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Monday, April 30, 2007

Armory Bidder's Political Muscle on Display?

According to the New York Post, the Atlantic Development Group, one of the three bidders for the Kingsbridge Armory redevelopment project, got a Bronx councilwoman, Marial del Carmen Arroyo, to press city housing officials to withdraw their decision to award a housing redevelopment project to developer Gerald Migdol so Atlantic itself could get the job. Atlantic is not named in the lawsuit brought by Migdol against the city, but the Post said Migdol fingered Atlantic as the culprit.
Atlantic, owned by Peter Fine, has a controversial record of developing low-income housing around the city. The Norwood News profiled Fine, who has close ties to Bronx Democrats, and Atlantic last summer in this article.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Latino Pols Take Aim at PBS

So, this is more interesting than what's usually in the pile of press releases we get on a Friday afternoon:
A raft of the city’s Latino state legislators is up in arms over an upcoming 14-hour PBS documentary by Ken Burns on World War II.
The lawmakers say the film, set to air this fall, ignores the Hispanic American experience in the war.
“We had hoped that as the leader of the nation’s taxpayer supported educational television network, you would embrace your core educational mission,” the legislators wrote in a letter to Paula Kerger, president of PBS. “To first ignore and then relegate to an afterthought, the contributions of more than a half million Latino GIs who fought and died in Europe, North and Asia, and of our families who supported the war effort on the home front represents a stunning failure to educate.”
The officials also said they were troubled by “what appears to be a pattern with similar Ken Burns PBS projects like “Baseball” and “Jazz.”
Firing a shot across the Network’s bow, the legislators said they and their colleagues in local and federal government should examine their funding of PBS, and focus their energies on nurturing “alternative educational television networks, producers and program[ing] which authentically comes from and serves our community.”
Among the Bronx lawmakers who signed the letter, were Assemblymen Jose Rivera and Luis Diaz, Assemblywoman Naomi Rivera, and State Senators Efrain Gonzalez and Jose M. Serrano.
We're waiting for a response from PBS. We'll let you know what they say.

Sen. Serrano Says 'No' to Death Penalty

Over on the Room 8 Blog, State Senator Jose M. Serrano explains his opposition to capital punishment, as debate over the death penalty heats up in the state legislature following the murder of a state trooper.

NYC's Water Woes

Also published on the Drum Major Institute Blog

11.5% in July; 11.5% next year; 11.4% the year after that; and 11.3% in 2010. Compounded annually, the 54% increase in water and sewer rates in New York City that the Water Board is projecting over the next four years will mean more maxed-out homeowners going into foreclosure, more affordable housing managers struggling to keep their buildings afloat, and (since all costs trickle down) higher rents for the millions of rent stabilized tenants, many who already pay half of their income on rent.

Why the large increases? According to the Water Board (appointed by Mayor Bloomberg) there are three main reasons: $23 billion in capital costs (about half of which are state or federally mandated) that are paid out of rates; the plethora of billing errors that prevent the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) from enforcing collections resulting in more than $600 million in unpaid water bills; and the simple fact that water usage is down (they still need to collect a certain amount, so the more water we conserve, the more they’ll charge us for it!).

Add to this the fact that DEP will pay the City $135.9 million this year (and $154.8 million next year) in rent for use of land and infrastructure to deliver the water to City residents. So rate payers (and eventually tenants) pay more and more to DEP to pay the City rent to make sure we have a good chunk of that $4.4 billion dollar surplus the Mayor announced the other day. Does this make sense?

And don’t forget about the cost overruns at the water filtration plant being built on Bronx parkland, where the low-bid contractor has backed out because they know they can’t build it for what they had estimated. Rate payers (and eventually renters) will pay for the heavy federal fines being laid on the City each day a contractor is not in place – the amount is already over a million dollars. For the low-income neighborhood residents who already have to deal with the blasting, loss of parkland, and massive construction in their backyard, this is just another slap in the face.

