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CEO Promises New Day for Embattled Housing Company

November 10, 2009

By JAMES FERGUSSON

Mount Hope Housing Company was founded in 1986. Its mission: to provide safe, affordable housing for residents of the Mount Hope neighborhood, and in the process fight back against the urban decay that was ravaging much of the south Bronx.

Today, the organization manages more than 30 apartment buildings and provides a range of vital services, such as GED classes, to local residents. In the words of Xavier Rodriguez, Community Board 5’s district manager, Mount Hope is one of the area’s “Fortune 500 companies.”

But, behind the scenes, all has not been well these past few years. Tenants say they’ve noticed a drop-off in services. They say the buildings and apartments have been neglected, that repair requests are ignored, and that Mount Hope has been contributing to the problems it seeks to combat.

AT 1892 MORRIS AVE. ABOUT HALF THE TENANTS ARE ON RENT STRIKE (PHOTO: J. FERGUSSON)

AT 1892 MORRIS AVE. ABOUT HALF THE TENANTS ARE ON RENT STRIKE (PHOTO: J. FERGUSSON)

Tenants’ Anger Bubbles Over

In September 2008, approximately 50 tenants living in 1892 Morris Ave. took Mount Hope to court for failing to maintain the building.  That November they began a rent strike which continues to this day.

Tenants there complain of faulty elevators, broken locks on the building’s front doors, sporadic heat and hot water, and broken security cameras. Residents of other Mount Hope buildings have similar concerns.

“I’m not satisfied at all,” said Maria Mercado, a resident of 1789 Davidson Ave. “To fix the
apartments, they take forever.”

“Everyone is unhappy. They’re like ‘this place is just horrible,” said Gloria Rivera, who lives at 1800 Davidson Ave. “Some of these people are good hardworking people. It’s not fair what’s going on.”

At 2059 Davidson Ave., tenant Yessica Alcantara showed a reporter two gaping holes in her bathroom ceiling. Mount Hope had someone fix leaks in her ceiling a year ago, she says, but no one returned to patch things up. “We pay our rent every month and it’s just like ridiculous,” she said.

George Clardy, the husband of Leona Clardy, a Mount Hope founder who died in 2005, has no complaints himself. But he says he’s regularly stopped in the street by fellow tenants with a Mount Hope-related gripe on the tip of their tongue.

“I know, and I’ve heard, a lot of displeasure,” Clardy said.

New CEO: Mistakes Were Made

Of course, not every tenant is dissatisfied, and not every issue can be blamed on Mount Hope – it’s not Mount Hope that breaks the locks on buildings’ front doors, for example. Moreover, the buildings are aging, and costs, such as heating oil, have shot up recently, making effective management difficult.

But even top-level staff and board members admit that mistakes have been made.

They say Forrest Branch, the company’s property manager until earlier this year when he was fired, failed to address tenant complaints in a timely manner, if at all. Under his watch, legal fees soared (because Mount Hope had so many court dates with tenants), as did other expenses.

Meanwhile, the buildings’ Con-Edison and water bills were left unpaid, and debt mounted.

Adding to this, the organization was galloping forward, and not looking back.

FRITZ JEAN, MOUNT HOPES NEW CEO (PHOTO: A WATKINS)

FRITZ JEAN, MOUNT HOPE'S NEW CEO (PHOTO: A WATKINS)

“Over the last three or four years… we took our eyes off the prize, the prize being service to our tenants, and the stability of our buildings,” said Fritz Jean, Mount Hope’s new CEO, in an interview last month. “We took our eyes off that and started looking into development. That is fine, because we have to grow, but it is not fine when we do that at the expense of our existing… portfolio.”

Jean took charge in June, replacing Shaun Belle, who had been with the organization 13 years. He says Belle’s leaving was a “mutual decision” between the board of directors (Jean was then president of the board) and Belle.

According to Jean, Belle focused on new projects – including the new community center on Townsend Avenue – and didn’t give the buildings the attention they needed.

Specifically, during the latter years of Belle’s tenure, close to $4 million was moved from several
buildings’ reserve accounts (money put aside for major improvements, a common real estate industry practice), Jean said, to help fund Mount Hope’s new community center, social services programs, and other projects. This, Jean said, despite the organization being told by the Department of Housing Preservation and
Development (HPD), to leave the reserves intact.

