Building Justice: As Tenants Fought to Save the Bronx, Race was in the Background

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Early Bronx neighborhood advocates—including (from left to right) Anne Devenney, Phyllis Longsworth and Dalma De La Rosa—bridged racial divides with a pragmatic approach necessitated by the scope of the crisis their communities faced.

From the Miriam Nepture/Kellon Innocent film "Don't Move, Improve!"

Early Bronx neighborhood advocates—including (from left to right) Anne Devenney, Phyllis Longsworth and Dalma De La Rosa—bridged racial divides with a pragmatic approach necessitated by the scope of the crisis their communities faced.

 

A cascade of crises is forcing America to confront the racism of its past and present—from overt acts of hate to subtler injustices that shape our society. Over 16 weeks, City Limits and Enterprise Community Partners will feature prominent New Yorkers’ views on how race and housing policy intersect to create a legacy each of us must confront, and the way forward we should take together. These are not necessarily views we endorse. But they are views we fully believe are important to share with each other. Here is the third post in our series. Read the rest here.

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My organization, the University Neighborhood Housing Program, recently closed on a $1.6 million refinance of two adjoining buildings with 31 apartments and six stores on East Tremont and Anthony Avenues. The buildings are located in the heart of the neighborhoods organized decades ago by the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition. We first purchased these buildings 21 years ago from Freddie Mac after a foreclosure, at a time when the Coalition had already spent nearly 20 years organizing in the area to keep buildings like these occupied.

The fact that we are still working with these buildings made me think of the story they tell.

They were located in the area south of Fordham Road, and that made them part of the “South Bronx”, a geographic border that was set after President Carter had witnessed the devastation that was occurring in so many Bronx neighborhoods. The population of the area had quickly changed in the ‘60’s and early ‘70’s, with an exodus of white families and a sharp increase in the black and Hispanic population. By the 1970’s many buildings in this neighborhood went abandoned; others were falling into serious disrepair and still others were being taken by the city due to non-payment of taxes.

BUJU main logoMeanwhile, in the midst of a major budget crisis, the city was cutting services in neighborhoods like the South Bronx. The city-owned Fordham Hospital was being closed and police precincts were slated for consolidation. At the same time, the private sector was also abandoning the area; private owners were deserting or selling their buildings to speculators while banks and insurers were redlining, not making new loans, selling off old ones for major discounts, and refusing to renew insurance policies. A Fordham professor was predicting that the rate of abandonment would continue to sweep through the Bronx at the rate of 10 blocks a year.

Organizing in the face of redlining

Fueled by frustration, fear and anger, community and religious leaders from throughout the Northwest Bronx came together and decided to organize, creating the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition in 1974. They organized 10 neighborhood associations from the Cross Bronx to the city line, from the Hudson River to Bronx Park, to address the problems identified in each neighborhood. And those problems varied widely depending on whether you were north or south of Fordham Road.

In the area south of Fordham Road, people were fighting abandonment, absentee landlords, broken boilers, speculators and a complete lack of services. In the area north of Fordham Road, there were some buildings that were experiencing that level of crisis, but for most the problems were deteriorating services like sporadic heat, delayed repairs and unlocked front doors.

The population in the areas north of Fordham were still majority white. I recollect when I first organized in the area just north of Fordham Road and even a mile north in Norwood, there was considerable fear about the “South Bronx” spreading north. For many, the ethnic changes in that neighborhood seemed directly related to the deteriorating conditions. This fear was fueled by some unscrupulous owners and managers who would threaten to move “those people” who were purportedly destroying the South Bronx into buildings to try to scare out long-term, low-rent tenants.
Tenant organizing was the basic building block of the newly formed coalition: The strategy was to bring people together in their buildings to fight for better conditions and then building on those experiences to identify larger issues around which all the neighborhoods could come together.

The city’s inability to provide adequate code enforcement and emergency repairs pushed people to look more closely at the banks that had given owners the mortgages or had sold their mortgages to speculators as part of redlining neighborhoods. That research made the impacts of redlining real to large numbers of people. Using the Community Reinvestment Act passed in 1977 and extensive mortgage research in the neighborhoods, the Coalition saw that while there was a sharp decline in mortgages across the northwest Bronx, there were absolutely no new mortgages being provided in the neighborhoods south of Fordham Road. Perhaps unsurprisingly, those same neighborhoods were experiencing more abandonment of buildings and more foreclosures for back taxes.

Coalition research showed that insurance companies were also redlining these areas. Building insurance was either impossible to get or the prices in the southern areas were dramatically higher; in two similarly sized buildings, the one south of Fordham Road was paying six times more for liability insurance than the one north of Fordham Road.