So, enough about the reasons behind the rate increases; what is this really going to mean for low income households throughout the City? Most residents don’t think twice about water rates since owners pay them. But when the Rent Guidelines Board decides how much to raise rents each year for rent stabilized tenants, one of the main factors they look at is the rise in operating costs for owners. There’s no doubt that this four-year 54% increase in water (69% if you include last years 9.4% hike) will eventually get paid by renters in the coming years in a City where affordable rents are harder and harder to come by.

For owners and managers of affordable housing, the rate hikes mean an even more desperate struggle to reduce other operating costs to keep rents low while staying out of the red. As for new affordable housing projects, increased amounts of City subsidy will be necessary to defray these rising operating costs. Again, does this make sense?

And those who may be affected the most are the low, moderate and even middle income homeowners who are already dealing with volatile fuel costs, high insurance rates, and resetting interest rates on their ARMs (not to mention the victims of predatory lending). The percent of conventional homeowners (those living in a house) in New York City who pay more than 60% of their income on housing costs has jumped from 15.9% in 2002 to a staggering 19.2% in 2005. For these nearly one-fifth of all New York conventional homeowners, the projected water rate hikes could mean the difference between making their mortgage payments and going into foreclosure. How does this fit in with the City's foreclosure prevention work?

The hearings the Water Board has been holding in the five boroughs will not change any of the rate increases, and the press coverage on the overall situation and projected increases has been nonexistent. A real plan of action is to call on the City to convene a Water Summit with appropriate City leadership (including Bloomberg and/or Doctoroff) and nonprofit, real estate and lending community representatives to examine alternatives to this series of excessive rate hikes. The summit should tie into the Mayor’s 2030 planning and focus on environmentally friendly ways to reduce costs for rate payers. These should include looking to reduce capital costs or shifting them away from rate payers, and re-examining DEP’s rental payment to the City. Financial incentives for building owners who install gray water systems and green roofs should also be instituted, along with less costly incentives that can be utilized by homeowners, such as installing street trees, storm water tanks, porous pavement, and rain water harvesting systems.

If the City is really serious about preserving affordability, it needs to take water into account.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Filter Fines Pile Up

As if it wasn't bad enough that there are no takers yet to fill the gaping, yawning hole in Van Cortlandt Park, where blasting has gone on for two years, now word comes via the Post that the city has been racking up heavy federal fines since Feb. 8 for each day it fails to award the contract to build the filtration plant.

"Fines began at $11,000 per day, and go up every 30 days to a higher amount. As of today, the city will owe $1,160,500, and by May 9, $1,560,000 - when the fines reach $30,000 a day."
The water rate hearing at Lehman College tomorrow takes on added importance, since water rate payers are already being asked to shell out an addition 11.5 percent. Will rate payers have to foot the bill for the fines, too? We'll let you know.

Update: The Department of Environmental Protection's press office just got back to us with the answer to the above question: a simple and direct "Yes."

Monday, April 23, 2007

Koppell: Investigate 'Hall of Justice'

As the New York Times reports, Councilman Oliver Koppell is calling for an investigation of the cost overruns and construction problems at the Bronx Hall of Justice on 161st Street. The gleaming glass structure was supposed to be finished in 2005 and cost $325 million. Two years later, the price tag is $400 million, and the scheduled opening next month is in jeopardy. The main problem appears to be the 200-space parking garage which has been declared unsafe.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Norwood News On-Line

The latest issue of the Norwood News is on the streets and on-line.
Particularly pertinent to our efforts to bring more local news to more people, especially on-line, through the West Bronx News Network, is Alex Kratz's report on the digital divide. The City Council's Broadband Advisory Committee held it's first hearing in the Bronx and we report on their efforts and those of the Bronx's nonprofit sector.
Other stories you can read 0n-line: Muslim Community Wants Schools to Recognize Holidays; Filter Plant Contractor Bails Out; Planning for a Harlem River Renaissance; and VC Park Group Has New Leader.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Susan's Place

Soon, 180 homeless women will have access to housing, job training and counseling at Susan’s Place (pictured), a new transitional residence being built on Jerome Avenue at 177th Street. Heather Appel of the NYCity News Service, writing for the Mount Hope Monitor, has the story. (Photo by James Fergusson)

That Time of Year

It may not feel like it, but it's time to hit the diamonds for local little leaguers. This photo is from the Mosholu Montefiore Community Center's opening day a couple of weeks ago. It's the cover photo on the print edition of the Norwood News that hits the streets today. (Photo by David Greene)

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Filtration Contractor Bails Out

The water filtration plant project may be heading toward disaster.

