The Story of UHAB!


A few weeks ago, Urban Omnibus published an illuminating interview with Andy Reicher, UHAB’s execultive director since 1981.  The interview tells the fascinating tale of building abandonment in the 1970s, and the way that UHAB developed as an organization.

Andy recounts that

In this context of wholesale abandonment, UHAB was founded on the idea that local people are able, with their own hands and some technical assistance, to solve their own housing problems, to stabilize their neighborhoods, and to build up the urban fabric within those neighborhoods… The idea was to work with people who wanted to take over vacant, abandoned housing in New York, turn them into homes, and become owners.

The idea that tenants have a say in determining the future of their buildings has always been one of UHAB’s guiding principles – no matter how radical that may have been – as Andy recounts:

I think engaging residents was a new idea. Engaging communities or neighborhoods in urban renewal projects was already widely discussed. But the notion that residents of multi-family apartment buildings have the capacity to help themselves when it comes to housing needs – that was somewhat unique.

Americans have always built and renovated their own houses, but the idea of renovating apartment buildings was new in the 1970s. Before that, you would just tear a building down if it fell out of use or into disrepair. You wouldn’t do these major gut renovations. That whole idea was new, especially for larger apartment buildings.

In the organizing department, we primarily work with buildings that are not co-ops  (yet). Our role at UHAB is borne out of the idea of “engaging residents,” or as we call it around here, “tenant choice.” As Andy mentions in the article, the housing landscape has changed dramatically since the 1970s. New York City is no longer facing a battle of abandonment, but rather the struggle between foreclosure and displacement known as predatory equity.

Though these fights are different than UHAB’s early days, we are still guided very much by the tenant-choice model.  Like abandonment in the 1970s, we see foreclosure as a juncture: yes things are bad,  but it is also a unique moment in which tenants can forcefully advocate for a say.   When we begin organizing in a building, we encourage tenants to think about what they want for their building’s future (through thinking about various models of ownership), and to rally around that.

Fight! Fight! Fight! Housing is a Right!

To read the full interview, click here!


Friday News Round-Up!

It’s Friday! You know what to expect:

  1. The New York Daily News continues to lambast NYCHA in the press. But the City Council is fighting back – declaring the campaign against the agency ill-informed and careless. Rosie Mendez and her colleagues in the council have argued that the cash reserves are both smaller than billions NYDN claims, and that they are reserved only for major capital improvements – i.e., using them to fix a leaky faucet would get all the funds revoked by the federal government. All the same, Mayor Bloomberg has announced that the agency will be restructured. NYCHA is the largest public housing authority in North America and is one of the only American housing authorities remaining after many were dismantled in the 1990s and early 2000s. (Politicker, New York Times)
  2. Thousands and thousands of DREAMers showed up at a deferred action event in Chicago this week, the largest crowd in the country. Undocumented people seeking freedom from fear of arrest began to arrive as early as last Tuesday evening. Wednesday was the first day to apply for Obama’s new policy, announced via executive order, that would allow thousands of young immigrants freedom increased access to work permits, study permits, and reprieve from deportation. Ilian Claudio, 19, described the event in Chicago as “A new beginning. A gate is opening.” (Huffington Post)
  3. The foreclosure crisis that continues to ravage the country has had an immense number of negative effects. The number of American’s living in poverty has increased, as well as the number of homeless Americans. High unemployment. Several studies suggest that foreclosure has a negative effect on school performance. Et cetera. But despite anecdotal evidence that suggests crime associated with foreclosure is a national problem, a study in the Social Science Quarterly has found little empirical evidence that the foreclosure crisis has influenced rates of violent and property crime. (The Atlantic Cities)
  4. Evelyn Konrad of Southhampton is fighting against a zoning code change that allows supersized homes in her town. She claims the Mayor is catering favor with his Wall Street buddies, and has already spent nearly $100,000 of her own life savings on the suit. Lone Star Funds CEO Donald Quintin for having a house that is egregiously large. We’re standing with Evelyn! And if Mr. Quintin’s house in the Hamptons is so big, we know about 900 angry tenants who would like to come over for dinner. (The Real Deal)
  5. Two UHAB-monitored co-ops are in the news today for having the two cheapest NYC Real Estate listings of the week. (546 W. 156th Street and 521 W. 151st Street, both in Hamilton Heights.) The good news: at least we’re doing our job of keeping the co-op option affordable. The bad news (or the-news-that-was-left-out): the article in The Real Deal, though it mentions they are “fully renovated co-ops,” does not mention that they are also limited equity, income restricted. Speculators move on! (The Real Deal)

Here are the also-rans for this week’s news roundup: the “public” is clamoring for a picture of Paul Ryan topless (not this public!), Andrew Cuomo has called yet another thing historic (yogurt), and strip clubs in Florida can’t wait for the RNC to arrive. Questionable choices, all around. Have a great weekend, from UHAB Organizing!

