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.

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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!

As we culminate yet another week, we welcome the start of spring (even though it doesn’t really feel like it )! Here are a few new stories that caught our attention this week!

  1. The Daily News reported that Workforce Housing Advisers (WFHA) cut the ribbon on 935 Kelly Street — a property that was considered one of the most dilapidated multifamily buildings in the Bronx. Within the past few years, WFHA bought the mortgage, foreclosed on the property, and renovated the building (along with four other properties on the same block). Also, having organized with tenants in other WFHA buildings,  Kerri White, the Co-Director of Organizing at UHAB, understands the challenges involved in sealing the foreclosure. In the same Daily News article, she comments, “Workforce Housing is a responsible developer… We see them trying to do their best, but that can’t happen until they own the property and put in more money.” We congratulate the tenants as well as WFHA for sealing the foreclosure and commend the collaborative efforts in the building.
  2. New York City proposed a bill that would create an Office of the Inspector General for the Police Department. This bill is response to the recent opposition to the NYPD’s Stop and Frisk Program, which predominately targets African American and Latino folks. Such tactics prove that this program perpetuates racism. Speaker Christine Quinn has vehemently supported the bill, asserting that the NYPD needs more independent oversight.  However, Mayor Bloomberg has threatened to veto the bill, claiming that such legislation would undermine the police commissioner’s authority . Regardless, we hope that enacting such a bill would improve accountability and transparency in our police system.
  3. In Albany, elected officials are solidifying a plan to increase New York state’s minimum wage over the next three years. Currently, the state’s minimum wage sits at a low $7.25/hr., but, by late 2015, the new agreement would increase the minimum wage to $9/hr. According to the New York Daily News, lawmakers could reach a decision as early as Tuesday of next week.  While increasing the minimum wage would make many folks’ lives easier, United NY claims that the bill has many loopholes, including the exclusion of tipped workers and tax breaks for employers under 20 years old (which would favor the hiring of younger employers). The agreement is tentative, and we will keep you updated as the story unfold next week…
  4. At a National Community Reinvestment Coalition conference, Shaun Donovan, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced additional cuts to the Housing Choice Voucher program. According to Donovan, these cuts would affect 125,000 families and individuals that receive permanent housing vouchers, and 100,o00 families and individuals that live in the shelter system. While the intention of these cuts is to boost our national economy, Donovan anticipates that the aftereffects will further cripple our housing market.
  5. The housing market is making a comeback, and fast! According to the NY Times, the current national demand for housing is outweighing the supply, which had led to bidding wars and significant price increases. Many developers have been taken by surprise and, as a result, are scrambling to create more housing stock. The Wall Street Journal reported that February of 2007, new-home construction rose by 28 percent. While the market is booming again, we worry that the mortgage crisis of 2007 will resurrect itself. Stay tuned for further developments…

Have a great weekend, and we will return next weekend with more news!

Innovative First Look Program Sparks Another Exciting Victory for Bronx Tenants!

For over two years, tenants, organizers, advocates and elected officials battled with New York Community Bank, New York’s largest multifamily lender, to determine a path to preservation for the thousands and thousands of units of distressed and at risk affordable housing, damaged by Predatory Equity. The result, as we detailed last summer in “Breaking the Banks,” is a revolutionary “First Look” Program that allows HPD approved landlords a better opportunity to purchase overleveraged and physically damaged affordable housing in foreclosure.  The details of the program were first hammered out between NYCB and advocates, including UHAB, in the Spring 2012, and currently there are at least three participating banks.  

Today, HPD, Speaker Quinn, Workforce Housing Advisors (WFHA), the Community Preservation Corporation (CPC) and UHAB are pleased to announce the beginnings of a gut renovation of some of the the earliest multifamily residential buildings to be transferred to an approved affordable housing developer through the First Look program. WFHA purchased the mortgages at a discount from NYCB in October 2011, and after a comprehensive relocation process (which assured tenants the opportunity to return home following renovation), closed on a $4.7 million financing package.  This package will allow the properties to be fully repaired while also ensuring that they remain affordable for the current residents for years to come.

“The deal is an example of what the City can accomplish when we work together to protect tenants’ homes,” said Speaker Christine C. Quinn. “The ‘First Look’ agreement we reached with New York Community Bank ensures the City and good developers get first crack at purchasing loans and preserving buildings, and I thank Workforce Housing Advisers,  UHAB, and HPD for their hard work to save these homes.”

