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ROTTEN BANANAS ON KELLY STREET

Troubled buildings home to vagrants

By Matthew J. Perlman
Hunter College

At the end of a once-charming hallway in 935 Kelly St., with beige walls, red trim, and matching honeycomb tiles, an open window looks onto a fire escape where a dead rat bakes in the sun.

“Watch this,” said Louis Angel, a tenant, giving a swift kick to the door of a vacant first floor apartment.

Swinging open, it admits the powerful smell of rot and absent plumbing.

Inside, there are gaping holes in the walls and ceilings, exposing rafters, wiring, and pipes. Dirt and refuse cover the floors.

A needle and some small Baggies with a powdery residue, the discarded ware of junkies, lie on a table of what was once the living room.

“Police come every day to check it out,” said Angel. “And they arrest anyone they find inside.”

This troubled property is one of five Kelly Street buildings between East 163rd Street and Intervale Avenue in Longwood, including 912, 916, 920, and 924, that went into foreclosure earlier this year, after a long period of neglect by the previous owners.

Workforce Housing Advisers, an investment group that strives to preserve affordable housing in the city, purchased the buildings at auction on August 1. The same group bought the defaulted mortgage from Ridgewood Savings Bank back in January and forced the foreclosure proceeding to move forward, giving hope to beleaguered tenants fed up with their prior slumlord.

In March a housing court judge appointed the Longwood-based community development organization, Banana Kelly, to perform regular maintenance on the properties and make emergency repairs with money they collect from the rent role, bringing the storied agency back to the very block where they made there name 30 years ago.

But, having to rely mostly on the meager rents they collect from tenants to finance repairs, the group has had trouble keeping up, especially with the vacant apartments.

“We lock the doors, and the next day they’re broken again,” said Hope Burgess, director of program operations for Banana Kelly.

“Banana Kelly is trying to be very vigilant about securing vacant units,” said John Warren, of Workforce Housing Advisers.

To help combat the problem, Banana Kelly officials have given police permission to enter the buildings periodically and watch out for unauthorized users of the empty apartments.

But, even knowing who should and shouldn’t be there has been a problem.

”We have given tenants a chance to come in and register with us,” said Burgess, “but many have not done that.”

Meanwhile, frustration over current living conditions persists.

“I wish they’d just fix everything,” said Angel, who has lived at 935 Kelly St. for six years. “Because the landlord doesn’t care, the people don’t care either.”

“It’s nasty,” said John Burgos, one of two porters working for Banana Kelly, as he mopped the lobby and took out the trash. “Especially 935,” where the ceiling in the lobby collapsed last month.

Major repairs to the buildings are expected to begin early next year, said Warren, who worked for the city’s department of Housing Preservation and Development for 20 years before joining the investment group.

“The renovation plan is a pretty comprehensive one,” he said, adding that Banana Kelly’s present working budget allows only for the most urgent repairs. “We’re focusing on leaks and safety issues right now,” said Burgess.

“Since Banana Kelly’s been here it’s gotten much better,” said Angel Rosado, who has lived at 920 Kelly St. for ten years. “They’re cleaning up, and getting the bad people out,” he said. Banana Kelly has taken 11 of the buildings’ tenants to court, trying to force them to start paying rent or move out.

“They’re getting things done,” said Wanda Salaman, director of Mothers on the Move, who helped organize the tenants during the foreclosure process. “Emergency repairs are getting made without a problem.”

But more extensive problems will have to wait. The tenants of nine apartments in 935 Kelly St. had to be relocated and the two storefronts on the corner of Kelly and East 163rd Streets were forced to close due to structural problems, according to Salaman.