N.Y. Today: Housing crisis in the Bronx

What you need to know for Tuesday.

It's Tuesday. We'll look at the pandemic's toll on housing in the Bronx, where residents have long struggled to afford their homes. We'll also look at a landmark in Brooklyn where countless couples were married. Now it's facing demolition.

Jose A. Alvarado Jr. for The New York Times

Few places in the country better illustrate the housing crisis brought on by the pandemic than the Bronx.

It now has the highest concentration of eviction cases in New York State and more than many large cities, including Cincinnati, Philadelphia and St. Louis, according to the Eviction Lab at Princeton University. More than 26,000 renters in the Bronx have been sued by their landlords since the pandemic began — a third of the eviction cases filed in the city in that time.

A state moratorium on evictions has helped keep the number of cases from being even higher. They are far below prepandemic levels. But my colleagues Mihir Zaveri, Matthew Haag and Sofia Cerda Campero write that the eviction cases do not tell the full story of a borough in distress.

The 12.4 percent unemployment rate in the Bronx in September was almost triple the national figure. And more than $248 million in pandemic rent relief has been distributed in the borough, according to the most recent data, more than in Indiana, Arizona and Connecticut combined.

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Last week New York State stopped taking requests for rent relief because the $2.4 billion program was almost out of money. Some $1 billion has been paid out, nearly 85 percent covering New York City renters. Another $1.1 billion has been committed but will not be paid until the state receives additional paperwork from landlords. But more than 70,000 pending applications could be left in limbo without more federal funds.

She owes more than $40,000 in back rent

In the Bronx, tenants who are not receiving rent relief may struggle for years to emerge from debt accumulated during the pandemic. Mercedes Escoto, 63, has not paid rent on her two-bedroom apartment in the High Bridge neighborhood since April 2020. As of October, she owed more than $43,000, according to a letter from her landlord, which had filed court papers seeking her eviction in May.

But like many renters facing financial problems in the pandemic, her troubles began long before. Five years ago, her landlord raised the rent to $2,000 a month, from around $1,400 a month, she said. That would have claimed almost half her income. She earns around $59,000 a year as a social worker.

"I told them from the get-go, I could not pay all of that," she said.

She borrowed money from a city emergency assistance program and withdrew money from her retirement account — roughly $11,000 in total.

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Her financial problems have only worsened. Her mother, who lives with her, got Covid-19 in March 2020, can only walk with a walker and needs oxygen and pain pills. Escoto took weeks off from work without pay. She struggled with anxiety and depression.

She also said she has had problems with repairs in the building, including a leaky bathroom ceiling and nonfunctional oven, common complaints in rent-stabilized buildings like hers. Escoto said even if she could afford to pay back the rent, she would be reluctant to do so until the repairs are made.

Todd Rothenberg, a lawyer representing the landlord, said by email that Escoto "has not paid a single penny in 21 months" while the landlord "has to pay me, his property taxes, his mortgage, the heating, the hot water etc., without any income whatsoever by Ms. Escoto."

He noted that the landlord had agreed to charge Escoto a lower rent — around $1,500 — in October 2020. It was not clear why she was still receiving bills reflecting a higher amount.

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Here comes the wrecking crew

via Nekia Morgan

People who knew the Grand Prospect Hall in Brooklyn only from campy television commercials — or from spoofs on "Saturday Night Live" and "Jimmy Kimmel Live" — have one kind of memory of Grand Prospect Hall, perhaps one with a chuckle or a guffaw. People who were married there probably have a different kind of memory.

Before long, all that anyone will have is a memory.

Our writer Julianne McShane reports that the building's new owner — Angelo Rigas, a contractor — plans to tear it down. The city's Buildings Department issued demolition permits on Nov. 3, public records show. Bill Farrell, a representative for Rigas, told her that it would be torn down but said there was no schedule for when the wrecking crew would go to work. The permit expires next May but could be renewed.

The building has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1999. But that listing would not protect it. What about a designation by the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission? After receiving several requests for evaluation from people who asked, in effect, can this wedding hall be saved, the commission concluded that "substantial alterations" had left it without "sufficient historic integrity" to be considered for landmarking. Also, a spokeswoman for the commission said a landmark designation would not have protected the building because the demolition permit had been issued before the requests were submitted.

The hall closed in March 2020 because of the pandemic. It was sold after its longtime co-owner, Michael Halkias, died of complications of Covid-19 in May 2020. He had operated the hall with his wife, Alice, since 1981. The sale, in June, was part of a $30 million, 12-property deal.

Maria and Michael Fraggetta, who were married there in 2008, said Halkias regaled them with tales of the building's history as an opera house and a speakeasy with Prohibition-era customers like Al Capone. "It wasn't the cookie-cutter wedding hall like we were used to going to," Maria Fraggetta, now 41, recalled.

Her husband, 44, said many of the guests at their wedding "commented that when you see the Grand Prospect Hall from the street, it doesn't look like much." But he remembered climbing the staircase that lead to the ballroom, with its 45-foot-high ceilings.

"There was a big wow factor," he said.

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METROPOLITAN DIARY

After the split

Dear Diary:

At around 6:30 on an unusually warm October evening, I was standing near the QM2 bus stop at 55th Street and Sixth Avenue. I was holding a bouquet of flowers I had bought for my grandmother's 82nd birthday.

That morning, my boyfriend — no, ex — and I had parted ways at the Lexington Avenue Station. He transferred to the No. 4 toward the World Trade Center. I stayed on the N.

As breakups go, it was amicable. We expressed our mutual appreciation, lamented the poor timing and wished each other well.

I buzzed at work that day, knocking out task after task, taking a long lunchtime stroll through Central Park with my favorite colleague and celebrating my newfound freedom as a single 23-year-old.

But as dusk fell in its deceptively vibrant blue, the finality of our goodbye settled over me, and my tears started to fall as I stood at the bus stop. Amid the passing headlights and evening commuters, I did not try to hold them back.

Then I felt a tap on my shoulder, and an older man stepped up to the curb.

"Don't cry, miss," he said, leaning on his cane. "The bus will be here soon."

Grace Kim

Glad we could get together here. See you tomorrow. — J.B.

Mathew Brownstein, Briana Scalia, Jeffrey Furticella, Rick Martinez and Olivia Parker contributed to New York Today. You can reach the team at nytoday@nytimes.com.

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