A Hard Fall in Harlem

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Marie Runyon knows how to get into trouble. Back when she was a state Assemblywoman in the early 1970s, she took advantage of her right to visit prisons–by showing up at midnight at Attica in 1975 to make sure the men in the box weren’t being abused by guards. She called notorious slumlord Adonis Morfesis a “son-of-a-bitch” to his face–in open court. And (in only one of the many arrests on her rap sheet) she alone refused to go quietly at the Gulf War protest at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in 1991, forcing the police to carry her off. She was 76 at the time.

For 20 years now, Runyon has been saving buildings as executive director of the Harlem Restoration Project, which she founded with a couple of ex-cons as a scrappy, never-say-die tenants’ advocacy group. It grew into a bona fide Harlem heavyweight. Just two years ago, it was considered a model nonprofit, managing nearly two dozen buildings with a budget in the millions, a successful and beloved thrift store, and plans for a 96,000-square-foot business incubator Runyon hoped would help revitalize West Harlem.

But trouble finally caught up to Marie Runyon.

In the wake of a nasty dispute over her management style, Harlem Restoration’s board split apart and the agency has crumbled. Runyon, an aggressive 82-year-old Southerner–one of the most admired, and feared, organizers in Harlem–has always been a magnet for criticism. But the current fracas has threatened her most enduring legacy: Harlem Restoration’s very existence.

“We are all fist-in-the-air people, so we don’t back down,” observes Jolie Ness, formerly the agency’s social services director. “Everyone was interested in defending their own viewpoint, rather than the organization’s needs.”

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Harlem Restoration started out with little more than attitude when it opened in 1977. “We didn’t give a damn about the politicians,” says Runyon. “We’d just go into any building that needed our help.” Runyon was widely admired for her bravado, coordinating tenants in buildings everyone else had given up on, and scraping money together for heat and repairs in some of the worst buildings in Harlem with the help of locals and the reborn ex-cons she has always attracted. Eventually, Harlem Restoration went legit, winning contracts from the city to take over and stabilize badly-run buildings under its 7a receivership program.

By the late 1980s, Harlem Restoration’s staff had organized more than 100 buildings, transferred a half-dozen others into tenant ownership, and found temporary jobs for some 500 ex-offenders. By the early 1990s, the staff completed its transformation. Runyon and Co. took advantage of a glut of city-owned buildings, eventual-ly taking responsibility for two dozen apartment buildings. The organization won two rehab projects financed through the federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit program and other housing contracts, boosting the organization’s annual budget almost 10-fold between 1991 and 1994. By 1994, the organization was managing 500 units, half of which housed formerly home-less families.

“I never dreamed of being in the role of landlord,” says Runyon, laughing. “My first arrests were in trying to stop evictions. But little by little, here I was, man-aging all these buildings.”

Runyon certainly had a genius for getting management contracts, but Harlem Restoration, as an organization, wasn’t able to keep up with the additional work, say former staff members. “We needed serious fiscal management to run things properly,” says Joseph Moore, who ran the thrift store for five years. “Instead, there was poor management and bad decisions. In any management position, you have to bend and work things out as a team, not as a crusade.”

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While other housing organizations were getting more professional, Harlem Restoration stayed grass-rootsy and, as even Runyon admits, inefficient.

“She insisted we make carbon copies,” laughs former legal counsel Gwenerva Cherry, “because she said the cost of xeroxing was too high. This was in the nineties!”

“A computer would have helped,” adds Ness. “We had no typewriters, no faxes either. Somebody was even going to give me a computer, but getting permission [to take it] was like pulling teeth.”

The first sign of serious trouble came in 1992, with a debacle over management of the 250 apartments at 640 and 644 Riverside Drive. Harlem Restoration’s assistant director Dorothy Keller argued vociferously against taking over the buildings. Ignoring Keller’s misgivings about the buildings’ bad conditions and financial problems, Runyon went ahead.

Within months, the unionized maintenance men went on strike, accusing Runyon of unilaterally slashing their pay (Runyon denies this). An influential group of tenants, angry that Runyon had not delivered on promised improvements, lobbied HPD for a new administrator. Runyon’s contract was pulled after less than a year.

Soon after, Harlem Restoration’s board hired a management consultant to restructure the organization. He recommended that Runyon step down. On his advice, the board fired her in March 1994. Four months later, though, her supporters voted her back in by a margin of one vote.

