New Bunch of Bananas

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After years of living under roofs riddled with holes and in apartments with unusable toilets–and in some cases, without heat and hot water–residents of nearly two dozen buildings in the Bronx recently got some news that things may soon start to get better.

State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer announced in early November that he had replaced Yolanda Rivera, the longtime director of Banana Kelly, a community development group in Longwood, and all its board members with a group of established local leaders and housing developers.

Chaired by former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, the new board includes Banana Kelly founder Harry DeRienzo, Victor Alicea, president of Boricua College, Alyah Horsford-Sidberry, an affordable housing developer, and Mavelin Morales, a former Banana Kelly employee and tenant.

The attorney general made the move under an agreement with Rivera that requires that she and her board members break all ties with the organization for at least 10 years.

This deal has been several years in the making. Founded in the late 1970s, Banana Kelly has developed hundreds of units of affordable housing and run programs for youth. In February 2001, following reports of deteriorating building conditions and alleged mismanagement, Spitzer’s office began an investigation into Rivera and Banana Kelly, examining the group’s financial records, tax returns and correspondence with government agencies about grants and contracts.

A month later, Rivera handed the management of Banana Kelly’s buildings over to the Southeast Bronx Community Organization (SEBCO). The 34-year-old housing group began making emergency repairs. But last January, the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development said it would not give SEBCO the millions of dollars needed to completely rehab the buildings until Rivera was completely out of the picture.

Rivera refused to let go, and in May she sought to break her contract with SEBCO. At that point, says Marla Simpson, assistant attorney general in the Charities Bureau, her office knew that replacing Rivera “was our last best chance to rescue the buildings from going under.” For Rivera, it was step down or face litigation. A spokesperson for Rivera declined to comment on the deal.

As part of the new agreement, Spitzer’s office has stopped investigating Rivera and her board members. The attorney general has, however, handed its materials–which include allegations of mismanagement and misappropriation of funds–over to the U.S. Attorney’s office for its own investigation. With the help of the new board, Spitzer’s staff will continue to look into the management and financial practices of Banana Kelly.

In the meantime, the new board is making the desperately needed building repairs a top priority. With Rivera out of the picture, HPD has agreed to put $8 million toward rehabilitation of the 21 properties.

While a group of tenants organized by Mothers on the Move celebrated the removal of Rivera–one resident called her a “crook”–they note that the new board will have to convince them that it should be trusted. “We are the ones who have been suffering,” says Serlender Glover, a 21-year resident of 788 Fox Street, which has more than 300 housing code violations. “We feel that we should have input.”