Taxed Shelter

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At its peak, the Oceanhill-Brownsville Tenants Association (OHBTA) was a redevelopment powerhouse. Now, while OHBTA still holds title to the buildings–mostly former vacant and dilapidated properties rehabbed through city grants–it has passed off day-to-day management for all but about 300 apartments to outside for-profit managers.

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 that OHBTA’s future is simply no longer in housing.

It’s 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. It would eventually take title to more than 2,000 housing units.

Farrakhan explains that OHBTA is fed up with the landlord business and looking for greener fields in economic development. “We’ve done well with HPD, but I don’t see this as being the future for us,” he says. “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.

The organization’s properties are widely known to have management problems. Most of the properties OHBTA still manages are tenant-owned or rental cooperatives. 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 unpaid bills. One, a 35-unit building at 2170 Atlantic Avenue, currently owes a total of $427,860, according to 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,” admits Farrakhan. “But there was a toss-up between me paying for fuel and repairs versus paying taxes. I figured the city put a burden on me–why should I pay them?”