South Bronx sounds off at mayoral forum

Throughout the evening, the mayor tried to calm residents’ anxieties over the scarcity of affordable housing.

Rafael Salamanca and Mayor Bill de Blasio. Photo: John McCarten.
Rafael Salamanca and Mayor Bill de Blasio. Photo: John McCarten/New York City Council Press Office.

South Bronx residents got a rare opportunity to let the city’s highest power know what’s on their minds, at an Oct. 27 town hall meeting in Longwood.

At the request of City Councilman Rafael Salamanca, Mayor Bill de Blasio came to take questions from about 300 residents at a three-hour public forum at the Police Athletic League on Longwood Avenue last Thursday, repeatedly urging the public to trust his commitment to issues they and other low-income New York City neighborhoods face.

Throughout the evening, the mayor tried to ease residents’ anxieties over the scarcity of affordable housing, promising that “3,000 affordable apartments in this district” are in the works.

“We haven’t seen anything like this in all our lives,” the mayor said. De Blasio boasted that his administration has frozen rents on two million rent-stabilized apartments to help address the problem. In addition, he touted his initiative to provide free legal representation for poor tenants facing eviction by landlords they claim are intimidating them to get them out.

But several residents said they’re running out of hope. Community Board 2 treasurer and Community Council President Paula Fields-Conyers, a lifetime resident, said she has submitted applications for 14 different buildings with subsidized rents in and around Longwood, but has not heard back about a single one.

“This is the place where I raised my children,” she said. “I was here when [the Bronx] burned down.”

“The fact you didn’t get an apartment doesn’t mean the system doesn’t work,” the mayor responded, adding that “it’s very competitive.”

Board 2’s housing committee chair Peter Rosado, 29, said the city has unintentionally created a “marginalized economic class.” Rosado, who currently lives with his mother, said that on the salary he earns as a teacher he is neither poor enough to qualify for a low-cost affordable apartment nor well off enough to afford a pricier place. “I’ve applied to every lottery there is,” Rosado said after the Town Hall had ended, and added that the mayor did not address his idea of creating a separate category for middle income earners when he brought it up at the forum.

Others said that Hunts Point workers are not granted hiring priority as promised when new projects are announced in the neighborhood.

“Time and time again we put our stipulations on the application and they’re ignored,” said longtime Longwood resident Robert Crespo, vice chair of Board 2. “For some reason, the jobs get put out to Long Island, Staten Island, New Jersey…”

Although the city cannot “legally require” companies to hire locally, de Blasio responded, the city will press them to commit to do so.

A number of attendees said they want to see fewer shelters. Some landlords are paid as much as $3000 per month by the city to house formerly homeless families—-often in woefully substandard conditions, said Ana Melendez, programs manager at Nos Quedamos in Longwood.

“Some of those landlords are on the worst landlords list and getting away with this,” said Melendez.

Sal Gigante, executive vice president and CEO at SEBCO Development Inc., said that his Longwood-based housing organization is routinely tasked with caring for homeless men and women with untreated mental health conditions in the three shelters it runs.

“It’s the one item that keeps me up at night,” said Gigante. “These people are put into the the general population,” endangering staff and other residents.

“The crisis came out of nowhere a couple of decades ago,” the mayor said of the convergence of growing homelessness and untreated mental illness, “and has become a huge, huge problem. People end up in shelters, we can’t turn them away.” Until the city is able to construct 15,000 apartments it has planned in buildings with supportive services around the city, he said, “that’s the reality we face.”

The loudest cheer of the evening, however, went up when a Longwood resident raised a concern over which the city has no jurisdiction. When retired NYPD detective Roland Lopez urged the mayor to do something about the neighborhood’s longtime problem with misdelivered mail, the mayor admitted that that is a federal matter and sits beyond his pay grade. But Councilman Salamanca, who routinely dealt with complaints about mail not reaching addressees during his five-and-a-half years as Board 2’s district manager, called the post office on 149th Street and Southern Boulevard, “the worst post office that there is in the nation,” and promised to demand an internal audit.

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