That makes some residents angry. “You have the pygmies rush in, and say, ‘Oh, I have a 40,000-square-foot lot and I could put 10 apartments on it,’” said Vince Castellano, a longtime area property owner and landlord. Castellano faults local developers for failing to understand the basic concept of market saturation and operating with a herd mentality.
When fault lines appeared in the city's housing market over a year ago, the fate of these new homes was sealed. Strained lending markets – both for developers and buyers – as well as instances of foreclosure have driven down rates of home ownership. “Five years ago, people started to hesitantly come back to the area,” Graziano said. “Then everyone wanted to get in on the game. Spec housing and low-end rentals basically strained the recovery in [these neighborhoods], which was extremely fragile to begin with.”
Compounding this problem, a lot of this new construction is low quality. Glaring problems are visible everywhere. Doorframes are falling off, vents have been kicked in, and windows are boarded up. One conspicuous example is a 14-story building on the beach. According to a construction worker who has been on the site from the start, early in the project a foreman made an error in reading the blueprints, so the balconies face inland rather than toward the ocean. Such incompetence is common.
Because these small developers built without lining up a buyer prior to construction, they found themselves sitting on expensive investments they couldn’t sell. Short of shuttering the properties or letting the bank take them, developers only really had one option: turn to government-subsidized clients referred from homeless shelters. Though renting compromises their future ability to sell the property, many owners opted to recoup some of their expenses rather than suffer a complete loss on their investment.
Annabelle, the proprietor of the Caribbean restaurant, is also at the mercy of these larger market forces. Her doors are open but she’s just barely holding on. Since the clientele she expected never came, she downgraded to disposable cutlery and napkins, and quickly abandoned the goal of expanding next door. The property is now a liquor store, customers separated from clerks and the alcohol by thick bulletproof glass. Annabelle is convinced that the teenagers out front are selling drugs.
“For the guys who got in the game late, the music stopped and they found that there were no more chairs left to sit in," says Gaska – but then there was the city, offering a way out.
Who’s to blame?
It's hard to fault the city too much, though, since HPD has not only transformed the area, but has also achieved its goals of stimulating private development. Similarly, City Planning has been fairly responsive to residents’ calls for a rezoning.
The agency Gaska and others take the dimmest view of is the Department of Homeless Services (DHS). They believe that DHS, much like welfare agencies in the 1950s and 60s, has an unspoken policy of placing clients in the Rockaways. For DHS, however, any other course of action may very possibly mean failing its primary mandate.
Residents point out that the housing in which many formerly homeless families find themselves is of dangerously poor quality. Shallah and Melody Currence, a young couple who moved with their two toddler daughters from shelters in the Bronx, can attest to this firsthand. The Currences live in a ten-block chunk of new construction in Far Rockaway that's ravaged well beyond its age. Though their building was finished less than two years ago, raw sewage from a cracked septic tank leaks into the front yard. Since the water in the pipes frequently smells like excrement, the family drinks only bottled water (at a cost of nearly $50 a month) and they boil water for bathing. The heat didn’t work all winter, so they kept the kitchen oven going full blast throughout the day with the oven door open.
The Currences’ home, as well as those around it, did meet DHS’s inspection requirements before they moved in. As a new building, it was actually in far better condition than any of the other places the family considered. But whether landlords continue to meet their responsibilities once tenants move in is another question. The Currences haven’t seen or heard from their landlord, Kevil Forrester, in nearly nine months. Forrester, who owns only that one property in the Rockaways, could not be reached for this article.
Landlord absenteeism and negligence could have something to do with DHS policy. The Currences were enrolled in the agency’s Housing Stability Plus (HSP) program. HSP, which is being phased out, was widely criticized across the city for, among other things, its lax inspection requirements—including allowing landlords to self-report that they’d made a repair without external confirmation. “[T]he fact that it doesn’t require adequate inspections makes it just ripe for that kind of abuse by slumlords,” said Patrick Markee, senior policy analyst for the Coalition for the Homeless. (HSP has been replaced by a new program, Work Advantage, in which DHS re-inspects the apartment and applies stricter federal HUD guidelines for initial approval.)
Though HSP may have been part of the problem, at the same time some clients do not know their rights and options. The Currences, for example, say they haven’t reported the conditions to HPD (which, in addition to promoting new construction on city property, also enforces landlords’ code compliance). In fact, they had never heard of HPD. Getting the tenant to report violations is not DHS’s responsibility: once DHS helps a client find permanent housing and leave a homeless shelter and he or she signs a lease, that person is the same as any tenant and must deal directly with the landlord or a compliance agency like HPD. (DHS does provide resources such as a Tenants’ Rights Guide and hands-on support through its HomeBase Program.)
Many people in the area also blame the tenants themselves, who they think have little investment or concern for the quality of the neighborhood. “The promise of a new building on the street goes down the drain” when a formerly homeless New Yorker occupies a home, said Steve Cromity, a 22-year resident of the Bayswater section. “You expect someone to own it, to take care of it and be a part of the community. But tenants are not owners. Even good tenants don’t always take care of the property. They don’t have a vested interest.”