“Many of the funding reserves, a good portion of it, was used to trigger new development, and that’s a problem,” Jean said.

Asked about the reserves, Belle wrote in an email: “The use of MHHC reserves… was consistent
with its mission.”

He added: “At no point, could the CEO or other staff unilaterally or independently approve any of these activities as all such transactions required board involvement and approval as exhibited in all company records.”

But it remains unclear as to whether board members knew HPD had asked Mount Hope not to touch the reserve money. The Board trusted Shaun, said one staffer with knowledge of the situation.

Jean said he believes the money went back into Mount Hope, not people’s pockets. But that hasn’t stopped the city’s Department of Investigations (DOI), an agency that investigates fraud and corruption, from looking into Mount Hope’s finances, and asking for documentation, which Jean said they’ve provided.

A DOI spokeswoman would neither confirm nor deny that an investigation was under way.

A Corner Turned?

Jean, a 43-year-old lawyer who lives in Brooklyn and is a childhood friend of Belle’s, has made significant changes since becoming president of the board in February and then CEO in June.He’s laid off at least seven staff, cut remaining staffers’ salaries by 7.5 percent, and says he’s tried to install a better work ethic.

Moving forward, Jean says, the focus is on addressing tenants’ concerns; ensuring Mount Hope’s different departments (such as Youth and Adult Services) become self-sufficient; replenishing the buildings’ reserves; ensuring a system is in place to guard against the reserves being “purged” again; making Mount Hope’s finances more transparent; and ultimately restoring HPD’s and other partners’ confidence.

Jean says Mount Hope has managed to pay off some debt, and to address problems in the worst
buildings, including one on Creston Avenue.

Key figures in the community are rooting for him.

“I think Fritz is going to turn things around,” Clardy said. “His head and his heart are in the right place. I keep telling folks, give him a chance.”

“I think he’s on the right track,” said Cleo Boyd, one of Mount Hope’s founders and a longtime
board member.

Jean believes Mount Hope has turned a corner, but he fears funders and partners could decide to bring someone else in to manage the buildings.

“Ultimately they [HPD] have a decision to make, the same thing with all the partners,” he said.“My only hope is for them to say, ‘You know what? Mount Hope historically has been a very good organization. Hey, Mount Hope you dropped the ball three, four years ago. We noticed that you took made decisions, and this is
your plan going forward. We want to [give you another chance].’ That would be a beautiful scenario for us.”

Joyce Hilliard, the president of the tenants association at 1892 Morris Ave., the building that
is on rent strike, says a new management company might be just what the doctor ordered. But
Jean thinks it would be sad day if Mount Hope was forced to scale back.

“Mount Hope is a minority-run organization,” Jean said. “The number of individuals who have come through here from different walks of life and have received their training to move on [is tremendous]. To close that [door] would be a shame.”

He added: “I believe in Mount Hope, what it stands for, what it stands for in the community. And I’m going to commit myself 110 percent to make it what it’s supposed to be.”

Additional reporting by Linsey Isaacs.

Ed. Note: For help and assistance, Mount Hope tenants can call the organization’s customer service hotline at (866) 279-6388. Mount Hope is looking for board members. For information, call the main office at (718) 583-7017.

Much-Delayed Community Center Still Not Open

November 10, 2009

MOUNT HOPE HOUSING COMPANYS NEW COMMUNITY CENTER WAS SUPPOSED TO OPEN IN 2007 (PHOTO: J. FERGUSSON)

MOUNT HOPE HOUSING COMPANY'S NEW COMMUNITY CENTER WAS SUPPOSED TO OPEN IN 2007 (PHOTO: J. FERGUSSON)

By JAMES FERGUSSON

In June, Mount Hope Housing Company held a ribbon cutting ceremony to celebrate the completion of their beautiful, but long-delayed, new community center at 55 E. 175th Street, and to honor Shaun Belle, Mount Hope’s president and CEO who was leaving the organization.

Four months later, the center has yet to officially open.

