When Rose Johnson bought her new two-family house in the South Bronx five years ago, she went out back to inspect the patch of lawn. She discovered it came with a few free extras: A car bumper, Pampers and old clothes were strewn among more than a couple of boulders.

With the help of her two teenage sons, she removed the debris, but a few weeks later she came home from work to find the pair sitting dejectedly on the front steps. When she asked them what was wrong, they guided her inside her $199,000 townhouse. There she found the first floor awash ankle-deep in water that had seeped through the ceiling from their tenant’s upstairs apartment.

The burst pipe was a harbinger of other problems: a broken boiler, a leaky roof and yet another flood. “We didn’t know what to do,” says Johnson, who had to shell out $700 for a new carpet. “There are so many problems with this house. We just get by day to day.”

Johnson’s tale echoes complaints from many of the 109 South Bronx families that live in West Farms Haven townhouses. Like 5,000 other affordable homes in the Bronx, the project was shepherded by the New York City Housing Partnership, a celebrated Manhattan nonprofit that has turned some of the city’s most forsaken neighborhoods into neo-Levittowns, brimming with suburban brick-and-siding row houses.

In interviews with 134 Partnership homeowners, most of them in the Bronx, City Limits heard similar complaints time and again: leaky roofs; crooked staircases; balky heating systems; improperly soldered pipes that were installed rusty and tied to their beams with telephone wires; and backyards that looked more like junkyards.

In 16 years, the Partnership has earned a national reputation as neighborhood savior, providing relatively inexpensive homeownership opportunities for families with an average income of about $38,000. Over the last four years, the group has been a special favorite of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani: Since he took office, the Partnership has built or started work on $660 million in construction--about a third of which came from city subsidies.

But that Golden Age may be waning. Amid revelations of shoddy construction and ineffectual oversight, critics are questioning the Partnership’s practices--and the wisdom of constructing cheap, cookie-cutter low-rises in housing-starved neighborhoods like the South Bronx.

The problem is a system that has left construction quality and repairs up to hand-picked private contractors, even though each house has been subsidized by as much as $60,000 in city, state and federal money.

“There are government subsidies involved, and the question really is: ‘Should we have oversight?’ Well, we really haven’t in the past.” says the president of the Housing Partnership, Veronica White.

Under pressure from homeowners, who have begun organizing to demand repairs, the Partnership is working out formal design and construction guidelines for the first time. Officials are forcing developers to be more responsive to resident complaints and are planning to hire a full-time staff member to monitor construction on the 1,000 Partnership homes built each year.

But those changes might be just the beginning of a more profound shift. “Sacred cows make the best hamburger meat,” Giuliani remarked last month, while discussing his administration’s decision to pull support for a 500-unit Nehemiah Houses townhouse project in East New York. While he was clearly referring to the Nehemiah project, that philosophy might also apply to the Partnership.

“After 10 or 15 years, maybe you’re talking about the need for new blood,” says a Giuliani administration source.

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Any analysis of the Partnership’s successes and failures must begin with Kathy Wylde, the uber-operator who created an empire out of banker David Rockefeller’s early ‘80s, back-of-the-napkin idea of a public-private project to help working-class minorities become homeowners. Pushing the white-shoe directorate of the New York City Partnership and Chamber of Commerce on the issue of affordable housing, Rockefeller hired Wylde on her reputation as a competent nonprofit administrator. She turned out to be Roberta Moses.

Wylde created an independent system that captured hundreds of millions of dollars in government subsidies and city land while insulating its operations from intrusions by city bureaucrats. “A key element to [Kathy’s] style was to exploit every possible political advantage,” wrote urban planner Charles Orlebeke in his laudatory 1997 history of the Partnership. “[She knows] who is connected to whom in ways that could be orchestrated to gain public agency approval of a particular program or course of action.”

Using Rockefeller’s influence and her own considerable political wiles, Wylde was able to convince politicians, including Mayor Ed Koch, to exempt the Partnership from the city’s onerous bidding, oversight and procurement procedures. It was a set-up that helped spark a massive moderate-income housing boom in communities that had been abandoned by all but the poorest tenants. But critics would later charge that it also shielded her from accountability to her public benefactors.

“The city was always told to butt out,” recalls a former city housing official. “Anytime we had any questions, Kathy would say ‘This is our program. Just pay up.’ We never had any say in terms of the construction or the selection of contracts.”

The structure of the deals reflected Wylde’s desire to keep the city from mucking up the works. The Partnership would select a contractor from its own approved list. At the beginning, the builders were outer-borough homebuilders and general contractors--later, Wylde created a minority builder program. The contractors were given a general budget and free-market latitude in how to build, resulting in a wide range of styles and quality on Partnership jobs.

In a bid to include grassroots groups, Wylde and her staff selected neighborhood nonprofits to act as the Partnership’s sales agents and pre-construction contacts for potential homebuyers. Once those components were in place, Wylde, a one-time community reinvestment officer at Anchor Savings Bank, would assemble the financing from lenders. For the most part, the system worked. She estimates that builders defaulted on their jobs only “eight or nine times” during her tenure--mostly during the city’s building slump 10 years ago.