Exasperated, Keller quit. She was followed by Moore, Cherry and eventually much of the board. Runyon remained steadfast. “Marie was out there waging a war,” says her friend and fellow activist Reverend Robert Castle. “She’d take on everybody.”

But things at Harlem Restoration went downhill quickly. Two chief financial officers came and went in a year, leaving building accounts jumbled (like a $62,000 report for elevator repairs in a building without elevators). In 1995, the formerly profitable thrift shop lost nearly $20,000. And an independent auditor hired by the board criticized sloppy management.

“Our reporting left a lot to be desired,” admits Runyon, arguing that the two financial executives she hired were simply not up to the job. “I assume full responsibility for that as executive director.”

But scrupulous bookkeeping is essential when participating in the federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit program, which provides rehabilitation financing and rent reserves. The reporting problems, combined with Harlem Restoration’s inter-nal squabbling, began making funders nervous.

“We increasingly became concerned with staff turnover and board turnover,” says William Frey, director of Enterprise Foundation’s New York office, which administered the nonprofit’s tax credit pro-grams.

By fall 1996, at the insistence of HPD and Enterprise, Harlem Restoration began to get more help from other professional building managers. Meanwhile, the orga-nization attempted to regroup. To that end, the board brought in an Ivy League-trained management consultant, Elvin Montgomery.

Within weeks, Montgomery had fired five employees, suggested that Harlem Restoration turn its thrift store into an antique shop, and made numerous other suggestions for improvements. He impressed the board, which voted to hire him as interim executive director, at the same time asking Runyon to step down to concentrate on fundraising.

She refused, and for a while the organi-zation featured dueling leaders. Then at two meetings held December 11 and 17, five members of the 16-member board met and essentially staged a coup. Without a quorum, they voted Montgomery in as permanent executive director and increased his salary by two-thirds to $75,000 a year. They also fired Runyon, barring her from the premises.

The rest of the board struck back, calling a special meeting four days before Christmas. The dissenters didn’t show up, and the pro-Runyon faction fired Montgomery and barred him from the offices.

Then the struggle got even nastier. Three members of the anti-Runyon faction sued Harlem Restoration to bring Montgomery back, paralyzing the organization with a month-long injunction preventing it from conducting all but routine business. The three board members start-ed a new bank account, paying Montgomery and his new hires in part with a donor’s check that Runyon charges they stole. The insurgents changed the locks. Runyon’s people changed them back again. Montgomery says Runyon stole his files; Runyon says he hid hers. It all came to a head one evening in January with what Runyon calls “a tussle” between the two of them over some files. The cops had to break them up.

Finally, in early February, Runyon’s backers prevailed, defeating their opponents’ lawsuit. A civil court judge ruled that the pro-Montgomery board members had voted without a quorum and violated the organization’s by-laws. Their actions “may cause irreparable harm if permitted to stand,” she concluded.

Runyon was restored to her position as executive director. The three board members resigned, but not before circulating a scorching 15-page memo–drafted by Montgomery–to, among others, officials at HPD and Enterprise. Soon after, the city canceled most of its contracts with the organization, turning over 15 buildings to other nonprofits. The backers for the busi-ness incubator also pulled out; the project is now on hold.

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“There are many instances in which a powerful and charismatic leader can find it hard to manage an ongoing, stable organization,” says Joseph Stillman, partner at the Conservation Company, which offers management consulting services to non-profits. “The most famous example is Winston Churchill–a brilliant prime min-ister as long as Britain was at war, but not so brilliant at the management of a peacetime nation.”

Marie Runyon might well take this example to heart, now that Harlem Restoration has only five employees and four buildings left. But she is intent on keeping up the fight. In June she filed a lawsuit against HPD, arguing that four of the 15 buildings the city took back in fact belong to Harlem Restoration. She is also protesting the loss of the other buildings as a violation of land-use guidelines.

Asked if she could see any bright side to Harlem Restoration’s troubles, Runyon is uncharacteristically repentant. “Maybe I have screwed up, maybe I have been bad for the organization, bad for Harlem,” she says. “Maybe I’m the worst manager in the world, maybe everybody hates me. Then it’s good I’m not such a prominent part of what’s happening now.”

But then she pauses, thinking of a more pleasant result of the last year’s trials. “Oh yes,” she smiles widely, “and we got rid of three terrible people on the board of directors.”

Kathleen McGowan is a Manhattan-based freelance writer.