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August 20th, 2012
by Charles V. Bagli
Brian Harkin for The New York Times
Arisleyda Estrella and her husband, Ron Skinner, on the leaky roof of their Brooklyn home.
Five years ago, Arisleyda Estrella and Ron Skinner could not wait to move into their first home, a new three-story row house in Brooklyn with a big living room, hardwood floors, a front stoop and a small garden.
Owners of city-subsidized housing insist that oversight is critically needed for one of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s main initiatives, the largest municipal housing program in the country.
But the thrill of winning a lottery that enabled them to buy one of 31 city-subsidized houses set aside for moderate-income families in a Bedford-Stuyvesant community wore off quickly. Like her neighbors, Ms. Estrella and her husband said they had battled ever since with the builder and implored city officials to deal with many problems, like cracks in the foundation walls, a leaky roof, a sinking backyard, windows that move with the wind, crumbling front steps and an undersized boiler.
“We love our home,” Ms. Estrella said of the house, which is on Pulaski Street. “The architecture is wonderful; it’s well thought out. But we got the worst craftsmanship. We trusted the city. We feel like we were bamboozled.”
Ms. Estrella and other owners of city-subsidized housing insist that oversight is critically needed for one of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s main initiatives, the largest municipal housing program in the country.
They, along with a group of construction unions, support a bill that the City Council approved unanimously last month that would require the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development to publicly disclose information about builders of affordable housing, including how they were selected, the size of their subsidies, construction complaints for each project and workers’ wages.
But Mr. Bloomberg has vowed to veto the legislation, saying a key element of the bill would be costly and irrelevant to resolving construction-related complaints at what city housing officials say are a relatively small number of projects. The City Council will almost certainly override the veto.
Bloomberg administration officials say they support disclosing information about the builders and construction-related complaints and have already started a series of contractor reviews. But they say the construction unions have pushed to require a wealth of unnecessary information on workers’ wages.
Most if not all of the work done on subsidized housing is performed by nonunion companies. The unions, which once dominated work in New York, have recently taken on the affordable housing industry.
“The wage requirements only add a layer of red tape,” said Mathew M. Wambua, the city’s housing commissioner. “It’s an additional cost for us and for the developers that will ultimately cost the taxpayer.”
The New York State Association for Affordable Housing, a developers’ trade group, estimates that it would cost developers $40 million to carry out the wage reporting requirements, and the city’s housing officials contend that it would cost the agency $2.5 million, numbers that supporters of the bill dispute.
City officials say labor costs for union contractors are generally 30 percent higher and would result in fewer housing units being built.
But Robert Bonanza, business manager for the Mason Tenders District Council, said there was a connection between what he contended were “systemic” construction problems and nonunion outfits that paid lower wages and failed to train workers adequately.
“We all want an affordable housing program that provides quality, safe housing for New Yorkers at an affordable cost,” Mr. Bonanza said. “However, workers have been exploited and residents have been left with shoddy, dangerous homes.”
The mayor’s housing program calls for the construction or preservation of 165,000 apartments for low-, median- and middle-income New Yorkers by the time he leaves office. It is well regarded by advocates in the field. A vast majority of the apartments are rentals, which, Mr. Wambua said, have been created without major construction issues.
But there have been problems with 598, or 11 percent, of the 5,214 for-sale apartments for moderate-income households sponsored by the agency at 135 separate projects, according to a spokesman for Housing Preservation and Development, Eric Bederman. More than three-quarters of the problems are at five projects, Mr. Bederman said, including the Marcy Development, where Ms. Estrella and Mr. Skinner live with their 5-year-old son.
But supporters of the bill say it is unclear how widespread the problems are. “I don’t know if it’s a million New Yorkers who are affected, or a hundred,” said the City Council speaker, Christine C. Quinn, who has vowed to override the mayor’s veto. “But neither does H.P.D.”
Ms. Quinn said many New Yorkers had called her office seeking help. “The home they scrimped and saved to buy turned into a lemon,” she said. “That shouldn’t happen to anybody. But when it does, through a taxpayer-subsidized program, it’s a complete slap in the face and the opposite of what we’re trying to do with incredibly scarce taxpayer dollars.”
Ms. Estrella’s house was part of the city’s program for first-time homebuyers earning $38,700 to $75,000 a year, with $14,900 required as a down payment on a house whose average price is about $300,000. Each house comes with one or two rental apartments, which help the owners pay their mortgage.
Recently, several of Ms. Estrella’s neighbors described similar construction problems with their houses and frustration with the inability to obtain building plans. In response to their complaints, the developer usually sends a “handyman,” they said, rather than a qualified plumber or electrician.
The developer, Thomas J. Metallo, president of Great American Construction, which built the 31 Marcy row houses, referred questions to the city’s housing agency. But a spokesman for the company later issued a statement saying the company “stands behind the quality of its homes.”
“In many cases,” the statement said, “Great American has made repairs above and beyond what is required by warranties, even going so far in many instances as to provide routine maintenance as a courtesy to the homeowners.”
A senior executive from Great American, William B. Clarke, was recently indicted on bribery charges relating to an investigation into a kickback scheme at the Department of Housing Preservation and Development.
At another set of row houses built nearby on Lexington Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Anita E. Clark, a longtime administrator at the local police precinct station house, has had to contend with a rickety back deck, a leaky roof and sewage backing up into her bathroom since she moved into her house in 2008. Unable to get the problems fixed, Ms. Clark said, she contacted a union organizer from the Mason Tenders who was working with homeowners at troubled city-sponsored projects.
This year, she was featured on “George to the Rescue,” a television show on NBC New York that performs makeovers of troubled houses. Two designers and dozens of union officials renovated parts of her house, as they pointed out shoddy workmanship. But Ms. Clark says she still faces problems with her boiler and roof.
Ms. Clark favors the bill requiring the city to publish information about housing contractors. “Hopefully,” she said, “it will make them step up to the plate and get it done.”