The question of race

While the racial composition of the neighborhoods hardest hit by redlining was clear, I don’t recall there being a lot of discussion about the role of racism in redlining, though the evidence gathered by the tenant organizing did help destroy the myth that the decline of neighborhoods was the fault of “those people” that were moving in.

Why didn’t we talk about it? Perhaps the crisis nature of the conditions in the Northwest Bronx and the fact that people were still battling to stop the spread of abandonment contributed to the lack of discussion.

Still, it was very clear to the Coalition’s leadership that it was important to build a movement that represented the neighborhoods north and south of Fordham Road, addressed the redlining issue and guaranteed that commitments won from the city, banks and insurers were for the entire area, not selective neighborhoods.

Legendary Coalition neighborhood leaders Anne Devenney from Norwood and Astin Jacobo of Crotona would talk about how important it was to the success of the Coalition that a multi-ethnic group of Bronx leaders were able to join together and fight together to ensure that the private and public sector were not able to play the different groups off against each other. The “those people” divisive strategies were harder to use when “those people” were sitting together at the negotiating table.

The anticipated wave of abandonment was largely stopped at Fordham Road. The lessons learned in the organizing efforts in the southern neighborhoods and the commitments won from the city contributed to improved code enforcement and emergency repair policies that kept many buildings from going abandoned. The anti-redlining and reinvestment organizing brought banks and insurers to the table and agreements were achieved to stop banks from selling off mortgages and begin to put new money back into buildings.

The difference in the severity of the problems in different neighborhoods made clear the need for customized neighborhood improvement strategies. Since the abandonment by the private sector was concentrated in the neighborhoods south of Fordham, those strategies involved rehabilitating the vacant buildings as affordable housing with community controlled non-profit housing organizations. In the areas north of Fordham, the effort was more focused on preserving and rehabilitating already occupied housing and keeping it affordable. As policy changes at the city and federal level made more funds available, recently formed community-based, community management and development organizations were the ones that were willing to go into distressed neighborhoods and buildings to begin to renovate and rebuild. There is no doubt in my mind that community organizing stopped the abandonment and started reinvestment, creating the conditions necessary for the return of the private sector.

Another layer of lessons

We learned rapidly that not all investment is good investment. The Freddie Mac boom of the late ‘80’s that brought millions of dollars in investment to the Bronx was evidence of that. Many of the Freddie Mac loans were poorly underwritten and within a few years, there were hundreds of foreclosures, once again leaving buildings and tenants in distress.

Our buildings on Tremont and Anthony Avenues were caught in that wave. In 1989, the owner had overfinanced the buildings with a Freddie Mac mortgage. Five years later, the buildings were in foreclosure and the tenants were in dilapidated buildings with limited services. With the aid of the Coalition, the tenants organized and began a long effort to get Freddie Mac to sell their building to a non-profit community purchaser.

The sale was finally completed in 1995 with $1.9 million in financing from the city and Chase as well as Low-Income Housing Tax Credits; the financing included major rehabilitation and structural work. Affordability for the tenants was guaranteed for years to come.

At least for those tenants. Since 1995, the prices of apartment buildings in the Bronx have been rising; in recent years those prices have skyrocketed. Buildings in the neighborhood similar to our two buildings are selling for prices near $200,000 per apartment. Between 2000 and 2014, the black and Hispanic population in the Tremont neighborhood rose from 94 to 98 percent, the number of households making less than $20,000 rose from 37 to 42 percent and the number of households paying more than 50 percent of their income for housing rose from 33 to 41 percent. The economic data makes clear that the existing population cannot support this kind of rise in real-estate value. The concentration of poverty requires answers that go beyond addressing the housing needs alone. The fear of displacement and the suspicion that people of color are about to be driven out of these neighborhoods again is real.

Forty years ago, the battle was against discriminatory lending and investment practices that were driving people out of their homes through deteriorating services and abandonment. In 2016, the battle is against lending and investment practices that are driving people out of their homes because of rising rents and stagnant incomes.

Race has been a part of the story of the modern Bronx from the beginning. It is a part of it now. Those of us—organizers and tenants—who have waged the fight building to building have not often talked about it. Sometimes it’s only after a crisis has passed that you realize the forces that were behind it, and that remain.

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Jim Buckley has worked in the Northwest Bronx with community based non profits for over 30 years. In 1988, he was the founding director of the University Neighborhood Housing Program, where he remains the executive director.

The photo is from the Miriam Neptune/Kellon Innocent film ‘Don’t Move, Improve!’