February 16, 2012, 8:00pm: The tenant association meeting inside of 701 Willoughby Avenue was just wrapping up.
And already a half dozen of its members were standing by the door, ready to give Bed-Stuy Patch a tour of their apartments.
Most of the tenants already had shared their horror stories during the meeting-- stories of how they were forced to live in what they characterized as "sub-human conditions," while NYCHA delayed for years on end with their repairs.
“How many people you know would allow a perfect stranger into their home like this?” asked Cassandra Harrell, president of the tenant association representing Bed-Stuy Rehab Houses. “But my tenants are so desperate for help, they don’t care. They need somebody, anybody, to pay attention.”
With Harrell as the escort, Patch stepped inside of six homes that night.
Milagros Montanez, who has lived in her apartment at 575 Willoughby Ave. for 15 years, said management hasn't painted her house once since she’s moved in. But her biggest complaint was an infestation of mice, rats and roaches, which crawled freely in and out of large, cantaloupe-sized holes in her living room, bedrooms and bathrooms from years-long leaks that caused the walls and floors to rot.
She had placed duct tape over large areas of her floor in the hallways and in the kitchen, where chunks of the floorboards had rotted and then dislodged, due to prolonged moisture and mold. And her kitchen cabinets were crooked on their hinges, because they too had begun to rot.
Lourdes Velasquez, vice president of the tenant association, who lives at 701 Willoughby Ave., complained mostly about uneven and cracked floors, bedbugs and rodents.
Her two daughters and their children lived with her in what could easily have been a beautiful four-bedroom apartment if it had not fallen into such terrible disrepair. Walking through her hallway was like taking a roller-coaster ride on-foot.
The floors in her home had begun to shift so badly, all of her closet and bedroom doors had trouble closing. Even the toilet had become slightly dislodged and was sinking to one side.
“These days, we’re afraid to sit down on the toilet, because it feels like any moment it could sink right through the floor,” said Velazquez. “This is wrong! I’ve got asthma, my daughters have asthma and now my granddaughter has asthma. You can call and call and complain and complain to management, but they don’t care. They just don’t care.”
The management for the five-building, 85-unit Bed-Stuy Rehabs Development is located at 20 Lewis Avenue. The manager is Winnifred Quinten and the superintendant for the building is David Rios.
“They act like they afraid of us because the tenants come in angry and hurt,” said Harrell. “Yes, [the tenants] do raise their voices, but they’re breaking down and want to know when are they going to fix the problems?
“Stop making us feel afraid that if we complain, you’re gonna move us out. Our floors are breaking up to the point where we’re breathing in this sediment. We have so many tenants with breathing problems now. This is these people's homes. We don't want to leave here. We just want decent conditions to live in.”
At 281 Throop Avenue, Natacha Ocasio, 29, lives with her mother and brother in an apartment so overrun with rats, roaches, bedbugs and mold, the environment in the home feels almost tropical: It's dark and dank, and everywhere you turned, there was something either moving or growing.
In the apartment’s bathroom, the walls were so covered in mold, it appeared at first to be part of the wallpaper. And Ocasio, without a hint of the anger or frustration displayed by the first few tenants, confirmed "yes," everyone in the house has trouble breathing.
The mood in the Ocasio home was depressing. Shadows of people passed from one room to the next, but no one said much, not even Natacha. The only noise and sign of vibrant life in the apartment came from a television softly playing Spanish-language music videos.
“She’s given up,” said Harrell, after leaving the Salcedos' home.
Then, Harrell started crying. Her lungs were wheezing.
“Help us. Help us, please. You know how many people I’ve taken through her home with the promise there would be help? But another month goes by, another year and another, and nothing changes. What kind of T.A. president do I look like when I can’t even help these people?
“These are human beings, people forget that. Can you imagine your mother living in these conditions with nowhere to turn? You can’t, can you? Well, there are a lot of mothers here.”
CORRECTION 3/5/12: In the original version of this story, we referred to the third tenant as Lucia Salcedo. That name was incorrect. That name has been replaced with the correct tenant, Natach Ocasio.