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The building at 218 St. Ann's Avenue in the Bronx is boarded up and vacant. On the front door, under the red facade with bas-relief lions, is a board with this message: “Keep off, stupid.”

That's the work of Julio Roman, who has been running the brick apartment building since 1988. Roman began to look after it at the request of the former landlord, a friend of his who died in 1990. Now, Roman is desperate to take title of the building. “I have nine children,” he said. “Six of them were born here. It's a part of my life.”

But surprisingly enough, Roman has lots of competition–most of the biggest nonprofit housing groups in the city. This building is one of 44 in the South Bronx that the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development is taking away from tax-delinquent private owners and handing over to responsible nonprofit and private landlords.

In the first round of this “third party transfer” program, the housing agency plans to give the buildings to three to five property managers (the lot may dwindle considerably if landlords reclaim their buildings). The program will replace the city's old foreclosure process with a system designed to put run-down buildings in the hands of good managers. It is supposed to expand citywide within the year.

The big housing groups rushing to file their applications by last Wednesday's deadline know that these buildings are some of the worst in the city.

But these prospective owners may not realize exactly what they're in for.

The building on St. Ann's is listed on the application as occupied, but it has been vacant since a fire ravaged the top floor last March, damaging the roof and support beams. The building also carries about $100,000 in back taxes, and that's what makes Roman afraid that it may be turned over to someone else with deeper pockets. Lately, Roman has become suspicious of visitors, thinking they may be sniffing out information to use against him in the title battle. “Nobody takes this building away from me,” he yelled, visibly agitated. “I'll blow it up.”

If he gets the title, Roman said, he'd be willing to pay off the tax arrears. He maintained that he has put in a lot of money and effort into the building–including a new boiler–but he estimated that he would need about $150,000 to repair the building and install new plumbing and electrical wiring.

It's a big sum of money for a vacant building, but the housing agency promises no special breaks for the property managers now vying for the contracts: It doesn't guarantee any special loans, grants or tax abatements, and it reserves the right to charge money for the building transfer.

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