It's probably a safe bet few of the tenants at 234 Bradhurst Avenue in Harlem know that the heritage of their new, improved apartment building includes a Depression-era scheme to make milk more affordable.
The building, abandoned by its landlord in the late 1980s, has been rewired and repiped, secured and converted into a comfortable home for 25 tenants who now have control over the building's management and a voice in choosing who else gets to move in. The change is due in large part to the support provided by Community Assisted Tenant-Controlled Housing (CATCH), a program of the Parodneck Foundation for Self-Help Housing and Community Development. Today, the foundation–which raises money to channel into programs based in its Sixth Avenue offices–is celebrating six decades organizing low-income New Yorkers.
At 234 Bradhurst, CATCH helped tenants set up an escrow account for repairs and taught them how to deal with managers and contractors. “We pick who's going to manage our building, who our supers are. We decide who lives next door to us,” says Marie Saunders, a part-time home-care worker and mother of five who helped create the co-op. “The tenants participate in what happens in this building. CATCH gave us a chance to do that.”
The Parodneck Foundation was founded in 1937 by Meyer Parodneck, a real estate attorney and settlement house activist who was angry about price-gouging by the region's milk monopoly. Thanks to the greed of a few businessmen, poor urban families in the depths of the Depression could barely afford the milk they needed for their children. Working with a doctor studying nutrition and the head of the dairy farmers' union, Parodneck founded the Consumer-Farmer Milk Co-op to circumvent the monopoly. It bought its own milk wholesale and sold it for as little as four cents a quart in city neighborhoods. Parodneck's cooperative eventually grew into a $6 million a year business.
By the late 1960s, the milk co-op had finished its work, says Harry DeRienzo, who has been with the foundation since 1982 and its president since 1994. The monopoly was long gone, and it had become increasingly difficult to run the dairy business successfully in the changing postwar market.
During the same period, a wave of landlord abandonment and arson began to sweep over the city's poorest neighborhoods. Meyer Parodneck was intrigued by the scores of tenants who pulled together to keep their apartment buildings habitable–and clear of the city wrecking ball–even after the owners had walked away. In their strength and commitment he saw the same values of self-help, mutual aid and cooperation that had inspired the milk co-op.
In 1970, Parodneck and his colleagues sold the milk business and renamed the organization the Consumer-Farmer Foundation. (It was renamed the Parodneck Foundation in 1993, a year before Meyer Parodneck's death.) Over the last 27 years, the foundation has helped organize and arrange financing for more than 45,000 units of housing, supporting everything from the sweat-equity and urban-homesteading deals of the I970s to the complex Low Income Housing Tax Credit schemes of today.
CATCH is only one of several housing preservation programs administered at the foundation. There is the Senior Citizen Homeowner Assistance Program, which provides loans for repairs and to prevent foreclosures. There's a support group for low-income, limited equity tenant cooperatives. And the Task Force on City-Owned Property has produced important research reports on the state of the city-owned, tax-foreclosed housing stock. The foundation also co-sponsors a citywide mutual housing association and is heavily involved in city planning efforts in the South Bronx.
But the work of CATCH remains closest to Meyer Parodneck's original vision. Since its inception in 1993, CATCH has helped tenants begin reclaiming about 550 apartment units in Central Harlem, Crown Heights and Washington Heights in buildings that were abandoned or in danger of being abandoned. One of its success stories is Balfour Court, three Crown Heights buildings abandoned in the early 1990s. By the time CATCH acquired the buildings through bankruptcy court, the tenants had gone through months without heat or hot water, and the halls were frequented by crack dealers, prostitutes and people selling stolen goods.
The three buildings are now completely renovated, financed by CATCH and a for-profit landlord. The drug dealers aren't all gone–the men in hooded sweatshirts out front on a recent Monday morning “aren't waiting for the bus,” says CATCH program director Carlton Collier. But Wanda Ayala, a tenant leader who was once wounded by stray bullets while trying to close her window during a sidewalk shoot-out, says she feels “one hundred percent secure inside.”
A similar process is just beginning at 377 Edgecombe Avenue, which overlooks Colonial Park in northern Harlem. CATCH obtained a $350,000 grant for repairs on the 15-unit building, but there's a lot of work to be done. Organizers say that only two of the tenants pay rent, and maybe six are free of the drug trade. Bernard Waters, a slight 62-year-old who lives on the top floor with his orange cat, describes many of the tenants as hangers-on and delinquents. But he has been willing to remain. “I knew darn well that I needed a place to stay,” he says.
“It's no different from any building we've ever taken control of. In fact, it's better than some,” says Collier, a former union organizer who was introduced to housing when he joined Banana Kelly, a community development corporation in the South Bronx.
But the climate for this kind of self-help housing has gotten much harsher over the last two decades, DeRienzo says. Like Collier, he also cut his teeth organizing for Banana Kelly. It was one of DeRienzo's first jobs, back in the 1970s. He recalls that people on the block brought him food as he and his colleagues worked. He doesn't think that would happen now. The social networks that encourage organizing have eroded, he says, and people are poorer, more desperate, and less united by a common enemy.
In addition, self-help housing fell out of vogue in the 1980s as community housing groups became less grassroots and more professional. Although DeRienzo concedes this was often a necessary step to get to funding, he says many housing groups are now more accountable to outside funding sources than they are to local residents, having evolved from “agents of social transformation to managers of the ongoing crisis.”
The Parodneck Foundation's programs have not been immune to these pressures. “All the income supports for low-income housing are being removed,” DeRienzo says. With cuts in federal Section 8 rent subsidies and welfare spending, CATCH has had to rent out vacant one-bedroom apartments in places like Balfour Court for as much as $500 a month in order to keep the projects solvent. Such rents are well out of reach of many residents in neighborhoods such as Harlem and Crown Heights and essentially exclude welfare recipients or low-wage workers. “It's so sickening,” Collier says angrily.
Parodneck's staff expects that the city's low-income housing crisis will only continue to worsen. In the meantime, DeRienzo and his colleagues are looking for small victories to turn back the forces isolating and depoliticizing low-income people. “I believe in small, incremental changes and disrupting destructive dynamics,” DeRienzo says. “I'm not that much of a visionary. But I do know that's what we have to be working for.”
Steven Wishnia is a frequent contributor to City Limits.