Problematic Apartments in Wakefield: An Attempt at Preventing Homelessness

By Sushmita Jitlall

Kareem Shareef, a 72 year-old senior from Wakefield, in the Bronx, used to live in an apartment that was not convenient for him. The unemployed man, who needs to use a walking aide, struggles to do many things. But he was lucky, he said, when he finally got a better apartment, which he could afford, in a new building.

In New York, where housing prices have long been on the rise, more people are having trouble finding an affordable place to live. When it is available, affordable housing often comes with a host of other problems: from unsanitary conditions to the place falling apart. This is what happened when an affordable housing apartment building was constructed on White Plains Road and 239th street. The saying, “you get what you pay for,” applies in this case: the more affordable the apartment, the lower its quality.

Recently, new apartment buildings have been popping up around the Bronx, and especially in Wakefield. The main purpose of the building on White Plains Road is to provide a home for veterans and people who desperately need it, such as those in the Fortune Society program, which helps people who have come out of the penitentiary system to find a home.

But the construction of this building was a “rush job,” some tenants say. The apartments are being filled by tenants who did not make it into New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) buildings, and although the agency is keeping homeless people off of the streets, there are some issues with this building that are not being addressed.

Similar apartment being built on White Plains Road and 235th street. Photo by Sushmita Jitlall

Similar apartment being built on White Plains Road and 235th street. Photo by Sushmita Jitlall

For residents, safety has become a concern. Former Vietnam and Korean War veteran Edwin Cruz was excited to finally have a place to live that he could afford through Social Security. But he soon found out that his new, free apartment had some issues.

“It’s a nice building but there’s no fire escape,” he said, recalling a time when a fire escape would have been much needed. “There was a fire a couple months ago,” Mr. Cruz explained, “the floor of that apartment caved into the one underneath.”

Apartment building on White Plains road and 239th street. Photo by Sushmita Jitlall

Apartment building on White Plains road and 239th street. Photo by Sushmita Jitlall

The apartment building on 239th street and White Plains Road, stands out in the midst of houses and shops, since it is tall and has an architectural style that is different from the rest.

It is also within close vicinity to the 2 and 5 train lines, which run across the street. This is a cause for complaint amongst some tenants, but not everyone feels the same about this particular issue.

2 and 5 train sign at Gun Hill train station. Photo b Sushmita Jitlall

2 and 5 train sign at Gun Hill train station. Photo by Sushmita Jitlall

Kareem Shareef, who has been living there for four months, and obtained the apartment through the Fortune Society, has a front view apartment, facing the train tracks.

“I hate the apartment,” he said, just as a train passed by, causing a noise that made it impossible to hear him speak. “It’s just so annoying” Mr. Shareef continued when the train left.

Train Line on White Plains Road. Photo by Sushmita Jitlall

Train Line on White Plains Road. Photo by Sushmita Jitlall

“An ordinary person would not pay rent to stay in this place,” he added.

Carlos Ricardo, also a Vietnam veteran, feels differently however, since his apartment is towards the back of the building. “I’m okay with the location,” he said, adding he has, “no problemswith the train, you kinda get used to it.”

Location aside, residents are also concerned with the quality of the building’s speedyconstruction. “I think they built it too fast,” said Mr. Shareef who has had his fair share of problems such as not being able to hear the doorbell, the thin walls, and issues with his weak bathroom. “It’s really falling apart,” he said.

Nelson Tyler, another war veteran who has been living in his apartment for 7 months, did not complain much but did say that there are “some minor issues,” and that the building’s construction might have been a “rush job.”

Nevertheless, Mr. Tyler focused on the brighter side of things. “I’m just glad to be American,” he said. “I get housing and I am looked after.” He then talked about the rising number of young homeless people, which he attributed to the number of veterans coming home from the war in Afghanistan.

When taking a look at statistics from recent years about homelessness in New York City and the Bronx, Mr. Tyler’s point is made clear.  The percentage of homeless people has been increasing by 61% since 2002 and keeps rising according to the Coalition For The Homeless, which runs a database about homelessness in New York City.

There are various programs that people can join to receive affordable housing. Fortune Society is a major program that helps in doing so in NY and it is funded through private and public donations.

Section 8 is another program that helps people afford rent in private.  Many people living in the new buildings in Wakefield are covered under section 8 – which has the largest number of participants in the Bronx – and only have to pay a portion of their rent, and some none at all, according to the section 8 program statistics found on nyc.gov.

“I get a voucher from section 8,” said Mr. Tyler. “I pay $164 out of $1,234.”

In New York, hundreds of thousands like Mr. Tyler are only able to afford housing to public subsidies. NYCHA – the agency in charge of public housing for the city – has a wait-list of over 300,000.

A NYCHA representative declined to answer questions about the Wakefield building, which he said is private and beyond the agency’s jurisdiction.

The spokesperson also added that there are no NYCHA developments in the Wakefield area even though tenants there said they were housed through NYCHA.

It was not immediately clear who owns the building.

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