James And HPD Spar Over Affordable Housing Program

Public Advocate Letitia James
Public Advocate Letitia James

Public Advocate Letitia James yesterday issued an investigative report blasting the City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development’s Neighborhood Homes Program for going against their stated purpose to help New Yorkers acquire affordable housing.

But HPD countered that the program remains successful overall, and that James’ solution for the agency to take back the properties at this stage would be counterproductive in helping residents acquire affordable housing.

The Neighborhood Homes Program’s goal is to convey occupied City-owned 1-4 family residential buildings to selected community based sponsors for rehabilitation and eventual sale to owner occupants. The sponsor purchases the properties subject to existing tenancies and is responsible for identifying permanent affordable housing for each legal tenant in good standing.

James’ investigation found the program, specifically a cluster of 26 homes located in Crown Heights owned by Heights Houses Corp. – 17 of which have remained vacant or abandoned for the past 13 years -to be misused, and in some cases, derelict.

George Armstrong, the principal of the company that still owns the 17 unsold properties, pleaded guilty in October 2011 to three federal charges connected to an unrelated HPD bribery scheme. To date, however, Armstrong has not been charged with any wrongdoing related to the Heights Houses cluster of homes. However, Armstrong’s company, Heights Houses, is still the legal owner of the 17 properties, despite HPD having the authority to retake the properties.

Additionally, the 17 Housing Corps properties are guilty of over 100 Department of Buildings violations -some buildings have not had valid work permits for over a decade, and some still, have problems with plumbing, squatters, and general poor living conditions, according to James’ report.

James announced the report yesterday at a press conference in front of one of the properties at 1344 St. Marks Avenue. Also present were several residents that put down thousands of dollars in down payments for the properties several years ago with nothing to show for it as of yet.

“This failure of oversight and accountability that denied New Yorkers affordable homes is unacceptable,” said James. “The very agency that is entrusted with preserving and providing affordable housing in New York City is in fact the body that is keeping New Yorkers from the homes they need and deserve. For too long, HPD has allowed precious affordable housing units to remain unoccupied and deteriorate, and we are exposing this hypocrisy so that every New Yorker can get the housing they deserve.”

HPD Spokesperson Melissa Grace responded that while there is no question the program comes with challenges and risks, the agency remains committed to ensuring the rehabilitation of the homes is completed and that they are turned over to their rightful owners for affordable homeownership.

“If the City moves to take possession of these homes, those low-income families could lose their right to purchase these homes. That’s why we’re pushing ahead to get the project completed so we can get these homes in the hands of the people who need them,” Grace said.

Grace also pointed out that of the 638 homes that went through the Neighborhood Homes Program, about 600 have been turned over successfully for affordable homeownership.HPD spokespers

But the HPD explanation was little comfort prospective homebuyer Lysandra Johnson, who said HPD promised her the opportunity to purchase her own home through the Neighborhood Homes Program.

“We first signed a contract over ten years ago, but after many years of construction, the house still had too many violations to qualify for a certificate of occupancy from the Department of Buildings. I appreciate what HPD was trying to do with this program but for whatever reason, I fell through the cracks. I want to thank Public Advocate Letitia James for bringing light to this issue and I hope they can improve it in the future,” Johnson said.

To access James’ full report, click here.