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Vito Lopez scandal group got $24M to fix '$10' houses

www.nypost.com

A federal housing scandal that left thousands of New Yorkers living in ramshackle homes turned out to be a pot of gold for a not-for-profit group closely linked to powerful Assemblyman Vito Lopez, The Post has learned.

The agency founded by Lopez wound up buying 25 of the abandoned buildings from the feds for a miniscule $10, property records show. And if that wasn’t enough of a deal, the feds threw in $24 million to pay to repair the dilapidated buildings.

Now, the Lopez-backed Ridgewood-Bushwick Senior Citizens Council is hauling in federally subsidized rent from 100 apartments, plus rent from four storefronts in buildings scattered around a steadily gentrifying Bushwick.

The not-for-profit, which was founded by Lopez in 1973, wound up with a total of 49 buildings that were among the sites abandoned by unscrupulous flip-and-run scam artists a decade ago.

In addition to the 25 rental buildings, the RBSCC wound up redeveloping another 18 into affordable co-op buildings, with six more still waiting to be renovated. For that project, the not-for-profit received another $16 million from Washington.

"Outside of the Housing Authority, Ridgewood Bushwick is the biggest not-for-profit landlord in the neighborhood," said longtime housing activist, the Rev. John Pawis, retired priest at St. Barbara’s Church in Bushwick.

Pawis, who has led tenants in the fight to redevelop their own buildings, said Lopez uses his political influence to steer all the projects to his not-for-profits.

The sale of the buildings to RBSCC was part of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s plan to fix the damage from a decade-old scam that left more than 500 buildings abandoned in New York City alone.

In the late 1990s, unscrupulous speculators scooped up distressed buildings in poor neighborhoods and flipped them to fly-by-night not-for-profits who took out mortgages from HUD to buy and fix the properties.

But none of the federally financed repairs were done and the new owners disappeared, leaving tenants with no heat, services or repairs.

The price tag to repair the buildings in the city alone was $130 million.

A spokesman for Lopez said the award of the housing to Ridgewood Bushwick had nothing to do with the Assemblyman, who insists he is no longer involved with the not-for-profit group he founded in the early 1970s.

"The Assemblyman had nothing to do with it and he has no comment," said spokesperson Debra Feinberg when asked how the RBSCC was the only Bushwick group to wind up with a portfolio of nearly free buildings from the feds.

While Lopez no longer has a formal title at the not-for-profit, his campaign treasurer, Christiana Fisher is the agency’s director, and the group’s housing programs are overseen by the assemblyman’s long-time girlfriend, Angela Battaglia.

The Post reported earlier this year that Fischer takes home a whopping $659,591 for her post, while Battaglia earns $329,910 as housing director.

The salaries are part of a wide-ranging probe of the not-for-profit by the city’s Department of Investigation that has reportedly expanded to federal investigators.

HUD, working with the city’s Housing Preservation and Development, picked RBSCC to take over the housing in 2004 based on their record of providing housing and social services in the neighborhood.

Alicia Pagan, like several other tenants or co-op owners, said she’s happy to be past the horror of the HUD scandal. Her building at 135 Bleecker St. was falling apart when it finally caught fire in 2001.

But she said she wonders about the cost of the project, since most of the work seems shoddy. "Soon after I moved in, I saw the staircase separating from the wall. I like where I live, but this wasn’t done well," she said.

Sharon Massa, president of the board for all 24 building’s slated to be co-oped by Ridgewood Bushwick, said she and other residents get few answers to the repeated questions about how their maintenance fees are being spent.

"We’ve requested meetings to go over requisitions and bills for more than a year and they haven’t heard anything back," said Massa, who lives in a renovated co-op apartment at 32 Jefferson St. that is managed by RBSCC.

Massa said she and other residents in the 90 co-op units had fought to have their buidling renovated and operated by another group, the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board. But she said Lopez lobbied to get control of the project.

"There are other groups that do this work, but he ended up with all the buildings," she said.

Housing activist Rick Echevarria said the answer is control and political power.

"The city for serveral administrations has allowed Vito Lopez to build a dictatorship over affordable housing, and that’s not to the benefit of low-income people," he said.

"The only access people have to affordable housing in Bushwick is to play according to Vito’s rules — you support Vito or you’re out," said Echevarria.


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Added: Oct-5-2010 Occurred On: Oct-4-2010
By: gmccuiston
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Tags: Vito Lopez, federal housing scandal
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