For residents of the Betty Shabazz Apartments in Brooklyn, a higher standard of living seemed on deck when a real estate company co-founded by former Mets first baseman Mo Vaughn acquired their 160-unit affordable housing complex in 2010.
But 11 years later, residents of the four buildings on Gates Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant say that living conditions have slumped to an all-time low.
“These apartments are raggedy,” Villa Smith, who has lived there for more than four decades, told THE CITY.
“I’ve been in these buildings since 1976,” she added. “This is the worst I’ve seen.”
She and others in the 50-year-old complex say the property manager is slow to complete urgent repairs or doesn’t do them at all, while some units are rodent infested.
On top of that, they say, homeless people linger in the lobby, sleep on the roof, urinate in the hallways, defecate in the stairwell and have sex in the laundry room.
Vaughn and Omni, his company specializing in transforming buildings into affordable housing across the Northeast U.S., have largely been missing in action, residents say. The company came in via a deal with the city Housing Development Corporation under Mayor Mike Bloomberg.
Tenant Association President Estelle Boyce Owusu, 77, said that while Vaughn personally helped resolve maintenance issues in the past, he hasn’t come around the complex in years. She and other tenants said that Reliant Realty Services, a company that’s handled property management since Omni acquired the buildings, bears responsibility for the mess.
Boyce Owusu said the trespassing problems began last summer but that their housing headaches preceded the pandemic.
The city Department of Housing Preservation and Development issued the buildings relatively few violations through 2017, but that changed in 2018, when HPD issued 113, with 21 of them the most severe category, Class C. That was followed by 118 in 2019, with 33 Class C, and 114 in 2020, with 38 Class C.
HPD issued 21 violations this year that remain open, with one Class C for a roach infestation. It has since been addressed, according to HPD records.
Most of the violations have been corrected. But tenants say problems persist.
“You get mice droppings every single day,” said Sabrina Baker, a tenant who says she sweeps up the poop on a daily basis and tells her grandson to stay off the floor.
Finger-Pointing at Police
A spokesperson for Omni and Reliant, Ronn Torossian, told THE CITY that management has struggled to stop homeless people from taking refuge at the complex following the shutdown last year of a controversial NYPD patrol program.
For years, the NYPD’s Trespass Affidavit Program, also known as Operation Clean Halls, allowed police officers to confront loiterers inside private buildings whose owners had invited them in. But the program downshifted after civil liberties groups sued the NYPD and a federal court ruled in 2017 that police illegally stopped and frisked people inside private buildings.
In September 2020, the NYPD shut down Clean Halls entirely, shifting to what a statement called “smarter, more effective ways” to secure buildings, such as surveillance cameras.
Now, Torossian said, the NYPD can only enter private property if called upon, and then police are only permitted to remove trespassers but not arrest them. “Hence, we have a recurring issue with two homeless individuals who have been removed by our security teams and NYPD on multiple occasions, but they return to the property as soon as NYPD leaves,” he said.
Boyce Owusu said she and her neighbors are in favor of giving the NYPD access to their building in order to deter the uninvited troublemakers from wreaking havoc.
“They need to keep that up,” she said of the now-defunct NYPD program. The unwanted intruders, she continued, are “making everybody uncomfortable. They make everybody’s life miserable.”
‘You Had to Go Get Your Own Stove?’
As for tenants’ maintenance complaints, Omni asserts that COVID-19 restrictions limited their ability to perform non-emergency repairs at the peak of the pandemic last year.
“We were not able to address some non-emergency work orders in 2020 due to the pandemic, but we believe all such repairs have been addressed at this time,” Torossian said. He added that many violations remain unresolved because residents won’t open their doors to inspectors to clear the violations from the record.
He noted the aging complex faces new issues on a daily basis, adding that this year “the property completed 750 total work orders, including 80 emergency work orders.”
The company annually inspects the apartments to determine what work needs to be performed to put them in the best shape, he said. Those inspections weren’t completed in 2020, but this year 128 of 160 units have been inspected, resulting in “14 units receiving a full cycle paint job and 17 other units receiving touch-up painting.”
And he said the management team tells residents that they’re available to confer about maintenance problems.
“We are receptive to meeting regularly with tenants and residents associations at their convenience,” he said.
Vaughn’s Personal Touch
Still, residents aren’t satisfied.
They recalled in the early days when Vaughn personally came to their meetings — and to the aid of tenants.
Several years ago, resident Terry Gist told THE CITY, she paid out of pocket for a stove to replace a shoddy one inside her apartment. She expressed her frustration at a meeting that Vaughn attended with the management team.
Vaughn was appalled by what he heard, she said.
Gist recounted the exchange: “He said, ‘You had to go get your own stove?’ I said ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘You have your receipt?’ And I said ‘Yes.’”
Then, she said, he gazed at the other managers present and said: “Cut her a check, now!”
Vaughn did not respond to THE CITY’s request for comment.
Baker questioned how the owner could allow the apartments to deteriorate so much.
“Would you live in these conditions?” she asked.
“For a whole month, I had no ceiling in my bathroom,” she said, noting that a piece of plastic covered the hole until a contractor finally patched it.
Boyce Owusu said everything went downhill under Reliant’s watch in recent years. She said that she hopes the company will finally step up and do what it’s supposed to do, so that residents can live peacefully, without trespassers roaming around their buildings.
“The people are getting tired,” she said. “We just want them to do their job.”