OCEANHILL SEES SEA CHANGE: NO MORE HOUSING

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One of Brooklyn’s legendary housing groups is having a mid-life crisis. At its peak, Oceanhill-Brownsville Tenants Association (OHBTA) was a powerhouse, rehabbing hundreds of city-owned buildings. Now, says Executive Director Abdur Rahman Farrakhan, the group is getting out of the business, actively managing only about 300 apartments. While OHBTA still holds title to the buildings–mostly vacant and dilapidated properties rehabbed through city grants–it has passed off day-to-day management to outside for-profit management companies.

Most recently, the group handed over about 860 units in 30 buildings to the Bronx firm RMA, a private management company. The rest of the outsourced buildings have gone to ARCO Management and Grenadier Realty. Farrakhan says simply that OHBTA’s future is no longer in housing.

This is a sea change for an organization that once was the darling of the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), receiving millions of dollars in community management and rehab grants and loans and eventually taking title to more than 2,000 units of housing. Farrakhan maintains that OBTA is fed up with the housing management business, and is looking for greener fields in economic development and worker cooperatives.

“We’ve done well with HPD, but I don’t see this as being the future for us,” he said. “We want to do things to help people become self-sufficient, and we don’t want to become dependent on government grants. We don’t want to bother with that foolishness.”

OHBTA, formed out of the racially-charged Brownsville school choice fight of the late 1960s, was founded on the principles of self-help and home rule. But even as the group developed worker cooperatives like a security guard training program and a construction company, it became increasingly dependent on HPD rehab grants.

And the organization is widely known to have management problems. Most of the properties OHBTA still manages are tenant-owned or rental co-operatives. Buildings like these commonly owe back taxes and water and emergency repair bills. But Oceanhill-Brownsville’s buildings are especially debt-laden: All but two of its 16 co-ops are nearly drowning in old bills. One, a 35-unit building at 2170 Atlantic Avenue, currently owes a total of $427,860, according to city Department of Finance data.

“We need to fix these buildings up, we need to get these tax situations fixed up, we need to work with them,” admitted Farrakhan. “But there was a tossup between me paying for fuel and repairs, versus paying taxes. I figured, the city put a burden on me, why should I pay them?”