According to Fritz Jean, the new CEO, the project has long been hampered by construction delays, and funding problems. But this latest delay has nothing to do to with money. “The money is not at all the issue. It [only] becomes an issue when we look at the operation,” Jean said,in that Mount Hope is still looking for funds to keep the center afloat when it finally opens.

Instead, something else is holding it back. “Most recently we discovered that the building encroaches upon city property by three eighths of an inch,” Jean said.

That’s the width of a fingernail. But to the city’s Department of Buildings, it’s a big deal, and has stopped Mount Hope from being awarded their permanent certificate of occupancy. This in turn is preventing Mount Hope’s Department of Youth Services from moving into the center, and holding classes there, because the contract Mount Hope has with the city’s Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD) won’t be honored until the Department of Health has inspected the building. And they won’t do that without a permanentcertificate of occupancy.

Staff have reached out to the Bronx borough president’s office and others for a solution, and hope the center will finally open in the new year.

The building does have a temporary certificate of occupancy, meaning businesses and individuals can rent it for events – there are large, open spaces on the third and fourth floors. Mount Hope is also hoping to rent some office space there on a permanent basis. To find out more, callthe main office at (718) 583-7017.

Mount Hope also has plans to build a gymnasium next to the center on Walton Avenue, just south of the New Hope Walton Project, a new affordable housing complex built by Mount Hope.

Approximately $2 million has been raised; at least another $2 million is needed.

Jean says the idea now is to build a two-story parking garage underground, and the gymnasium on top.

PS 204 Teachers, Parents: Current Building Not Up to Par

November 10, 2009

TEACHERS AND PARENTS AT PS 204, A SCHOOL ON WEST 174TH STREET NEAR NELSON AVENUE, SAY THEIR CURRENT  BUILDING FAILS TO SERVE STUDENTS’ NEEDS (PHOTOS: A. WATKINS)
TEACHERS AND PARENTS AT PS 204, A SCHOOL AT W. 174TH ST. NEAR NELSON AVE., SAY THEIR CURRENT BUILDING FAILS TO SERVE STUDENTS’ NEEDS (PHOTOS: A. WATKINS)

By REBECCA THOMAS

For half an hour twice a day, the children of PS 204 in Morris Heights have a playground. Before the school day at 8:30 a.m. and after it ends at 2:45 p.m., a section of West 174th Street outside the elementary school is closed off with police barricades. This small stretch of road also doubles as the school’s gym. If the weather is bad, the barriers aren’t set up at all. On those days there is no playground and no physical education classes.

“We have no playground, no gym, no library, no computer lab, no art room,” said Bill Geelan, a science teacher at the school.

School administrators have been lodging complaints about the building’s facilities since PS 204 moved onto the site in 1990. Now teachers and parents suspect that the academic success of the school is handicapping their childrens’ chances of moving into a new building a few blocks away on University Avenue near West Tremont Avenue.

“My fear as an educator is that the Department of Education is saying, ‘Their test scores are fine, they are not a priority.’ We feel we’re ignored because we do well,” said Geelan. This year, over 80 percent of PS 204 students exceeded state standards for English, as did 97 percent in math. These scores are at least 20 percentage points higher than the city average.

The students may be meeting standards but the building they learn in is not. It has 12 bathroom stalls for 326 students. There is no air-conditioning or ventilation system — windows face onto walls and temperatures can climb to over 100 in summer, Geelan says. There is no school bell and Geelan carries the water for experiments to class in buckets because the room has no running water. The rooms are split into classrooms using partitions.

        CRYSTAL NISSING, A CONCERNED PARENT

CRYSTAL NISSING, A CONCERNED PARENT

Plumbing is an ongoing problem. “The bathrooms are in the basement. When the rain is really bad outside, the water comes up through the toilets and the sinks,” said Crystal Nissing, a parent at the school.

The PS 204 building is a former synagogue which the Department of Education leases from a private owner. It was built in 1924. “The building is deteriorating. It’s not meant to be a school,” said Ted Garcia, the president of Community Education Council 9.

Next September, a new school building – IS 338 – will open at 1780 University Ave.  The city’s Department of Education [DOE] would not comment on which schools will be moving into the new 900-student capacity facility; neither would they say whether IS 338 will have a completely new school administration, or whether existing schools will simply be moved in.