You know that giant hole in Van Cortlandt Park where there used to be grass, trees and a golf driving range? Well, there may not be anybody around to fill it.

Yesterday, the DEP confirmed that the contractor for building the filtration plant, a consortium led by Perini Corp. that won the bid last fall, bowed out, two months after it was supposed to begin work. The New York Post first reported this on Sunday.

Our story on this is coming out in Thursday's issue. Meanwhile, NewYorkBusiness.com reported yesterday that the city's Department of Investigation was looking into the Perini consortium, which may have been a reason why they dropped out. According to the report, the DOI had "qualms about violations involving Perini's meeting targets for subcontracts with minority- and women-owned business enterprises; the company was convicted in California in 2001 of making fraudulent MWBE claims."

Any company that is awarded a city contract must make a concerted effort to subcontract minority- and women-owned businesses as per city policy.

At the very least, this means the $2 billion project will cost another $200 million.

Brokers' thoughts on Bronx real estate market not all hot

An article in The Real Deal gets the reactions of a number real estate agents and brokers to a series of questions on the Bronx real estate market, and the outlook is definitely not all positive. Here are some of the more interesting and revealing comments:

Marco Lala of Massey Knakal:

"There are pockets of the Bronx like Riverdale, Pelham Parkway and Mosholu Parkway, along with some retail corridors along Fordham Road and Third Avenue in the East 150s, where on the surface, the prices are showing little or no returns for the investor for several years. For a borough where one could be assured a double-digit return, those days are far behind us."
"I am noticing banks underwriting deals more carefully. If banks start tightening their belts, it will trickle down to more conservative expectations from investors and ultimately translate into lower purchase prices. But for right now, there still is a lot of money sloshing around."

Aaron Jungreis of GFI Realty Services:
"The North Bronx north of Fordham Road is overrated. To me it doesn't make a difference if you are North or South Bronx, it is still low- to middle-income."
Joe Hasselt of Hasselt Realty:
"[The market] is slowing. It has changed from a seller's to a buyer's market. Before, if the borrower was having difficulty, they could get out of a property by finding a buyer. If that borrower falls behind now, counting on property appreciation will no longer bail him out and he could end up owing more than it's worth. Many have gone to renting rooms and basements to keep ahead of the game. Appreciation has gone flat and there is some depreciation in various segments. I think that we are moving toward a more balanced market but there may be a dip first."
"New construction that popped up everywhere is overrated as a whole. Often, that new housing is severely overpriced in relation to square footage, location and selling price of existing housing. We have heard instances of new home buyers expressing problems with construction defects at a rate higher than one would expect considering the prices that were paid."
Adrian Thompkins of the Corcoran Group:
"The consistently high rate of foreclosure in a few Bronx neighborhoods such as Throgs Neck, Highbridge and Soundview is cause for concern and investigation. I am almost certain it has to do with subprime lending: buyers not fully understanding the terms of a subprime mortgage; already being on a tight budget with a low margin for error; and perhaps some miscalculating the going rate for rental units in their properties. In those buildings all you need is one tenant not paying rent. For a 50-unit building it's not going to make much difference if one or two tenants don't pay their rent, but a three-unit building with a high interest rate to begin with makes it very difficult."
"I see buyers come with mortgages from companies I've never heard of, and it makes me a little nervous. A lot of the major banks are involved in the Bronx, so I don't understand how they go to some of these local companies."

Allison Jaffe of Key Real Estate Services:
"The middlemen -- the speculators are all over the place. These are guys that are doing incredibly shoddy renovations and flipping the building, taking advantage of unsophisticated homeowners who are selling their properties because they think $250,000 is a lot. Some people don't know that it is really worth $350,000 to $400,000. They are preying on both the people that they buy from and the people hey sell to, if the buyers are not sophisticated buyers."

Terminated ...

