Tensions boil over in Schenectady as residents share outrage over apartment conditions

Community Builders in spotlight for mounting problems
Laeloni Walker and Doran Pete are upset with conditions at Community Builders' housing projects on Stanley and Craig streets.
Laeloni Walker and Doran Pete are upset with conditions at Community Builders' housing projects on Stanley and Craig streets.

Categories: News, Schenectady County

SCHENECTADY — Shanisha Hiers was homeless before securing a place at 400 Craig St., the new apartment complex in Hamilton Hill where she moved with her two children, ages 11 and 6.

But Community Builders failed to issue a lead-testing certificate, she said, and Section 8 terminated her rent payments between June and September as a result.

Hiers owes $6,000 and her tentative eviction date is scheduled for six days before she’s due to give birth to her child.

And legal fees are stacking up in eviction court.

She originally didn’t want to go public with her story because she was afraid of retaliation.

“Now I don’t want to fight to be here,” Hiers said.

Hiers shared her story after emotions boiled over at a meeting on Wednesday at 400 Craig St. to discuss long-simmering concerns at the recently-opened affordable housing project. 

While residents of properties on Stanley Street and two apartment buildings on Craig Street, all Community Builders properties, say they’ve been voicing concerns about conditions at the buildings for months, management has not only been dismissive, but has also failed to take what they believe to be sufficient action. 

Key complaints are outdoor drug use, loitering, and stolen and damaged property.

Some spoke of heating and ventilation problems in their units. 

And others said they feared for safety, sharing anecdotes about being accosted outside of the building.

The lone security guard is ineffective, residents say.

“Our security guard is older than the seniors,” said Laeloni Walker.

She pays $960 per month and questioned why she’s not allowed to smoke behind the building, yet, the area is under siege by drug abusers and used hypodermic needles crunch underfoot.

Doran Pete says his downstairs neighbors at Stanley Street openly sell drugs on-site.

“You don’t move into a new place like this and turn it into a crackhouse,” he said.

His neighbor, Jason Scism, described 40 to 50 people gathering outside and feared for his kids. 

Community Builders held the meeting in an effort to address those issues. It follows a Daily Gazette report on July 9 detailing concerns at nearby 602 Craig St., site of Hillside View Apartments.

Residents shared their stories outside after Community Builders told the Daily Gazette to leave the meeting.

Attendees were also upset because they said they were led to believe senior management would come, but were met by the same officials who they alleged have been stonewalling their complaints.

At the meeting, Velvet Johnson, Community Builders property operations manager for New York and New Jersey, said she was working on securing authorization for “no trespassing” signs at the property, and urged residents to call city police for any emergency situations.

“A security guard is not going to get physical with anyone,” Johnson said.

Stephanie Anderson Garrett, a Community Builders spokesperson, said the the Boston-based developer takes concerns seriously.

“In the past year, we have invested in new security cameras, full-time weekend security patrols and electronic key fob entry,” Garrett said. 

The apartment complexes, which opened last year, have been hailed by city officials and developers as a keystone of the city’s neighborhood revitalization efforts. 

The affordable housing project that converted the former school buildings to apartments was a $22 million effort that also built eight new buildings along Stanley Street. 

A planned second phase with an estimated $40 million cost will involve the creation of a 21-unit low-rise apartment building on Albany Street and several more townhouses along Stanley Street

City Councilwoman Marion Porterfield, who attended the meeting, wondered about the developer’s ability to provide security and address concerns as it continues to ramp up operations.

“If there are problems with a small apartment, the numbers are going to be much greater,” Porterfield said.

Community Builders acknowledged launching each property can be a learning curve.

Any new building must go through a full year of operation before determining what the vulnerabilities are, said Jennica Huff, senior project manager for development. 

Once complete, the developer’s Community Life Services Department is designed to maintain “safety, stabilization and long-term sustainability,” Huff said.

A 2019 survey revealed 87 percent of residents feel safe in their building, Huff said. But only 60 percent feel the same way about their community, which illustrates residents actually feel safer at their properties than outside, she said. 

In 2018, 80 percent of Hillside View Apartments reported feeling safe in their building.

“We will continue to work with our residents, police department and neighborhoods to make our neighborhood safe and secure,” Garrett said.

Residents said they were pleased with their apartments. 

“I feel blessed,” said Grace Martin. “I love the building and am grateful. But 99.9 percent of the problem is the management.”

Huff said she couldn’t speak to the particulars of Hiers’ case. 

But speaking generally, subsidized housing can be complex, checking boxes and navigating through often-glacial bureaucracies. 

“That can make it challenging to accommodate everyone’s needs all of the time,” Huff said.

Residents said they will begin to organize and will meet Saturday night for the first in what they hope will be a series of regular meetings to discuss concerns and conditions at the properties.

Many in the tight-knit group feared for Hiers.

“Everybody feels her pain,” Martin said. “What happened to her could happen to me.”

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