A hot bath is a cruel thing to deny an 85-year-old woman, but Mattie Roberts is not what you would call a complainer. When a pipe in the apartment upstairs burst and flooded last August, obliterating most of her bathroom ceiling, she squared her jaw and watched as the workman tramped in and out.

"We'll be back soon to fix it," they said.

So Mrs. Roberts settled back in front of the television and a snack tray crowded with prescription bottles, liniments and aches-and-cricks sundries and waited. "The bathtub was nice," she laments in a whisper that can barely contend with the TV in her immaculately kept one-bedroom South Bronx apartment. "I used to use that tub, but I can't use it now. They still ain't fixed that ceiling."

Mrs. Roberts' tub has handicapped accessible grip bars and anti-slide footholds. But it's useless, constantly filthy, a collector of plaster dust, waterbugs and whatever else happens to drop down from the 20-square foot void where the ceiling should be.

It's also a metaphor for a privatization scheme gone awry. Fixing the hole is the responsibility of the SEBCO Management Company, which won a $2.75 million contract from the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) to manage its Murphy Consolidated housing project, an 850-apartment jumble of townhouses, small apartment buildings and converted brownstones. In all, Murphy Consolidated's 72 buildings are scattered throughout a 25-block radius in the South Bronx neighborhoods of Crotona Park East, Longwood and Hunts Point. The Housing Authority has owned them for more than 15 years; most of the properties were taken by the federal government from landlords in foreclosure proceedings two decades ago.

SEBCO's chief--the man the city picked three years ago to oversee Murphy's management--is Father Louis Gigante, a former City Councilman who runs one of the Bronx's most powerful low-income housing empires. He also happens to be brother and confidante of reputed Genovese crime family boss Vincent "The Chin" Gigante.

For most South Bronx residents, the SEBCO name--short for Southeast Bronx Development Corporation--refers to a network of nonprofit development and social service agencies. The SEBCO Management Company shares the name--but it is actually a for-profit Gigante set up to manage the nonprofit's buildings. And the income from the NYCHA contract is going directly into the private company's bank account.

According to a 1989 investigation by Village Voice reporter William Bastone, the priest, who owns several Manhattan and upstate New York residences, used mob-connected contractors in the development of the 2,500-plus units SEBCO produced in the South Bronx. Still, even critics concede Gigante's management company keeps most of the buildings he developed in excellent condition.

The same cannot be said about the NYCHA properties managed by SEBCO. In two dozen interviews with City Limits, many residents say the new maintenance contract has been a failure. SEBCO-installed floors have buckled within months after they were put in; roofs in many of the Murphy buildings have chronic leaks; tenants claim that patch-up repairs in response to their heat and water complaints have left them cold. And then there's an assortment of smaller ills that go months without being repaired: cracked tiles, busted closet doors, unpainted walls, crippled oven-ranges and water damage.

In South Bronx communities awash in crack and heroin, SEBCO and NYCHA managers have allowed security doors and lobby windows to remain broken and unrepaired for months at a time. The lassitude encourages dealers to continue to peddle their wares in the buildings, despite claims that SEBCO management would clean up the buildings.

"This here is everybody's get-high building," says Mary Chambliss, who has lived in her first-floor Murphy Consolidated apartment on Hunts Point Avenue for seven years. Chambliss is especially incensed by the fact that across the street, in buildings SEBCO developed, vigilant maintenance and banks of strategically-placed security cameras have created a practically drug-free zone. "Second-class citizens, that's what we are," she says.

"I'm starting to wonder if things weren't actually better under the Housing Authority. And things were bad then," adds David Pyatt, a Bryant Avenue tenant who had to wait months to have the hole in his bathroom ceiling repaired. He says his stove has been broken for a year.

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It is hard to tell whether to blame SEBCO or NYCHA for the Murphy buildings' flaws. Calls to Father Gigante, who has reportedly been spending much of his time counseling The Chin in preparation for his upcoming trial, were not returned. And David Post, a SEBCO manager, referred all calls to the Housing Authority and hung up when pressed for answers.

But there is a lot more at stake here than Father Gigante's reputation. For years, public housing authorities around the country have been contracting out management services to private-sector companies. The SEBCO contract was the first of its size in New York City. If the pilot effort succeeds, NYCHA sources say, the city will consider farming out the management of more than 20,000 low-rise authority units to private managers.

Three years ago, as part of the authority's recognition that it had long mismanaged Murphy and other non-conventional housing projects, NYCHA Chairman Ruben Franco requested bidders for the new contract. He chose SEBCO from 11 companies that submitted bids. In part, the authority selected the firm because of its track record.

Two much smaller, non-conventional NYCHA holdings also were contracted to private companies. Neither has had the problems Murphy has had. Part of the reason is that Murphy has the poorest tenants of the group and the worst maintenance history,

So why were so many maintenance companies eager to take on the Murphy management contract?

Simple. They wanted to buy in on the ground floor of what could be one of the largest privatization gold mines in New York: the management of NYCHA'S vast stock of smaller apartment buildings.

"There's a very, very big pot of gold at the end of this," says one real estate executive who didn't want his name used.

"I think this is the model for the privatization of the 20 to 25,000 scattered site buildings NYCHA's been mismanaging for years," says Phil Thompson, a former high-ranking authority official who pushed for NYCHA to privatize management of its odd-lot buildings. "The idea is the turn all of these buildings over to community-based nonprofits and for-profits that would be a lot better at managing them."

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Things looked sunny when SEBCO first began taking over Murphy sites two years ago.

In June 1995, the Daily News reported that the company's management of the Murphy building at 875 Irvine Street in Hunts Point was helping to clear the building of heroin dealers who had run the place for years. According to the paper, the clean-up was bolstered by "innovative" management techniques, namely the hiring a live-in super and security guards.