The German Army trainer who told a soldier to imagine that he was shooting at African Americans in the Bronx has been dismissed, according to this 1010 WINS report.
Readers of the West Bronx Blog have posted some interesting comments in response to our original posting on this. Check it out and add your thoughts.

Assembly Member Items On-Line

Power up your Acrobat.
A 3,000-plus-page document detailing this year's state Assembly's "legislative initiatives," better known as member items, has been uploaded to the Assembly's Web site. Happy hunting.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

German Bronx Dis is Only Most Recent in Long Line

Thanks to YouTube, the Bronx and the world was made aware this weekend of a German military training exercise where soldiers were told to imagine African Americans in the Bronx exiting a van before firing off their machine guns.

But anyone who has a Google Alert set for Bronx will learn relatively quickly that our borough is frequently used for target practice by clueless people trying to make a point in violent contexts. The Norwood News ran an editorial about exactly this last July (scroll down page to 2nd editorial). Here are a couple of excerpts:

Michael Hart, the Liberal Party candidate for state parliament in Burleigh, Australia, “has rejected suggestions that Burleigh is becoming the ‘Bronx’ of the city,” according to a local paper there.

“We are certainly having some trouble with out-of-control youth gatherings, but I don’t think we have reached that stage yet,” he told the paper. ...

A year ago, a Swiss paper ran an article about training sessions for people concerned about rising crime in Swiss cities. The headline was, “Safety lessons in a virtual Bronx.”

It's good that Bronx BP Adolfo Carrion has invited German military and government officials to tour the borough; we just worry he might have to hire a staffer exclusively to arrange the visits of a steady stream of less-than-enlightened representatives of foreign governments.

Friday, April 13, 2007

The Bronx Museum of the Arts takes on Housing

I just found out from Joan Byron of the Pratt Center in Brooklyn that the Bronx Museum of the Arts is hosting a forum this Saturday (April 14) on Understanding Housing Policies in the Bronx. Joan will be a panelist and will be quoting heavily from UNHP's Shrinking Affordability Report. The event will be at the Museum (1040 Grand Concourse @ 165th Street) from 2-4pm. Here's their blurb:

New residential and commercial construction has been bringing change to neighborhoods along the lower Grand Concourse for the past decade and the pace seems to be increasing. Now is a crucial time for community leaders and residents in the South Bronx to understand the forces that are propelling these changes on their streets.

Panelists will offer answers to these important questions:

  • Do current housing policies lead or impede?
  • Whose neighborhood is it anyway?
  • Is the history of “downtown” change repeating here?
  • Are truly diverse communities attainable?

This timely discussion will feature knowledgeable panelists:

  • Moderator: Allison Jaffe, Community Board 2 Housing & Land Use Committee
  • Joan Byron, Pratt Center for Community Development
  • Eduardo LaGuerre, Neighborhood Association for Inter-Cultural Affairs
  • Linda Cunningham, Bronx Bricks
  • Followed by audience participation.

If you are part of the neighborhood, be part of the process.

Sounds like it will be interesting. It's also free and open to the public.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Poor need housing, not handouts

In this week's Bronx Borough section of the Daily News, columnist Patrice O'Shaugnessy contrasts Bloomberg's experiment on paying poor New Yorkers for good behavior with the lack of well-paying jobs and affordable housing in her piece, Poor need housing, not handouts:

"Some critics of the plan said personal behavior isn't to blame for intractable poverty: The economy, driven by low-wage jobs that have shrunk the middle class, is the big factor. They say giving people decent-paying jobs and independence would break the cycle. The dearth of such jobs is keeping people down, generation after generation.

In certain areas of the Bronx, the working poor are paying more than half their meager incomes for rent; they'll never get ahead. And the number of apartments affordable to them is shrinking, say housing advocates."

Her column highlights UNHP's work on affordable housing and the recent forum and study on Shrinking Affordability in NYC.

Water Board Proposes 11.5% Rate Hike

The New York City Water Board is considering a proposal to raise rates for water by 11.5% starting on July 1, 2007. The increase is the largest increase in 15 years and follows an increase of 9.4% last year. The news that is not getting any publicity is that the Water Board is projecting annual increases of more than 11% for each of the next three years.

