The Surreal Estate

Perspectives on Tenant Organizing from the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board

Tag Archives: Birthplace of Hip-Hop

Fighting for the Future: Lessons from 1520 Sedgwick

This is a video from a few days ago when we celebrated the return of 1520 Sedgwick to well-maintained affordable housing for low to moderate income residents in the Bronx. This was the culmination of a long, hard-fought campaign started by the tenants with the assistance of UHAB in 2007.

I wasn’t the organizer in the 1520 Sedgwick campaign, since I joined UHAB in 2008. But because of the importance of the campaign my formation as a tenant organizer was shaped through the lens of 1520 Sedgwick.

In 2007, residents of 1520 Sedgwick reached out to UHAB and Tenants & Neighbors because they had learned that their building had been sold to a landlord who intended to remove affordability restrictions and attract higher paying tenants to make up for the fact that he over paid for the building in the first place.

Sedgwick was the iconic predatory equity campaign: strong tenants stood up to fight for their homes in a historic building known as the “Birthplace of Hip-Hop.”   Tenants, with UHAB’s support, began pushing back against their landlord. Our earliest campaign goals at 1520 Sedgwick were to keep the buildings in the Mitchell Lama program and prevent a sale to real estate speculator Mark Karasick. Help came flooding in, starting with DJ Kool Herc, the father of hip-hop who started the cultural trend in the community room of 1520 forty years ago, but soon city leaders like Senator Schumer and Congressman Serrano, to name a few, joined the fight.

It was an emotional and impressive campaign. And, despite everyone’s best efforts, we failed. Big business profiteering off affordable housing won the fight. The building was sold to Mark Karasick, who bought it with a $7.2 million mortgage from Sovereign Bank, shortly thereafter it was removed from the Mitchel Lama program. Predictably, the building began to fall in to disrepair. However, rather than becoming discouraged, the tenants remained organized and continued to fight for what they knew their buildings could be.

That’s when Workforce Housing Advisors entered the scene, with an unconventional plan to purchase the mortgage and foreclosure on the owner. The tenants were ready to pick up the fight once again, and the second time around it was not difficult to find the support of city agencies and elected officials to help with this preservation option, and the building was recovered.

This recent celebration was the official ribbon cutting, post renovation of the building. The tenants and all their supporters who helped win this campaign came out to see what all the work was for, a beautiful affordable housing complex for the residents who fought so hard for their community.

While we are grateful for the support from all the organizations and agencies, we need to take a moment and specifically thank the tenants. Their struggle and their victory has taught UHAB’s Organizing and Policy Department so much over the past five years. When they reached out to us in 2007, we were in the early stages of predatory equity and were just discovering how financial malfeasance and mortgage over-leveraging based on speculation and gentrification, impacts tenants and their homes. Now, it defines our work. We learned about foreclosure at 1520 Sedgwick; Workforce Housing’s plan to purchase the mortgage and foreclose on the owner provided the inspiration for our campaign against New York Community Bank and created the framework for the First Look Program that came out of it.

Currently, while we continue to face the fallout of the previous housing bust, at the same time we see buildings being re-overleveraged. It’s disheartening to feel that real estate hasn’t learned from the failures of speculators like Karasic. Still, I look at the 1520 Sedgwick campaign and remember the resiliency of the tenants, their refusal to give up, and it reminds me that while it’s easy to be discouraged, the present isn’t permanent and the future is worth fighting for.

We Fought Back and We Won!

Tenants celebrated a major victory at 1520 Sedgwick on Friday. After over five years of fighting, they can finally say that they have wrestled their buildings from the hands of a private equity company into the hands of a landlord that they picked, renovations are completed, and tenants are home at last. 

1520 Sedgwick is widely known as the Birthplace of Hip Hop — something that Borough President Ruben Diaz noted brought hope to the Bronx in the darkest days of the 1970s. Parties at 1520 Sedgwick, he said, gave people of the Bronx something to believe in. 

We’re inspired by the amazing preservation battle the tenants waged — and thrilled that they have been victorious. Check out coverage from the Daily News, and see the photos below via Anthony Collins Photography. 

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Friday News Round Up

It’s been a busy week here at UHAB, and the world of affordable housing is as jam-packed as ever. Get ready for the roundup!

  • Mayor Bloomberg finally announced his appointments for the NYCHA Board, adding two more tenants to the seven person board, raising tenant representation to 3. The new volunteer tenant board members are Beatrice Byrd, former tenant president of the Red Hook West Houses in Brooklyn, and Willie Mae Lewis, tenant president of the St. Nicholas Houses in Harlem; they join Victor Gonzales.
  • The city is dangerously close to ending a program that has allowed 350 refugees of Superstorm Sandy to live in hotels for the past year. FEMA will stop reimbursing the city for the costs starting on Monday, and the city currently has no official plans for the refugees other than “apply to stay in one of the city’s homeless shelters.”
  • In his weekly radio show, Mayor Bloomberg praised the income gap between the rich and poor and said it would be a “godsend” if every millionaire moved to the city. This outrageous assertion comes on the heels of the release of the Census Data from 2012 showing a 3% increase in the poverty rate of New Yorkers.
  • Don’t forget about the runoff election for Public Advocate this coming Tuesday, Oct 1st! City Councilmember Tish James will face state Senator Daniel Squadron. Tenant PAC has endorsed James as a prominent opponent of the Atlantic Yards development in her district. Don’t forget to vote!
  • It’s finally Fall, meaning that organizations are putting out newsletters and reports like its no tomorrow! Check out UHAB’s Fall Newsletter to see what the entire organization is up to. Next, make sure to read up on “The Burden of Fees: How Affordable Housing is Made Unaffordable” a report by  Community Action for Safe Apartments (CASA), in coordination with the Urban Justice Center’s Community Development Project we featured on the blog this week. And finally, dive into the new report by the Center for New York City Neighborhoods, “Home by Home: Neighborhood Stabilization in New York City” that documents the local repercussions of the national housing crisis and highlights the work of the Center’s network of housing counselors and attorneys with thousands of homeowners struggling to keep their homes.
  • And to close out the roundup, in honor of the Ribbon Cutting Ceremony at 1520 Sedgwick — better known as the Birthplace of Hip Hope — here is a clip of a news conference from back in 2007 — featuring a quick rap from Senator Schumer at minute 6:25.

