It’s the pony tail, the earring and the Mao hat with the little red star that most people first recall, even for those that knew him in his later career as an investment banker. Philip St. Georges, who jump-started the New York City homesteading movement in his youth, died on December 5 of heart failure while playing a game of tennis. He was 47.
Born in Westchester County, Connecticut, and educated at Yale, St. Georges started working at housing rehabilitation with an East Harlem youth gang, the Renigades, during the early 1970s. In 1974, he co-founded the Urban Homesteaders’ Assistance Board (UHAB), built on the do-it-yourself principle of sweat equity–a term some say St. Georges coined. His daily experience amidst the rubble and dust of homesteading projects throughout the city convinced him that, given the opportunity, New Yorkers could help solve their own housing problems.
In 1978, St. Georges was appointed the first assistant commissioner of the city’s newly created Department of Housing Preservation and Development. Shorn of his pony tail and leaving the hat behind, Commissioner St. Georges still made good on his activist past, working with residents and community organizations to start up new programs to help tenant and community groups manage city-owned buildings. With a boyish smile, quick wit and overhand handshake, he was also a fierce advocate for resources in a cash-strapped administration.
Three years later, the founders of the newly minted National Consumer Cooperative Bank sought a manager who could tend to both the consumer and the bank in the organization’s name. St. Georges fit the bill. His new career in banking took him to Mutual of New York and finally KPMG Peat Marwick. All along investment banker St. Georges did for retail cooperatives, shopping centers and small grocery store chains what he had done for tenants and housing cooperatives before–providing help instead of hand-outs and keeping institutions responsive to the needs of those they were meant to serve.
He is survived by his wife of 20 years, Wendy Faxon (the first director of the Tenant Interim Lease program at UHAB), and their children, Luke and Kate Faxon-St. Georges. His family has established the Philip St. Georges Fund to support educational opportunities for poor children. For information about a New York memorial service or contributions to the fund, call UHAB at 212-479-3300.