The building at 701 Willoughby Ave. was erected in the early 1980s as a private residence for Woodhull Hospital employees.
But after the hospital experienced problems convincing its employees to move in, the building was sold to the New York City Housing Authority. In 1983 the building became a part of the Sumner Houses Developments.
Almost 30 years later, tenants of the five-building, 80-apartment complex, now called “Bed-Stuy Rehabs," began complaining about the condition of their buildings, which had fallen into total disrepair.
Holes in the floors and ceilings, mold on the walls, doors falling off their hinges, rats, extreme unsanitary conditions, and units that had not been painted in 29 years were just a few in a long list of complaints tenants named when they filed a lawsuit against the housing authority in December 2009.
In 2011, the Housing Court granted the tenants’ motion and held NYCHA in contempt of court, slapping the housing authority with more than $37,000 in fines.
But what should have been a huge victory for the tenants, less than three years later, has turned into something more like the movie "Groundhog Day": They’re reliving the same episode all over again, as NYCHA is appealing the case.
Early in the morning of February 16, 2012, the tenant association members of Bed-Stuy Rehabs were standing in the same place they stood in 2009—in front of 701 Willoughby Ave. holding yet another press conference with the very same complaints.
“But we’re starting a new case, because that case involved problems from 2009. And now, a lot more has accumulated since then,” said Marty Needelman of Brooklyn Legal Services, the tenants’ attorney. “Part of the problem with NYCHA is a lack of resources, but an even bigger part of the problem is limited accountability. Most landlords are subject to HPD supervision, while the housing authority is not.”
“And the housing authority never ever does anything,” added Cassandra Harrell, president of the Bedford Stuyvesant Tenant Association representing Bed-Stuy Rehabs. “Ask anybody! You call up there, they transfer you a dozen times or put you on hold for about a half an hour. When someone finally takes your complaint and gives you a complaint number, you never hear from them again. How is that helping us? We have no one, and I mean no one else to turn to.
“All of my tenants complain about breathing problems,” she continued, hyper and out of breath. “I have two tenants who have sarcoidosis, and another who just passed away from it. Mrs. Green never had a problem breathing her entire life before moving here. She’s been on oxygen machines for the past seven years. Mrs. Velazquez’s grandson just got out of the hospital with respiratory problems.”
“We look at these people coming in with masks and white jumpsuits to clean our apartments doing what they call lead abatement,” said Mrs. Green. “They’re telling us we have lead while they’re cleaning, and they’re wearing these masks. But meanwhile we’re living in these apartments day in and day out.”
Lizabeth Valdez, 54, who lives in the Bed-Stuy Rehab building on 213 Hart St., blames management for on an injury she sustained in 2008 that sent her into a coma and left her with a herniated disc.
According to Valdez, she was standing on a ladder trying to change a light bulb, after weeks of asking management for assistance. Her vision already was poor, she said, but at night with no light, she simply could not see.
“I have an off-balanced leg,” said Valdez. “The next thing I know, I fall back and wake up in the hospital three months later with nine broken ribs and a herniated disc.”
Now, with a home attendant and legally blind in one eye, Valdez moves about her house with a cane, coughs a lot and frets mostly about the unsightly splashes of white plaster dotting her yellow walls where management started the process of covering up holes last summer but never finished.
Valdez and her home attendant were two of about 15 tenants, along with Needelman, gathered outside of 701 Willoughby on November 16, hoping the press could somehow help their cause. Also on sight that day were three PSA-3 officers from the NYPD's housing police, a Con-Ed worker and two other people who appeared to be tinkering with a rusty pipe out front.
“They did this when we held our last press conference in 2009,” said Needelman, gesturing to the people outside of the building working on repairs. “They show up on this day of all days, go figure.”
The only difference was, last time, Harrell pointed out, there were a lot more people who came out to protest. “We won the court case. Yet, here we are, in the exact same place, asking for the same things, while things have just gotten worse. That makes people just give up.”
But not everyone had given up. That day, there are about a dozen tenants waiting eagerly to show the press, a police officer or anyone who was willing the conditions inside of their homes.
Needelman said with the latest suit, if they can prove damages, the tenants can get a significant amount of money. And if the courts find the damages were intentional, then those held liable can go to jail.
“Hopefully, this time, the housing authority will get the message,” said Needelman.
*Next: Tenants of Bed-Stuy Rehabs give a tour of their homes