Enjoy the weekend – we’ll be back at it on Monday!

A Green Future for Formerly Distressed Buildings

Workforce Housing Advisers, the group that helped save 1520 Sedgwick , the Birthplace of Hip-Hop, is upping their ante in the Community Development world in the Bronx by moving beyond developing and preserving decent, safe affordable housing and starting a project that will benefit not only the tenants but the whole community in the Hunts Point area of the Bronx.

This was all started by a group of horribly distressed basically abandoned buildings located at 16, 920, 924, 928, and 935 Kelly Street. These buildings were all put in the city’s Alternative Enforcement Program (AEP) in 2007, meaning they were among the 200 worst buildings in NYC. The properties only continued to decline from there. But now, Workforce Housing stepped in, bought the debt, finished foreclosure and has begun a $16 million renovation of the properties with financing that ensures they will remain affordable in the future.

Considering their past exploits, this is merely par for the course for Workforce Housing. However, with Kelly St. they are taking a step further and initiating a project that will benefit the tenants as well as the greater community. The project is called Kelly Street Green, and its goal is to provide support for a healthy, fresh food purveyor in a commercial space in the Kelly Street buildings. The project is currently requesting proposals from interested parties, and a committee (that includes yours truly) will help determine who will ultimately run the space. The store will sell produce from local farms as well as the community garden adjacent to the properties. This project will be a huge gain for the community of Hunts Point which is often considered a “food desert” meaning it is extremely difficult for people in the community to acquire quality groceries.

Even better, as the Daily News reports, the space will be leased at a substantial discount and will receive up to $150,000 in start up grants. The person/group selected will also receive a rent free apartment in one of the buildings.

If you are interested in submitting a proposal, or just want to find out more about this project visit kellystgreen.com. We’re excited to participate in this innovative project, and are looking forward to hearing about your ideas!

Goodybe 2011: A year in Review

For those of you new to this blog or trying to get a handle on Predatory Equity in New York City – here’s your down-and-dirty year in review.

Highlights, Lowlights, and the Stuff in Between:

1. Lowlight: In April 2011, New York Affordable Housing Associates sold eight  distressed buildings to Bronx VIII LLC (Townhouse Management). While we still don’t know how much Townhouse paid for the buildings, the disappointing transaction was facilitated by New York Community Bank – who explicitly sold the debt to a developer the tenants did not endorse.

2. Somewhere In Between: In May of 2011, Finkelstein Timberger Real Estate bought the infamous ten building Milbank portfolio for the giant sum of $30 Million dollars. This transaction, which still reeks of over leveraging, was made through financing with Signature Bank. Fortunately for tenants, their advocacy throughout the process meant that all of the tenants are protected by an agreement to ensure repairs, eliminate the quest for back-rent, and cap the amount for potential MCI’s in the next two years. Additionally, six of the buildings entered the city’s Alternative Enforcement Program, ensuring further protection from the horrible conditions these tenants suffered for years.

3.  Highlight: In May 2011, after two years in foreclosure, the tenants at Borinquen Court in the Bronx had their building purchased by the non-profit organization West Side Federation for Senior and Supportive Housing. It was a a hard earned victory and the tenants are looking forward to living in a building with the owner they chose!

4. Somewhere-In-Between: Rent regulation was extended in June 2011! The “grand compromise” however has many complaining about the fact that  rent-regulated affordable housing has not been permanently preserved due to the fact that vacancy decontrol is still in effect.

5. Lowlight: In September 2011, The Bluestone Group sold a group of six dilapidated Bronx buildings to Anthony Gazivoda for a whopping $17 Million dollars. This made for the fourth over leveraging of this severely distressed portfolio.

6. Highlight: In September 2011, 1520 Sedgewick (AKA the “Birthplace of Hip Hop”) was saved! With tenant endorsement, Winn Residential and Workforce Housing Advisors purchased the building with an extensive rehab scope and permanent affordability plan to accompany the acquisition!

It was a busy year fighting for decent conditions and permanent affordability in New York City housing. UHAB organizers, tenants, and allies are still actively fighting to against over leveraging, bad conditions, negligent landlords, and against the banking industry’s bottom-line, top-dollar mentality. As Predatory Equity becomes a clearer and more understood trend,  we sincerely hope that our 2012 year in review will hold fewer lowlights and many more highlights as we continue to develop new tools to fight this rapacious phenomenon.

See you in 2012! We have a feeling it will be a great year!

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