The IS 338 building will have a playground, an auditorium, a science lab, a gym, as well as digital displays and air-conditioning, according to Albert Aronov, who works for one of the architecture firms involved in the project.

The Department of Education says that it does not prioritize failing schools for new buildings. “Decisions to move schools for facility reasons are not affected by test scores,” said William Havemann, a DOE spokesman. He would not say whether PS 204 will be moving into IS 338.

The DOE did not respond to the school’s request to allow a reporter to tour the current PS 204 site.

The consequences for PS 204 if it does not get new facilities could be dire. Nissing says she will have to move her daughter if things do not improve.

“The teachers [at PS 204] are spectacular. There are charter schools I could have put my daughter into but I picked this school because it’s so good and feels like a family,” she says. “The sad thing is, as much as I love that school, if a new school does open there, I am going to be forced to transfer my daughter. She deserves a library, a playground. She deserves better than what she gets here.”

Ed. Note: A public meeting will be held on Nov. 12, so that local residents can learn more about IS 338, and what the DOE has planned. For more information, see here.

Cuts to After-School Programming Draws Protest

November 10, 2009

ON OCT. 22, STUDENTS FROM PS 59 AND PS/MS 279 HELD A RALLY TO BRING ATTENTION TO RECENT CUTS TO AFTER-SCHOOL PROGRAMMING (PHOTO: P. EGAN)

ON OCT. 22, STUDENTS FROM PS 59 AND PS/MS 279 HELD A RALLY TO BRING ATTENTION TO RECENT CUTS TO AFTER-SCHOOL PROGRAMMING (PHOTO: P. EGAN)

By PATRICK EGAN

When school started this past September at three local schools, hundreds of kids, and their parents, had to face the reality that the afterschool program they’d once counted on no longer had room for them.

The program, run by the non-profit Committee for Hispanic Children and Families, served 635 children last year. After funding cuts, it provides for only 320. The non-profit no longer serves PS 306 on West Tremont Avenue, and at PS/MS 279 and PS 59, it eliminated the kindergarten program, capped enrollment and stripped the programs of many special features.

On a recent afternoon, the fortunate kids gathered with program and school leaders in the PS/MS 279 schoolyard on Walton Avenue to give thanks for what they have and to call for restoration of $427,000 in lost funding. Jocelyn Robles, a fifth grader at PS 59, a school on Bathgate Avenue, was brave enough to stand before a sea of giddy, fidgeting children in bright yellow T-shirts with “Lights on Afterschool” across the chest.

Jocelyn warned that it “may take me an hour” to talk about everything she loved in the program, including group projects and researching sea life.

The Committee for Hispanic Children and Families, a New York City-based non-profit, has been providing education and development services to the Latino community for over 25 years.

Their after-school program, which is free, provides a couple of hours of activities like dance and music, science projects and homework help.

The Lights on Afterschool rally was one of 7,500 similar happenings at schools across the country. The Afterschool Alliance, a national advocate for after-school programs, sponsored the drive. It says there are almost 5 million children in primary or middle school who are on their own when the final school bell rings.

After-school programming faces tougher obstacles each year. Helena Yordan, who directs the program at PS/MS 279, has been at the school since 1999. She remembers the days when there was double the staff and twice the number of kids.

The funding that the Latino non-profit lost had previously come from the New York Office of Children and Family Services through a program called Advantage After School.

“So many organizations apply for it that it was extremely competitive,” said Susan Brenna of The After-School Corporation, an intermediary between programs and funding sources. According to Brenna, only 78 of the 270 organizations that applied received grants this year.

Brenna cited a survey that her organization conducted this past summer along with the Partnership for After School Education. After contacting more than 100 non-profit agencies in New York City that provide after school programs, the two groups found that 56 percent had suffered budget cutbacks and 40 percent will serve fewer children.

“Now we have to be like magicians to create something from nothing,” Yordan said.“You have to be very creative to maintain the quality.”

Yordan explained that they lost six staff members from last year and that there are 60 children on the waiting list. That said, they still do wonders with the children they can help.