The NYC Water Board is holding public hearings in each of the boroughs. The Bronx hearing will be on Wednesday, April 25 at 9:30 AM at Lehman College (Carmen Hall, b-34).

The rate hike will directly affect homeowners and building owners, and will likely affect renters as well, as increases in operating costs get passed down to tenants in the form of larger annual rent hikes approved by the Rent Guidelines Board.

The Hearing schedule for all boroughs can be found here. Call Kevin Kunkle at 718-595-3601 to register for the hearing.

Mets vs. Yanks on Mass Transit

Over at the Save Our Parks blog, Lukas Herbert wonders why the Mets are making a good effort to get fans to take public transportation while the Yankees obsess about more parking. The least they could do, he says, is publicize the Melrose Metro North station, that he says some fans use, but many more could -- if they knew about it.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Cops Use Skywatch at Shea

James Fergusson of the Mount Hope Monitor reported recently on the possible use on Fordham Road of a tower equipped with cameras where police get a birds-eye view of large crowds. Now the Times has a story about the tower's use at Shea for the Mets' Opening Day.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Shooting Leaves One Dead, One Injured

One man was shot dead and another was seriously injured outside Kennedy Fried Chicken and Pizza, at E. 162 174th St., in the early hours of Saturday morning, following an argument with another man which started inside the restaurant. Click here for a map.
The dead man, Jose Viera of Eastburn Avenue, was 24. His brother-in-law, an unnamed 17-year-old who was shot in the face, remains in a serious condition in the hospital. No arrests have been made. Police are searching for a lone gunman.
Friends and neighbors of Viera have erected a memorial (pictured) near to where the men were shot. On Monday morning, Manny Ruiz, a friend of Viera's, came to show his respect. "He [Viera] was never the one to be fighting," said Ruiz. "He was the one to peace it out, one of coolest guys. He wasn't a troublemaker."
(Photo: James Fergusson)

Fire Rips Through Grand Concourse High-Rise; Many Injured

A three-alarm fire swept through a 13-story apartment building on the Grand Concourse, last night, injuring more than two dozen residents and at least ten firefighters. Five people – all civilians - are in a serious condition, fire officials say.
The blaze, at 1749 Grand Concourse, started in a first floor apartment at approximately 9 p.m. Patricia Zenon, who lives in the apartment next door, said she heard glass smash. “I opened my door and came out into a wall of blackness.” she said.
The fire is not being treated as suspicious. More here in the Mount Hope Monitor.
In the above photo, building residents survey the damage (Photo: James Fergusson)

Friday, April 6, 2007

Latest Norwood News ...

The latest issue of the Norwood News is on the streets and on-line. Check it out.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Norwood News Scores First Place Press Award!

The Norwood News took home a first place award for Heather Haddon's investigation of the Pinnacle Group at the New York Press Association's annual convention in upstate Saratoga last wekend. Heather's series was judged in a division with the state's highest circulation community newspapers. (Despite its small staff, the Norwood News' circulation of 15,000 is similar to newspapers that employ many more reporters.) 227 papers statewide competed in the Better Newspaper Contest in a wide variety of categories.
Heather is now a reporter at the Herald News, a daily paper in Paterson, NJ.
Here are some links for the first three articles in the series:
Company Gobbles Up Bronx Buildings
Investor's Tactics Worry Tenants
Full Court Press: Pinnacle Sues Hundreds of Bronx Tenants

Sunday, April 1, 2007

About that Metro North Station ...

Remember that eleventh-hour promise of a Metro North station at Yankee Stadium as the debate over the Bombers' new ballpark boiled over last year around this time? Well, don't plan to take the train to the game just yet. The New York Observer, echoing Real Estate Weekly, reports that the costs are much greater than expected. So, according to the Observer's blog, Borough President Carrion "wants to let a developer build 'an extensive mixed-use development' on top of the station in return for paying for the station's construction."
By the way, there's a lot of recent action on the anti-stadium Save Our Parks Web site, including Joyce Hogi's testimony to a Congressional committee studying stadium financing.