This week the Q visited the head offices of CAMBA, an acronym for the Church Avenue Merchants and Business Association. It was not a pleasure call. Trouble's a-brewing on my block, and I was on a fact-finding mission on behalf of our humble block association. CAMBA's annual budget is now $80 million, thanks in large part to hundreds of major contracts from the City to provide social services. The Clarkson Flatbush to Bedford Block Association has an annual budget of, rounded up of course, let's see, carry the one, that's, er, zero. So yes, this is a bit of a David meets Goliath, if David were in fact completely broke and sans slingshot, though to be fair THIS David and THIS Goliath are playing for the same team most of the time, politically. But some times, we are not. Let me explain.
Ever since I moved to Clarkson a decade ago I've been hearing rumors about the ongoing conditions and problems at 60 Clarkson. It's a beautiful old pre-war 83-unit apartment building that from all angles has fallen on very hard times. It looks like hell, the doors don't work, the trash is always piled up under windows and in the basement, the super's a drunk, the place has countless unresolved violations, the vermin are winning, the elevators are frequently urine-soaked and festooned with chicken bones, peeling paint, broken plumbing, etc. etc. etc. You know the scene, and perhaps you've even had the misfortune of living in just such a greedy slumlord's rancid hellhole. However this particular joint has an extra-interesting backstory, or I guess you could say frontstory, because the story is very much playing out in real time right now.
Despite the lack of signage or any prominent official NYC or NYS logos, 60 Clarkson has become a homeless shelter. According to longtime tenants who predate this arrangement, 73 of the apartments are now housed by temporary "shelter" residents. The (relatively few) rent-paying pre-shelter tenants claim, among many other things, that new residents are uniformly brought to the building in the dark of night so as not to arouse attention, typically after a long day at the homeless "intake center" called PATH in the Bronx. The City's Department of Homeless Services contracts an absurdly over-market-rate payment to the crooked slumlord Barry Hers to the tune of $3,000 a month per "shelter" apartment. This is part of the City's "cluster-site" program, which was a cynical renaming of a much-maligned failure called the "scatter-site" program, wherein the City forgoes the tough job of building affordable housing or decent shelters and instead simply rents space in already existing buildings (even hotels at times), thereby reducing the number of apartments for non-homeless tenants who clearly need affordable housing too. All of this insanity is so the City is able to conform to the state court's judgment that requires the City provide housing for anyone who seeks it. It is, of course, the only humane thing to do, but at $3,000 a month you'd think the City could do a little better than 60 Clarkson Avenue and Mr. Barry Hers. With the City's homeless population nearing 50,000, there are hundreds of 60 Clarksons all over town. And thus all over town, blocks deal with the social realities of sharing a block with shelter, and the tenants get to share not only a block, but a building. Without any prior notice or conditions noted in their lease, of course.
While it may be shocking to you to find that some slumlords are making such a killing off of others' misfortunes, imagine how shocking it must have been to the longtime tenants in this rent-stabilized building when they went from being regular old Joe and Jane tenants to being the far less profitable tenants in a building now housed mostly by temporary homeless folks. The perverse incentives here have made the rent-paying lease-holding tenants pariah in their own building, even less likely to get the attention of their landlord. The tenants are starting to investigate ways to organize to demand Mr. Hers take better care of the building, which they say is filthy, under-supervised, full of drugs and even sexual predators, managed by a greedy scoundrel, and attended by a super who does nothing to help, especially when drinking, which is most of the time.
So why was I at CAMBA's head offices on Church avenue, meeting with three senior officials from the head office? Because I had the (mistaken) impression that the do-gooder social service agency that works with the many women and children housed in this shelter would want to know what's going on in the building and would want to do something to compel Mr. Hers, or HPD, or DHS, or somebody to make sure that at least some of the $3,000 a month per apartment (the annual haul must be well over a million dollars) goes into protecting the homeless clients and giving them at least a reasonably well-run building from which to begin the slow and difficult process of reclaiming their lives and dignity.
But I was basically told that unless the 10 remaining tenants can organize themselves in a meaningful way that can get the landlord's attention, there's precious little leverage they can bring to bear. At this point, even going on rent strike would barely dent the guy's income. How can their $600/month or $850/month compete with $3,000 a month from the shelter clients? Money talks, right? The only party in this arrangement with any power to put pressure on Mr. Hers is DHS, which is overworked and understaffed and just grateful to have the apartment contracts it has, which number in the tens of thousands. CAMBA's relationship essentially ends with the clients themselves, and can put only "gentle" pressure on a landlord. The clients don't want to make waves - they feel they could be sent away at any moment - and they could. Step out of line and DHS sees that you go back to "75 Catherine Street," a TRUE hell-on-earth homeless shelter with no privacy at all and squalid conditions. 60 Clarkson is fabulously well-appointed in comparison.
The straw that broke the Q's blog-silence on the issue was when I actually got a phone call from the landlord, Barry Hers, and he mentioned that he had been forwarded an email that I had sent to CAMBA seeking their help, which of course had my phone # attached. I was actually glad to hear from him because I had long wondered what kind of scumbag makes his living this way. Turns out he primarily called me to inform me that one of the pre-shelter tenants, a woman I've worked with in the past to plan our block parties, is in fact "the problem." "She and her boyfriend are selling drugs, destroying property and lying to authorities, all in an effort to undermine my many efforts to make the building more livable," he said in nearly 30 minutes of psycho-rambling. He's essentially trying to get this tenant out because she's been leading a mini-insurrection in the building and trying to organize people to complain en masse. Now he and she are locked in suit and counter-suit, and I have no idea how the mess is going to play out.
The scandal here is that "cluster-site" housing is not working precisely because it does not provide a suitable home from which a family can start to move forward. The City's official plan to transition homeless people to self-sufficiency is by-and-large a total scam. CAMBA makes money on its contracts. The landlord makes tons of easy money. But the clients bounce from crappy place to place, or stay for years in unsuitable apartments without a lease, rarely making any real headway. Sometimes these single-mother families of 5, 6, 7 leave the rolls, but they're frequently back on within months. Sometimes they're even counseled, as one woman at our block association meeting told us, to sign a contract on a new place and leave the homeless system, then NOT PAY RENT(!!!) so that they will qualify for a separate FEDERAL program that will pay your rent when you're ABOUT to get evicted. How's that for your sense of security?
A little icing for the cake? Did you know that clients are routinely counseled to consider moving out of town, to places Upstate and Connecticut for instance, just to move them off the City's rolls? I wonder what they might name that "policy." Scatter-All-Around? And does Poughkeepsie even know that they're routinely mentioned as a possible destination?
The Q at Parkside
News and Nonsense from the Brooklyn neighborhood of Lefferts and environs, or more specifically a neighborhood once known as Melrose Park. Sometimes called Lefferts Gardens. Or Prospect-Lefferts Gardens. Or PLG. Or North Flatbush. Or Caledonia (west of Ocean). Or West Pigtown. Across From Park Slope. Under Crown Heights. Near Drummer's Grove. The Side of the Park With the McDonalds. Jackie Robinson Town. Home of Lefferts Manor. West Wingate. Near Kings County Hospital. Or if you're coming from the airport in taxi, maybe just Flatbush is best.