City Takes Buildings off the Block

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The exterior of 112 Malcolm X Boulevard is ornate, but inside it’s a different story. Resident Elizabeth Jones wearily recites the building’s problems. It’s infested with mice and roaches. The plumbing barely works. The kitchen sink has been stopped up for a year. The bathroom sink leaks. When it rains, water pours into the light fixtures. And the banisters on the stairs are weak, a serious problem for Jones because a car accident has made walking extremely painful. “So much needs to be fixed in this place,” says Jones. “It’s not safe.”

Two years ago, Jones’s electricity was shut off because her landlord, Edward Winston, didn’t pay the bills. Jones lives on just $587 a month in disability checks, but she and other tenants came up with $2,357 and took over the utility payments.

Jones was not surprised to find out that Winston had also failed to pay his city taxes–he owes $22,782 on a property that’s valued at $81,000. The building is now on a list of properties the city will try to rescue and rehabilitate, by working with the current owner or finding a more responsible one to take his place.

But if the Giuliani administration had had its way this fall, Winston’s mismanagement would have been deemed too minor to guarantee his tenants the city’s help. His unpaid bills would instead have been sold to a trust. And if he failed within six months to work out a repayment deal with a collection agency, the building would have been sold at auction to the highest bidder.

Alarmed that buildings like Jones’s would be dumped onto the market without any guarantees they would be fixed, housing advocates took their case to the City Council. In October, they got a precious reprieve.

The tug-of-war centered on the city’s 1996 law governing landlords who fail to pay their taxes. Under the law, buildings whose tax debts exceed 15 percent of their value and are in need of serious repair are labeled distressed and must be monitored by the city’s Department of Housing Preservation & Development. If the owner won’t cooperate, the property enters HPD’s Third Party Transfer program, which supplies rundown buildings with new landlords who have established track records in managing and repairing apartments.

But this fall, the Department of Finance proposed limiting eligibility to buildings whose debts are greater than 50 percent of their value. The change would have increased the city’s revenue from debt sales and decreased HPD’s costs. A building like Jones’, with a debt of 28 percent of its value, just wasn’t bad enough to merit help. At least 273 other buildings would have likewise been excluded from the city program and headed toward auction.

At a Council hearing, housing advocates argued that tenants in the city’s most vulnerable buildings needed far better protection. The new law “would significantly raise the number of financially strapped buildings that may ultimately be foreclosed and auctioned off to new owners, without their underlying financial problems ever being addressed,” testified Frank Braconi of the Citizens Housing and Planning Council. By contrast, said Joe Center of the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, “the housing conditions get much better” on buildings that come under city oversight.

The council rejected the proposal and voted to renew the current law for another year. “It’s a program pregnant with danger for tenants,” says Harlem Councilmember Bill Perkins. “How do you prevent the properties from going from one bad owner to another?”