"It's our showplace," bragged SEBCO's housing manager, Cono Depaola.

Today, winter gusts blow through the shattered window panes of the showplace's front entrance. The lock on the "security" door rattles around uselessly in its socket. Anyone who pushes it can get into the building. On the roof it's the same story: the emergency-exit fire alarm has been smashed and the roof door flaps in the wind.

Tenants and police say drug dealers, most of whom live in other parts of the neighborhood, sell and store heroin in the lobby and in some apartments.

"It's just as bad as it's ever been," says Esther Benitez, former head of the building's tenant association. NYCHA says it replaced the building's front door four times in December alone and won't do so again until a contractor installs a new magnetic lock in mid-February.

The broken door is a perfect example of the philosophy--espoused by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and former Police Chief William Bratton--that the slow repair of vandalized buildings is an invitation to criminals. On one recent morning a tenant leaving the building to run a few errands found herself facing a sight she had never seen before: a neat queue of 20 customers impatient for their daily heroin buy.

The SEBCO security patrols haven't really had much of an effect. "The security guys get paid about minimum wage," a local cop explains. "They don't have guns. I don't even think they've got nightsticks. No vests. If you were in their place, would you be confronting drug dealers? They're no deterrent."

Around the corner, on Hunts Point Avenue--one of the city's most notorious drug drags--a row of 10 more Murphy buildings slouch behind the crack vials strewn on their stoops. The SEBCO-owned apartment houses across the street gleam, sealed behind locked doors and the aegis of roof-mounted security cameras.

The type of new magnetic doors that NYCHA says will soon be installed at 875 Irvine Street haven't provided much security on the Hunts Point Avenue buildings. Five of them are broken and tenants say they have been that way for months. A sixth door is so bent that it simply needs to be shoved to get it open. A seventh has a perfectly functional lock--but the two panes of security glass above it have been neatly punched out.

"The crackheads walk right in here, all hours," says 16-year-old Roxanne Rodriguez, who lives with her grandmother and uncle in a ground-floor flat at 835 Hunts Point Ave. "There are two little girls who live in the second floor and they got to walk past this every time they come home from school."

Mary Chambliss, who lives a few doors down the avenue, says that crackheads and junkies treat the hallway outside her front door like it was their living room. "I open my door and the crack bottles roll right in. There are needles in the hallway right outside. Sometimes they pee and it comes in through under my door. It's disgusting."

As with other inquiries, SEBCO would not officially respond, but maintenance workers say the problem with the front door locks was NYCHA's fault.

"We call in the broken doors to NYCHA every day," says one super who identified himself as "Smiley." "Housing knows about them, but they haven't done anything yet. It's their whole bureaucracy. They haven't approved all of the requests."

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Mattie Roberts says she has called the SEBCO repair office numerous times and gotten nowhere. "A few weeks ago, a man came in, looked at [the hole above the bathtub] and said, 'I can't fix this.'" NYCHA spokesman Hilly Gross says SEBCO maintenance crews first reported the ceiling collapse in November. He blames the repair delay on the upstairs tenant who won't open her door to SEBCO crews.

"How come nobody even bothered to put plastic over the hole?" Roberts replies.

Leaks are a problem throughout the project. A woman who lives in one of the 39 apartments at 1317 West Farms Road says her family unrolls a plastic tarp to lay on the living room carpet every time it rains--even though the ceiling has been repaired twice.

Although Gross and SEBCO maintenance workers say almost all the Murphy buildings' boilers are in good condition, there are heat problems in many apartments. During most of the 20 or so unannounced, dead-of-winter visits conducted by City Limits , ovens were fired up to supplement apartment radiators, which were either cold or only slightly warm.

Roxanne Rodriguez's 57-year-old grandmother needs to sleep in her clothes--under four blankets--most winter nights. Roxanne's infant nephew gets similar treatment.

And Xanthea Gibbons, who lives in 1002 East 167th Street, a six-story Murphy building located next door to SEBCO's office, says she hasn't had heat for over a year. Asked how many times she's called for help, Gibbons begins counting, then lets out a tired chuckle. "Oh, please," she says.

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If SEBCO and the housing authority are trying to maintain a unified front in public, they have been pointing fingers at each other behind closed doors.

Housing authority officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, say they question SEBCO's will to put maintenance priorities over profit. Father Gigante and his employees maintain they haven't been given enough money to make long-neglected repairs and charge that NYCHA's paper-mill bureaucracy has been impossible to negotiate.

"Look at the Murphy buildings, then look at our other buildings," says one SEBCO maintenance man. "We know how to take care of buildings when we are given the stuff we need."

A friend of Gigante, also speaking on condition of anonymity, says the priest is fed up with NYCHA's requirement that he pre-clear repairs totaling more than $1,500."They want to do privatization, but they don't want to give the contractor the freedom to run the buildings like he wants to," the source says.

Publicly, however, NYCHA denies any conflict. "With SEBCO we really don't have any problem with their maintenance. We've had a few complaints on their paperwork, but that's all," says NYCHA's Gross. "But bear in mind, this is a pilot initiative.... And these buildings were a disaster before SEBCO took them over."

If Gross chalks some of the complaints up to the contract's novelty, he sees a more nefarious potential source: SEBCO's aggressive rent collection efforts.

"Is it not possible that suddenly there's a new regime here, a regime that's collecting rent more vigorously than before, that maybe there's a feeling among the tenants that, hey, SEBCO's screwing us?" he asks.

Still, lawyers from the Legal Aid Society are considering filing a class-action lawsuit against SEBCO, NYCHA--or both--on behalf of Mattie Roberts and other tenants.

For the time being, Mrs. Roberts seems resigned to a bathless future. "I don't complain," she says. "I just keep paying my rent and hoping."