NYCHA Moves To Evict 100-Year-Old Woman From Lower East Side Housing Project
December 8, 2013
By Greg B. Smith / NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
Public housing tenant Concetta Passione turned 100 Saturday. She got a beautiful birthday cake, and a big party with her two sons. Plus, an eviction notice from NYCHA.
The city Housing Authority claims she is not the true tenant of a one-bedroom in Rutgers Houses on the Lower East Side, though she insists she has lived there since 1964.
Convinced that she has secretly resided for years in Italy and that her 73-year-old son, Sebastian, unlawfully moved into her apartment, NYCHA sent her a “breach of rules” notice on Nov. 1 to terminate her lease.
She admits she takes trips to Italy every year but says her home is in the Rutgers Houses, where she pays her $219-a-month rent on time. Her son, she says, is there to help her out.
She is, after all, 100.
A tiny woman who speaks only Italian, she remains engaged and alert, and became defiant last week sitting in the living room of her apartment as talk turned to her eviction notice.
“I want to be here,” she says, with Sebastian serving as her interpreter. “I will never get used to any place else. I’m the first one to come here and now they want to throw me out? It’s not right.
“I’ve been here my whole life.”
Concetta and her husband, Carmelo, a barber, arrived in America in 1954. At first, they raised two sons, Sebastian and Paul, in a Lower East Side tenement.
Then in 1963, they watched as the city Housing Authority began building the Rutgers Houses a few blocks away. The NYCHA project promised clean, high-rise apartments with affordable rent for lower- and moderate-income tenants.
As the towers rose, protesters demanded that blacks and Hispanics be hired during the Rutgers Houses construction, lying in the street to block work at the site. The protesters included Michael (Mickey) Schwerner, 22, who a year later would be murdered by the Klan in Mississippi with fellow civil rights workers Andrew Goodman and James Chaney.
In October 1964, the Rutgers Houses opened and the Passiones were among the first to move in. They managed to cram themselves into a tidy eighth-floor one-bedroom, where the two boys slept in the living room.
Concetta says she has lived there ever since. Her husband died in 1973, but his favorite chair still sits in the living room on the beige linoleum tile that’s been there since the Passiones arrived.
The apartment remains immaculate. Pillows are arranged symmetrically on the couch, the dish drainer sits upside down next to the sink on a carefully flattened dish rag. A small gold crucifix hangs on the living room wall. At one point during an interview last week, Concetta kissed her finger tips and touched the cross.
Her son Sebastian says the problems began after his brother, Paul, moved out and he moved in to take care of his mother. By then, only Concetta and Paul were named on the lease.
Sebastian says around 2004 he wrote to NYCHA asking to be put on the lease. He insists he never got a response, and pestered NYCHA managers year after year to no effect.
“I asked repeatedly about the status,” he said. “All of the time I’m told it’s under investigation.”
NYCHA is obligated to make sure tenants pay their fair share based on income, and they need to know that the names on the lease belong to actual tenants.
Concetta receives only Social Security, while Paul’s sole source of income before he left the apartment was a military pension. Sebastian makes more than both as a translator, first for the courts and now for SSI.
Unbeknownst to the Passiones, someone had called the inspector general for NYCHA to anonymously claim Concetta lived in Italy and Sebastian had illegally replaced her in the apartment.
Thus began what would become a three-year saga that would include the city Department of Investigation checking Concetta’s passport records.
DOI says the records showed Concetta and Paul resided in Italy from 2000 through 2009 and traveled to New York City once a year at Christmas.
Concetta disputes this, acknowledging that she traveled to Italy each year for several months, but insisting that she mostly lived in the Rutgers Houses. The confrontation came to a head sometime in late 2010 when DOI Investigator Martin Lintner came to the apartment and confronted Sebastian and Concetta.
“He was accusing my mother of staying away, abandoning the apartment and leaving it for me,” Sebastian said. “He said, ‘You tell her if she signs this paper, we would not prosecute. But she has one month to vacate the apartment.’ ”
An internal report of Lintner’s exhaustive investigation states DOI spent more than a year looking at Concetta, concluding that the family ripped off NYCHA for $9,849 over more than six years.
That’s $129 per month.
The Passiones’ lawyer, Scott Loffredo, blasted the city for spending all that time and money investigating a tiny, 100-year-old woman who always paid her rent in advance.
“She did go to Italy often, but she did not live there,” Loffredo said. “Because she traveled to Italy often, they got the idea that she wasn’t living in Rutgers Housing. Rather than confronting them directly, they started this investigation.
“To treat this woman like Dillinger, she’s just a regular person,” he said.
When all was said and done, DOI decided not to pursue criminal charges due to Concetta’s age. DOI did suggest NYCHA “recoup” the apartment.
That was in April 2011. More than two years later — on Nov. 1 — NYCHA sent a lease termination notice to Concetta.
“This is a very serious matter and you are urged to make every effort to keep this appointment,” the letter warned.
NYCHA did not return requests for comment, including why the agency took two years to serve the eviction papers.
Loffredo convinced NYCHA to visit the apartment, and on Nov. 15, May Lee Wong, a NYCHA property manager, took the elevator to the eighth floor on Pike St. to find Concetta sitting on her couch.
“I said I want to stop this now. (Wong) said, ‘We can’t do that. This has to go through a lot of red tape.’ She said it would take a couple of months,” Loffredo said. “I said I don’t want her to wait a couple of months. She may not have a couple of months.”
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