“The students in the program look forward to the whole school day,” said James Waslawski, the principal of PS/MS 279.“Their attention is better [than students not in the program],” he added. “And they get a remix of what they learned in school.”

Help with homework is vital in this predominantly Latino community. According to program staff, many parents don’t speak English, so the assistance boosts grades and test scores.

The Center for After-School Excellence did a study comparing students in after-school programs against those students not in a program. At PS/MS 279 in 2008, 76 percent of children in the after-school program met math standards versus 66 percent for the rest of the school. The results were similar in English language arts: 61 percent versus 47 percent.

The program also serves as a safe haven. Amy Gonzalez is the single mother of Giselle, 14, an eighth-grader at PS/MS 279 who was in the program for two years and is now on the program’s waiting list.

“I can’t have my kid on the street for three hours,” Gonzalez said.

After all the speakers had their say, the kids marched around the neighborhood, a parade of yellow and smiles chanting their demand for more after-school funding.

The kids then streamed back into the playground. The live sounds of BombaYo, an Afro- uerto Rican song-and-drum group, bounced off the school’s brick walls. One of the percussionists was Wilson Lantigua, 16. He learned to play music as part of this after-school program.

The swarm of bodies grooved closer and closer to the musicians. Outside the yard’s perimeter, a dozen or more kids clung to the iron rails of the playground’s fence, looking in to see what was going on.

Students Transform Senior Center Garden

November 10, 2009

By REBECCA THOMAS

In Morris Heights, local youth have transformed a drab, concrete terrace into a colorful garden for local seniors.

This haven of greenery in the Heights Senior Center, on the second floor of 200 West Tremont Ave., boasts red and yellow chrysanthemums, purple cabbage flowers and the fresh green of tomato vines. All of it is the work of the young people in the South Bronx Job Corps’ facilities maintenance class.

On Oct. 1st, local residents and community leaders celebrated the garden’s official opening ceremony. Everyone present, from the seniors to Ken Small of the CAB, from Assemblywoman Vanessa Gibson to the gardeners themselves, was moved by the beauty of the garden.

Sadie Jennings, who has been coming to the center for eleven years, was particularly delighted. Previously she says, this garden was an unused concrete terrace area with a few plants at the far end that she tended with another senior, Avvie McGraw.

Now it is a landscaped garden everyone wants to spend time in. “It’s so beautiful,” said Mirja Rodrigez, who comes to the center regularly.  ”Everyday I will come out here to sit.”

The opening ceremony was a lavish affair: cut flowers decorated white clothed tables, curried devil’s eggs and hot cider were just some of the delights served up on cocktail trays by Job Corps culinary students.

The ceremony culminated in the first citation Vanessa Gibson has given as assemblywoman. Citations pay tribute to public initiatives that benefit the community and this one recognized the Heights Senior Center’s role in beautifying Morris Heights with the garden.

“All too often we hear negative aspects and statistics they use to define this area. It’s projects like this we need to promote,” Gibson said as Rosalina Luongo, the director of the center, accepted the honor on its behalf.

Luongo in turn thanked the young people of the South Bronx Jobs Corps for their efforts. “The kids came in here, they did everything,” she said. “They are a blessing to our community.”

Luongo plans to open the garden to organizations such as the Job Corps, the Citizens Advice Bureau and local schools so that the whole community benefits.

When Luongo first envisaged the garden it was Margaret von Glahn at the South Bronx Jobs Corps who advised her to enlist the facilities maintenance class.

Jose Teves, the instructor, planned the garden. Then his class planted and tended the space. They trimmed the overhanging trees and painted the concrete steps and walls a light blue. It took about a week.

The garden runs the length of the building and is about 15 yards wide. At one end, rails allow easy access to the raised platform that holds an arc of huge flower-pots.

It is an ambitious and beautifully executed project.

As a result it inspired great hopes at the opening ceremony. Jennings and McGraw dream the project will expand to include a vegetable garden.

Even bigger hopes were voiced by Luongo and Kathyrn Speller, a local
resident. They hope that the large empty lot neighboring the garden can be acquired by the community and similarly converted into much needed public green space.

