plaza.
Rather than pay up, tenants at the developments are starting to ask questions: How did Residential Management Associates come to control the buildings in the first place? Why haven't the pastors on their boards done more to intervene? And who's really calling the shots?
Answering those questions requires a bit of history: The developments were built in the 1960s and early 1970s with the help of Robert Paul, a consultant employed by the Archdiocese of New York. According to his testimony in a 1992 lawsuit, Paul helped secure mortgages from HUD, and worked with the city to make sure water and sewer bills were paid on time. In exchange, he was paid 1 percent of the buildings’ rent rolls.
Over the years, Paul’s sons have also found work with the developments. Robert Paul, Jr. is a co-owner of RMA with business partner John Cameron. Meanwhile, another son, Andrew, acts as a lawyer to the buildings, representing the boards and evicting tenants who don’t pay rent. Andrew Paul and his father share an office located onsite at Haven Plaza, as do Cameron and Robert Paul, Jr. The Pauls did not return City Limits' calls.
Tenants have long sought clarity on Robert Paul, Sr.'s precise duties. In 1977, residents of Haven Plaza issued a list of demands to their board, then led by Reverend Raymond Misulich of St. Mary's Church. Included among them: “Justification on why the board of directors should retain Mr. Robert Paul as coordinator/consultant.”
The 1992 lawsuit also underscored concerns about Paul’s one percent fee, which was temporarily suspended at Grand Street Guild. “Mr. Paul, is it your expectation that if the defendants win this case, you will once again receive the one percent of the rent roll?” asked attorney Arthur Block in his cross-examination. “That will be up to the board of directors,” Paul replied. The decision in the suit ultimately favored Paul, leaving his grip on the developments intact.
Now, however, that grip may be starting to loosen. Until last year, the tenants in the different RMA buildings were only vaguely aware of each other’s existence. But then all received notices announcing their developments’ plans to “opt out” of project-based Section 8. Suddenly they had a common cause, and tenant groups like Good Old Lower East Side jumped in to help. Though most residents would still be eligible for Section 8 vouchers, the apartments themselves would no longer be affordable once the voucher-toting tenants move out.
That threat prompted church officials to take a more active role. "In response to letters written to His Eminence, Cardinal Egan, Monsignor Kevin Sullivan has communicated to those involved his full support for these projects remaining high-quality, low-income housing," wrote Jacqueline Lofaro, a spokesperson for Catholic Charities, in a statement issued to City Limits.
Ultimately, most of the Section 8 contracts were extended for a year or more. But despite the reprieve, the tenants are still demanding change, starting with a new management company, new board members, and a chance to weigh in on the future of their homes.
“I have faith in the Church,” said Abraham Ruiz, president of the tenant association at Haven Plaza, who once studied for the priesthood himself. “But we need accountability from everyone involved in this. When push comes to shove, what will they do?”