Last week, New York State Homes and Community Renewal (HCR) and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) joined developer L+M Partners to celebrate a $190 million renovation to the 625-apartment complex.
“Our goal was to preserve the irreplaceable Marcus Garvey Apartments as affordable housing, making it more sustainable and self-sufficient and helping to preserve Brownsville’s affordable legacy in the face of development pressures,” said HCR commissioner RuthAnne Visnauskas.
The renovations restored 80 vacant units in the Mitchell-Lama development, as well as upgraded the security and electrical systems and installed an energy-efficient microgrid system, the first ever in a middle-income housing community in the state.
To address other community needs, L+M and Brownsville Community Justice Center (BCJC) created a youth clubhouse out of repurposed shipping containers that serves as a workshop and meeting space.
Deron Johnston, director of community initiatives at BCJC, said they are able to focus on youth programming and public safety, and run GED, college assistance and job training programs.
“L+M has been an amazing resources as far as vocational opportunities, training and resources,” Johnston said.
A group of residents, backed by housing advocacy group New York Communities for Change (NYCC), attempted to disrupt the ceremony, citing a lack of transparency.
Pamela Dawkins, an original resident of the complex who has lived there for 41 years, said tenants are not being informed about the changes.
“A lot of things are taking part right now that we don’t understand as tenants,” she said. “Who are these people? Where did they really come from and what is their purpose?”
Dawkins said things may look like they are changing on the outside, but problems she and other tenants face still exist.
Beverly Wright has lived at the Marcus Garvey Apartments for 17 years. She said there’s been a lot of confusion over how much rent people owe.
Earlier this year, she said she was asked twice to pay $5,000 in back rent that she didn’t believe she owed. She paid the money, but now regrets not taking the matter to court.
Wright also said her son was shot inside the housing complex, but when she went to building managers for help, she says she was told to go live with a relative.
A spokeswoman from L+M, however, said a manager tried to offer the family counseling, and security guards from the complex even visited her son in the hospital.
Ethel Samuels, a 30-year resident, was paying her rent but getting no receipts. In January, she was told she owed $5,000. The next month, that number ballooned to $7,000. When she finally went to court earlier this year, she was told she owed $14,000.
“I always paid,” she said. “My rent is paid now.”
A spokeswoman from L+M admitted that there was a one-time incorrect charge on Samuels’ account for $1,125, but that has since been corrected.
In many cases, residents may have been the victims of poor bookkeeping by the previous management company. When L+M took over in 2014, they found that many residents did not have their housing voucher amounts updated.
If the New York City Housing Authority reduced a tenant's voucher amount from $400 to $100, for example, the resident was underpaying their rent by $300 per month. This continued for years under the previous management company, who did not seek the difference from residents.
An L+M spokeswoman also said any claims of rent increases and new fees being passed onto tenants are false.
“The property is highly subsidized and tenants pay no more than 30 percent of their household income toward rent,” the spokeswoman said. “Any fees, for example for air conditioners, are set by the government and have existed for years.”
She also criticized NYCC for staging a protest.
“NYCC is a 100 percent politically motivated group, and their claims about how we do business are absolutely not true,” the spokeswoman said. “Since day one we've engaged in constant and constructive dialogue with our tenants, and by all measures have achieved a major victory in ensuring this property remains affordable."