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City Ignored Warnings on Operator of Shelter Where Girls Died, Emails Show

By James Fanelli | December 19, 2016 7:31am
  1-year-old Scylee Vayoh Ambrose and 2-year-old Ibanez Ambrose were fatally burned by a radiator inside 720 Hunts Point Ave.
1-year-old Scylee Vayoh Ambrose and 2-year-old Ibanez Ambrose were fatally burned by a radiator inside 720 Hunts Point Ave.
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DNAinfo/Eddie Small

BUSHWICK — The city was repeatedly warned during the past two years that the nonprofit group operating the shelter apartment where a malfunctioning radiator killed two young Bronx girls was a bad actor who didn't pay rent, maintain buildings it leased or fix housing-code violations, DNAinfo New York has learned. 

Lucille McEwen, the executive deputy commissioner at the Department of Homeless Services, was told in emails and phone calls that Bushwick Economic Development Corp. — a nonprofit that runs shelters throughout the city — was endangering the lives of tenants at shelters in Brooklyn by ignoring requests to take care of building violations.

She received a May 26, 2016, email from Martin Weiss — a property manager at Kai Management, a real estate firm that represents the landlord who leases several buildings to BEDCO — who said the nonprofit was unresponsive to notices to fix six elevator violations issued in the past year to a shelter at 470 Pulaski St. in Brooklyn.

 Nonprofit Bushwick Economic Development Corp. was accused of extortion and bribing city workers.
Nonprofit Bushwick Economic Development Corp. was accused of extortion and bribing city workers.
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DNAinfo/Gwynne Hogan

"Not taking care of the dozens of HPD/Sanitation/Health violations is bad, but now you are playing with the LIVES of your residents," Weiss wrote in the email to Frank Boswell, the executive director of Bushwick Economic Development Corp., or BEDCO, and to McEwen, whose agency gives millions of dollars in funding each year to the nonprofit so it can lease buildings for shelters.

"Please do not disregard this email as you do with all others because this one you can get charged with manslaughter if something happens."

Solomon Kapelyus, one of the owners of Kai Management and an owner of the Pulaski Street property and other buildings that BEDCO leases, provided DNAinfo New York with the emails and records that show BEDCO is required to maintain the buildings and to take care of all violations.

Kapelyus said his firm never got a response from McEwen or Boswell after the email. He also said the violations still exist. City records show that 470 Pulaski St. has eight Department of Buildings violations and seven Environmental Control Board violations that remain open. 

Kapelyus said the email wasn't the first or the last time his firm or a representative has contacted McEwen or other Homeless Services officials. Some of the emails sent to McEwen and other officials informed them that BEDCO owes more than $3 million in rent.

Another set of emails notified the city that BEDCO had stopped paying a fire inspector to perform mandatory inspections of sprinklers and standpipes at a Bushwick shelter.

Other correspondences from Kai Management have pointed out that a BEDCO-operated shelter at 652 Park Avenue in Brooklyn has not had proper elevator tests registered with the Buildings Department since 2010.

Meanwhile, Boswell, who earns $194,000 a year heading the nonprofit, recently bought a brand new white Cadillac.

Kapelyus said that each time his firm has contacted officials at Homeless Services, it has received no help or intervention from the city — even when stating that the rent arrears could lead to the eviction of tenants from the shelter. He said the officials invariably told them the problem is between BEDCO and the landlord.

"They won’t speak to you or say it’s not our problem," Kapelyus said of Homeless Services. "It's sad to think something so egregious like an eviction or a tragedy has to happen in order for them to take responsibility."

Aside from operating shelters, BEDCO also runs cluster site housing, where homeless families are placed in apartment units in privately owned buildings. The city's cluster site housing program has been heavily criticized by homeless advocates and even Mayor Bill de Blasio because of the poorly maintained and dangerous conditions of some apartments. 

The program has received renewed scrutiny since Dec. 7, when Scylee Vayoh Amrose, 1, and Ibanez Ambrose, 2, were killed by a radiator spewing scorching steam while they took a nap in their bedroom in a cluster site apartment in Hunts Point that BEDCO operated.

The Bronx District Attorney's Office and the city are investigating the circumstances surrounding the young girls' deaths.

DNAinfo reported last week that court and city records show BEDCO and Boswell have been accused of bribing city officials, were the subject of two Department of Investigation probes and owe $4.3 in back rent to another Brooklyn landlord. DNAinfo has also learned that BEDCO's former lawyer Christopher Sowers sued the nonprofit in September in Brooklyn Supreme Court, claiming it owes him $48,600 in monthly retainer fees since 2014. 

Despite the warnings, the debts and the DOI probes, BEDCO continues to receive city contracts. Homeless Services awarded the nonprofit two shelter contracts worth a total of $19.6 million on July 1, 2016.

Boswell and BEDCO have not responded to several requests for comment.

David Neustadt, a spokesman for Homeless Services, said his agency has been demanding corrective action from BEDCO and other cluster providers as it phases out the 16-year program.

"DHS is sheltering approximately 11,000 homeless New Yorkers in about 3,200 cluster shelter apartments after stopping the use of 450 cluster units so far this year," he said. "We are working to stop using clusters as quickly as we can, but that means opening more shelters across the city. We can’t stop using the cluster sites until we have alternatives."

However, Neustadt did not address the specific problems at the properties that BEDCO leases from Kai Management. These properties are operating as Tier II shelters and are not a part of the cluster site housing program.

Kapelyus provided emails that go back to July 2015 showing how his firm has tried to get Homeless Services' help with BEDCO.

Eli Cohen, the executive director of Crown Heights Jewish Community Council, wrote a July 14, 2015, email to McEwen on behalf of Kai Management. It was a follow-up to a phone conversation Cohen had with McEwen a week earlier.

In the email, Cohen itemized the issues Kai Management had with BEDCO, noting that at the time the nonprofit owed $1.335 million in rent and more than $1 million in taxes, water fees and violations on four adjacent properties its leases at 466-476 Pulaski St.

McEwen responded an hour later, thanking Cohen for his email and saying she would follow up with him later that day.

Kapelyus said, after six months, he and his colleagues finally got a meeting in January 2016 with Boswell and McEwen. But Kapelyus said that, during the meeting, Boswell refused to speak to him without a lawyer. After trying to reschedule multiple times, Kapelyus said, he and his colleagues received an email in March from McEwen saying she couldn't meet but to keep her posted on how any legal action progresses against BEDCO. 

Two months ago, Weiss, from Kai Management, sent an email to Boswell and McEwen, notifying them that a private safety inspection firm had stopped inspecting the standpipes and sprinklers at the Pulaski buildings because BEDCO had stopped paying its bills.

Kai Management learned of the stopped payments because in October the FDNY had issued two violations at 468 Pulaski St. for failing to maintain a carbon dioxide detector and emergency lighting. The FDNY had also issued four other violations at 470 Pulaski St. for various fire code infractions, including failing to maintain its sprinkler system. 

Weiss later wrote a Nov. 15 email to Boswell, McEwen and six other Homeless Services officials to say that this was the fourth time he was reaching out to Boswell and BEDCO about correcting the FDNY violations.

"I hope all of you at DHS realizes the extent of seriousness here," Weiss wrote in a Nov. 16 email. "I cannot force BEDCO to do its job but I think DHS could. if something should happen and somebody gets hurt, the courts will hold you all accountable!!"

Kapelyus said BEDCO has still not fixed the violations.

"I wish DHS would replace them with an operator who actually cares about the homeless population’s safety and wellbeing," he said.