In her recent State of the City address, Christine Quinn proposed created a housing fund “to make bulk purchases of over leveraged housing. The city will make sure repairs get made while properties make their way through the foreclosure process. Then, we’ll transfer them to an approved developer who will keep the buildings affordable and in good condition.” This proposal is the result of collaboration between the City and housing advocates for the past year. Our idea, which we have called the Interim Facility, will build upon First Look by setting up a framework for large scale preservation of distressed housing.

539-541 E. 147th are the first two buildings in the First Look program to begin the long renovation process, but there are other buildings purchased through the program and are slated for future development. WFHA purchased mortgages in foreclosure from NYCB on 1380 University, also in the Bronx. As recently reported, Banana Kelly and Wavecrest Management also reached a deal on three properties on College Avenue. Tenants in both 1380 University and the College Avenue properties are working closely with CASA (Community Action for Safe Apartments) to ensure that they have a voice in the future of their buildings.

Another exciting victory for the First Look program took place in March 2012 when Mutual Housing Association of NY (MHANY) purchased mortgages from NYCB  on four extremely distressed properties in Brooklyn. These buildings, organized by UHAB, are still winding their way through the foreclosure process. MHANY expects to become the deed holder in the next few months. Once that happens, tenants can look forward to extensive repairs and a cooperative relationship with their non-profit landlord. In the meantime, tenants, UHAB organizers, and MHANY have been meeting regularly with architects to collaborate on a plan for renovation.

The addresses of buildings that have entered the preservation pipeline  through the First Look program thus far are 539-541 E. 147th Street, 1380 University Ave, and 1259, 1265, and 1269 College Avenue in the Bronx, and 230-232 Schenectady Ave, 266 Malcom X Blvd, 896 Madison Street in Brooklyn. Combined, these properties are home to over 250 families. As the Interim Facility gets off the ground and the First Look program continues to grow, we expect this number to multiply!

To read more about the upcoming renovation at E. 147th Street, read today’s press release here.

Going Green and Fighting Food Deserts in Your Building

We often describe the kind of tenant organizing that we do as “crisis organizing.” We enter buildings because they are in severe distress – financial or physical – and we organize tenants in order to create a powerful resident body that sees itself as a catalyst for solving the crisis. Ideally, these tenant associations stay vibrant long after we have left the building. In some cases, they even become co-op boards who participate in the creation of a limited equity, resident-owned cooperative and become the primary decision makers in their buildings.

There are many, many other ways to organize a building. Many of the community groups we work with are membership-based organizations that work to build tenant associations made up of individuals who identify with their particular group as a facilitator of large-scale neighborhood change. These groups are using tenant associations to build strong community associations and improve things like public safety and local schools.

And some tenant associations are actively working to bring healthier food and greener living into their homes. Anyone who has heard the tired joke “Whole Foods, more like Whole Paycheck,” knows that eating healthy access to local produce is often financially out of reach. But there are many organizations that are working with communities and even with tenant associations to actively change this paradigm.

The Corbin Hill Farm works out of Harlem with neighborhood groups to improve access to healthy, local food. They work tirelessly to make sure that their CSA is more affordable than most, and like many CSAs in New York City, they accept SNAP and EBT. Every missive sent out from the farm share is in English and Spanish to appeal directly to the communities in which they are based. They have several partnerships directly with tenant associations in and with HDFCs in Upper Manhattan to arrange for pick up locations directly in buildings. A couple years ago, Corbin Hill was featured in the New York Times for the work that they do to link low-income neighborhoods with Upstate New York farmers and fight food deserts.

This is also the idea behind Kelly Street Green, a project out of Kelly Street Restoration/Workforce Housing Advisors at the row of once-notorious buildings on Kelly Street in the Bronx. The buildings are now restored (and accepting resident applications for a few more days!) and the building owners are working to create a sustainable food project out of the property. They plan to create a community garden (that will grow produce) paired with a storefront project to increase community access to healthy food. Kelly Street Green has an open call for applications to manage the storefront as a space to combat the South Bronx’s food desert. Applications are open for just a few more days — spread the word!

Though we do “crisis organizing” around predatory equity, foreclosure and over-leveraging, there are numerous reasons to build tenant associations and fighting food deserts can be one of them. Summer is winding down, but that just means farmers are planning their crops for next season. And upstate New York is chock full of farmers. Get informed, get engaged, and use your tenant association as a catalyst for GREEN change!

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!