NY Daily News: “Determined West Farm Tenants Band Together to Fix Up Neglected Bronx Slum Building, Work to Form Co-op”

The New York Daily News  reported on an amazing group of tenants today. The tenants at 943 E 179th street, have shown amazing resilence in face of a seemingly hopeless situation. Their building has been in foreclosure for several years, the owner has disappeared, and the court appointed a receiver has yet to step foot in the building. This is what abandonment looks like in New York today. With nobody around to make repairs or take responsibility many tenants in this situation either leave or are forced to live in horrific conditions. The tenants at 943 decided to take a different rout. They’ve been collecting their own rent for several months which goes into an account under the Tenant’s Association, and they have been using it to make their building livable again.

The residents still have a long way to go. They want to become a Co-op because  after years of poor management, they feel that no one will look after the building better than themselves. After seeing what they’ve done so far, it would be hard to disagree with them. Check out what the Daily News has to say about these tenants:

From New York Daily News: Jacqueline Rodriguez and fellow tenants Jose Luis Alameda (left) and Marcelo Alameda at 943 E. 179th St.

Some tenants in slum buildings with rats and leaks stop paying rent. Others move out, complain or ask for handouts.

But when their Bronx tenement crumbled due to landlord neglect, the tenants at 943 E. 179th St. banded together to collect rent and make repairs.

Now they boast new kitchen cabinets, refrigerators, stoves, walls and floors, and they could become homeowners soon.

With help from the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, the tenants hope to buy their beloved West Farms building outright and form a co-op.

Department of Housing Preservation and Development officials harbor concerns about tenants performing renovations without permission rather than letting the city force landlords to make repairs.

But Jacqueline Rodriguez and her neighbors were tired of waiting.

“Most of the people here have been here a long time,” said Rodriguez, tenant association president. “They don’t want another landlord. No one is going to take care of the building better than the people who live here.”

Tucked between E. Tremont Ave. and the Bronx Zoo, 943 E. 179th St. began to deteriorate in 2007, after a Hamptons-based landlord purchased the four-story walkup, said Rodriguez, 32, a recreational therapist who grew up in the building.

Broken pipes and windows went unmended and cockroaches swarmed to the slum. The 9-unit building still has 248 open housing code violations. It entered foreclosure in 2008, with Lehman Brothers holding the mortgage: a nightmare scenario, said Kerri White, UHAB organizer.

“There were no repairs at all,” said Rodriguez, 32, a mother of twin infants. “We suffered without hot water for six months and without heat for months…You pay your rent and you don’t know where the money is going.”

The tenants found out about the foreclosure in 2010, when they were instructed to pay their rent to Con Edison via city marshals. Their landlord owed the utility $38,000, Rodriguez said.

The revelation spurred Rodriguez and her neighbors to form a tenants association and corporation. They opened a bank account to hold their rent in escrow.

In five months under the new system, the tenants have used their rent money to remodel several kitchens, buy new appliances and hire an exterminator.

“When I got here there were roaches and rats all over, in every crevice,” said exterminator Major Meyers of Complete Enterprize. “Now there are minimal issues.”

Several tenants who boast carpentry skills have donated their time and Rodriguez has taught some English to neighbors who speak only Spanish. The building “feels like a family” now, she said.

HPD has completed $80,714 in emergency repairs, and helped with boiler oil.

The building
–controlled by
Lehman-affiliated mortgage holder 745 Special Assets LLC
, and Aurora Bank
— could head to foreclosure auction soon.

But the tenants and UHAB are negotiating to acquire the slum before that occurs, White said.

Buying the building and founding a co-op will be difficult, but longtime tenant Juana Almanzar is up for the challenge, she said.

“I like it better with us in charge,” said Almanzar, 52. “I want to own my home.”

Read more:

Speculative Buyers, Stay Away! This round is “Tenant’s Choice”

"Don't Buy Here" signs in English and Spanish in the Ocelot Portfolio, where the Tenant-Choice model was used to force lender Fannie Mae into a preservation deal with tenants preferred owner, Omni Management.

The work we do at UHAB is unique because, in some ways, we see foreclosure as a good thing. What we mean by that is that when a building falls into foreclosure, we believe it is an opportunity for tenants to assert a stronger position in determining the future of their building. When a renter-occupied building falls into foreclosure, ownership often changes hands. This change provides an opening for tenants to insert themselves into the negotiating process and determine for themselves who should be the next owners of their building. We call this model “Tenant Choice.”

