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Thursday, September 30, 2010

Tenants Hold Prayer Vigil; Demand Change

Residents at a portfolio of foreclosed and dilapidated buildings hold candles at a prayer vigil last night. (Photo by Jeanmarie Evelly)
Tenants from ten crumbling Bronx buildings gathered in the courtyard of 2770 Kingsbridge Terrace last night for a an emotional candlelit prayer vigil, fed up with conditions in apartments that many describe as unlivable. Their homes have been in foreclosure proceedings for over a year after private equity firm Milbank Real Estate defaulted on its $35 million mortgage.

"We shouldn't have to live like this," said Sergio Cuevas, whose apartment at 2785 Sedgwick Ave. is plagued by leaks, mold and rotting floors. "I don't invite anyone over to my home."

His neighbor, Chuck Davie, says he won't let his four-year-old son use their bathroom because the mold is so severe. He showers every morning at Bally's Gym to avoid using his leaky bathtub at home.

The vigil was held just hours after a Bronx Supreme Court judge ordered LNR Property LLC, the servicer to the loan that oversees the portfolio of buildings, to pay $2.5 million within the next 30 days on repairs. Housing advocates hailed the decision as a milestone step.

"As far as I know, this is the first decision of this kind," said Jonathan Levy of Legal Services-NYC, which filed a motion on behalf of the tenants to hold LNR or Wells Fargo, the bank that serves as the trustee on the mortgage, financially responsible for fixing the buildings.

LNR, meanwhile, has been in the process of selling the portfolio to a mystery buyer who has yet to come forward publicly, despite pleas from residents and city politicians to do so. The potential sale would only make things worse, they argue, unless the new landlord has the resources to afford the huge debt associated with the buildings--a $35 million mortgage--and still be able to make renovations to address some 3,000 housing violations.

Dina Levy, an organizer for the housing group UHAB, said it's unclear if LNR's payment will still stand if they succeed in transferring the properties to a new owner in the next month.

"In some ways, this may be more symbolic," she said. "Our case is based on the foreclosure being active. If they close [on the deal], the forecosure will no longer be active."
A leaky ceiling in the lobby of 2770 Kingsbridge Terrace.

Either way, tenants have made it clear that they won't give up fighting. At last night's vigil, dozens of tenants--joined by Councilman Fernando Cabrera and Assemblyman Nelson Castro--stood in a circle with flickering candles, while Father Thomas Lynch from nearby our Lady of Angels Church led the group in prayer and song.

"Together, our voice will be heard. We cannot give up," said Sedgwick Avenue tenant Maggie Maldonado, in a rousing speech met with cheers from the crowd. "If these new owners, if HPD, if anybody sees that we are backing up--they expect that of us. We are minorities, and they expect us to be silly, stupid, not caring. But we care about our lives."

The group, led by organizers from the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, has been asking HPD to intervene and block LNR from selling the building, and have proposed other tactics--like a possible rent strike--to get immediate action.

Many of the residents present last night, however, said they would only stop paying rent as an absolute last resort.

"I would feel kind of cheap doing that," one elderly woman said.

So far, LNR has declined to comment.


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