Historic Theater Reopens

November 10, 2009

THE HISTORIC LOEW’S PARADISE THEATER, A ONE-TIME MOVIE THEATER, HAS REOPENED ITS DOORS FOR CONCERTS AND EVENTS AFTER A TWO-YEAR CLOSURE (PHOTO: J. FERGUSSON)

THE HISTORIC LOEW’S PARADISE THEATER, A ONE-TIME MOVIE THEATER, HAS REOPENED ITS DOORS FOR CONCERTS AND EVENTS AFTER A TWO-YEAR CLOSURE (PHOTO: J. FERGUSSON)

By ELIZABETH BRIDGES

It was a sight unseen along the Grand Concourse for more than two years: a buoyant throng of people waiting in line outside the iconic Loew’s Paradise Theater.

Braving a steady rain and defying a dreary economy, nearly 3,000 people turned out for the reopening of the classic theater on Oct. 24.

“It hurt when it closed,” said Lisa Phillips, 46, who was among the crowd waiting to see a performance by Charlie Wilson of the GAP Band. “That’s why I’m so happy now. It’s going to bring a lot of money, and we won’t have to take our money to Manhattan.”

The theater’s return marks a rare economic bright spot for the neighborhood. About 90 people from the neighborhood found jobs there, and studies show that art institutions can often stimulate broader local economies.

One of Loew’s new managers, Derrick Sanders, said that the economic climate made reopening more of a priority, particularly given the 13.3 percent unemployment rate in the Bronx. “Jobs are the most important thing,” Sanders said.

Reopening in the midst of a recession was oddly appropriate, given that its doors were first opened in 1929 when the stock market crashed. It operated successfully for more than 40 years, before a string of closures and reopenings.

The theater underwent a massive renovation in the early 2000s, when painstaking attention was given to restoring the smallest details on ceiling murals and nude Greek statutes. A new manager, Joe Gentile, took it over in 2007, but it closed within months amid allegations of mismanagement. Several promoters claimed that Gentile, husband of actress Cathy Moriarty-Gentile, failed to pay them, according to news reports.

Since then, the empty 45,000-square-foot theater has loomed over the Grand Concourse with bolted doors and a shuttered box office.

As recently as early August, locals speculated that it would not reopen anytime soon. But in early September, Sanders, a concert promoter, partnered with fellow Bronx native and On The Rocks Entertainment promoter Shelby Joyner, and with Gabriel Boter, a businessman, with the mission of reopening the theater within a month, despite the shaky economy.

Jasmine Lopez, 28, a recently hired usher at the theater, said she was unemployed until the theater reopened.

“I looked a long time, over a year” Lopez said. “I even went down low. I applied to McDonald’s. Now, this is like a Madison Square Garden in the Bronx.”

Even locals who had jobs were glad to see opportunities become available in their neighborhood. Yarisa Figueroa, a 21-year-old bartender, said that working in the neighborhood will enable her to spend more time with her baby.

“I worked at LaGuardia [Airport] before,” Figueroa said. “You always have to apply out of the Bronx to get a job.”

A cultural center in the Bronx could play a vital role in stimulating the local economy. A report by the Center for an Urban Future, a think tank focused on improving New York City, states that the cultural economic sector has the potential to “bring benefits that go far beyond direct employment.”

“Among [the creative economy’s] greatest strengths is the ability to attract other businesses and jump start neighborhood development… by giving local economies their ‘soul,’” the report states.

Based on results from the opening night, Sanders, Joyner, and Boter believe that the theater will grow and realize its potential to bring this “soul” and revitalize the local economy.

More than 2,800 of the 4,000 seats were filled that Saturday.

“Being that there was a storm, we did excellent,” said Joyner. “It was great, but like every operation, you can learn from it. With the mistakes we had, we’re only going to get better with time. We’re in a great place right now.”

The management expects to fill more seats for an increasing number of upcoming events. In November, the theater will host two acts. The Queen Project, a female R&B trio, will perform on Nov. 21, followed by a Thanksgiving Extravaganza featuring R&B standouts Stephanie Mills and Freddie Jackson on Nov. 28.

Editor’s Note: To find out more about upcoming performances, visit  www.paradisetheaterevents.com