At UHAB, we see four main methods of building ownership, each with benefits and shortcomings. We provide tenants with information on these different models of ownership and encourage them to have serious debates about which model they envision for their homes. We believe that we can empower whole buildings and communities by increasing tenant participation in planning for the future of their building. The four methods are described below, in order of least-to-most tenant responsibility.

  • Continue as a Rental: Tenants may decide that their responsibility is to pay rent and receive services. If tenants choose this model, UHAB organizers may help tenants identify responsible developers who will be long-term landlords that invest in the building and maintain affordability.
  • Joint – Venture: In a joint venture, tenants sit on a board alongside representatives from the building owner. The board has decision power on the day-to-day management and maintenance of their building that also includes representatives from the landlord and from the community.
  • Mutual Housing: In this model, multiple buildings are grouped together to form a community or city wide association. Tenants volunteer to sit on a board, alongside ownership, and make management decisions over their building, as well as other buildings in the association. Tenants keep costs down by agreeing to manage certain aspects of maintenance on their own, for example, taking out trash and sweeping hallways.
  • Limited-Equity Cooperative: In this model, tenants form a corporation for their building and then buy shares to become permanent owners of their apartment units. Tenants who decide they want their building to become a co-op are required to take on a great deal of responsibility, and commit time and energy towards the building and the community. Tenants have the most control over the way that their building is run, and may as well have the opportunity to pass the apartment on to their children.

We have a few big picture objectives for our tenant choice models of ownership training: tenant empowerment, and as always, asset preservation. We hope encourage tenants to talk as a community about what kind of relationship they would like to have with their landlord and to begin to see themselves as powerful decision makers in their buildings future. As the foreclosure crisis continues we hope to use the tenant choice model to as part of an innovative ownership strategy to stabilize distressed buildings and neighborhoods. We hope to involve tenant participation as part of a long term strategy of distressed asset preservation. With these four models of ownership in mind, we are thinking of creative ways to solve the foreclosure crisis and break the cycle of Predatory Equity.

(Don’t forget to check out our new Resources tab, where you can get copies of our Models of Ownership training packet.)

New Foreclosure Legislation Would Require Banks to be More Transparent

Yesterday, New York 1 reported on legislation proposed by Christine Quinn that would require banks to notify the city when they’re going to put a building in foreclosure. This legislation will help tenants who live in foreclosed buildings continue to get the services they need, which is very important, considering foreclosure often means divestment and deterioration for the buildings.

The tenants who live in 164 Dikeman, the building featured in the NY1 video, are a great example of why this type of legislation is needed. For this building, the foreclosure process consisted of an absentee landlord and deteriorating conditions.  The residents discovered that the foreclosure was only the tip of the iceberg of the buildings problems. Due to the poor conditions the building fell into the Department of Housing Preservation and Development’s (HPD) Alternative Enforcement Program (AEP), meaning it was one of the 200 worst buildings in the city. On top of this, the residents realized all the tenants were being illegally overcharged for rent, while receiving no services. The tenants were able to file for rent reductions to have the legal rents restored, but while this was going on the bank sold the notes to a building to a Eman Realty who has now become the owner.

Unfortunately, the new owner has not proved to be more responsive than the last.  Eman Realty’s principal, Alexander Varveris, has a history of being a neglectful landlord.  Eman took over in September, yet tenants have seen very little change in the building.

Besides tipping the city to be on the lookout for declining physical conditions, another reason this legislation could be helpful is it could provide more time for the tenants to have a voice in what happens to their homes after the foreclosure ends. The tenants at Dikeman were not able to intervene in the sale of the note because they were not aware that was a possibility and that a new landlord was going to take over through a note sale. The residents are fed up with the neglect and would like the building to become Co-op. The tenants and UHAB are currently organizing and working towards this goal, but this outcome might have come sooner and possibly easier for the tenants if the foreclosure proceedings were more transparent to the city and to residents of the buildings.

Tenants in the Bronx Featured in State of the Re:Union!

State of the Re:Union is a unique public radio show that “has set out to explore how a particular American city or town creates community,  the ways people transcend challenging circumstances and the vital cultural narratives that give an area its uniqueness. ”

The most recent episode explores The Bronx, New York City’s most northern most borough. It features tenant Jacqueline Rodriguez and her neighbors who are working with UHAB on converting their abandoned building into a cooperative. After receiving an exorbitant bill, Jacqueline began investigating her building, which was essentially abandoned.

Learn more by listening at State of the Re:Union. Jacqueline is featured in Part B.