In Tenants We Trust

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The twisted tale of two Hamilton Heights apartment buildings–complete with broken boilers and out-of-service elevators, revolving-door landlords and bitter court battles–may finally end happily. A year after City Limits first reported on the decades of troubles at 640–644 Riverside Drive (“Becoming Home,” March 2000), the city has pledged to place the tenants’ fate in their own hands.

In mid-March, the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development offered 2,000 apartments to private owners under its Third Party Transfer program–and nearly a third of them to nonprofits planning tenant cooperatives.

The City Council created Third Party Transfer in 1996 to take buildings saddled with high tax burdens and repair bills off the auction block, and instead give them to private landlords or nonprofit organizations with neighborhood experience and clean records. After about a year, the city forgives the buildings’ debts, grants the new owners tax breaks and provides low-interest loans for rehabilitation.

Realizing that their buildings’ history and conditions qualified them for the city’s program, 80 percent of the tenants in the Riverside Drive apartments signed a petition supporting a partnership with the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board. Along with the Settlement Housing Fund, UHAB will receive eight northern Manhattan buildings–more than 350 apartments–from the city. Several other nonprofits with tenant ownership proposals also received some of the 90 buildings awarded in Manhattan, the Bronx and Brooklyn.

“We just knew that one day this would actually be our home,” says Violeta Enriquez, president of the tenants association at 640.

Still, the ride to ownership can be a bumpy one. The former landlord, Alex DiLorenzo III, has headed to bankruptcy court in a last-ditch effort to keep the building. But the tenants and their nonprofit allies remain confident that their ownership plan will proceed, albeit with slight delays.

The city’s announcement shows a dramatic turnaround from the previous round of transfers two years ago, when HPD faced heavy criticism and a lawsuit for awarding most of the 46 buildings available to private landlords. “HPD seems genuine about involving tenants and giving them a stake in their homes,” says Carol Lamberg, executive director of Settlement Housing Fund.

Some housing advocates see this move by HPD as a signal that the city plans to shift tenant ownership initiatives from the Tenant Interim Lease program to Third Party Transfer. The advocates expect TIL will soon dry up as the city sells off or develops all its properties.

The lawsuit didn’t hurt, either. South Brooklyn Legal Services and the Legal Aid Society sued the city for prohibiting tenant associations alone from applying for Third Party Transfer buildings. Under current HPD policy, tenant groups must have sponsorship from a nonprofit organization to seek ownership.

The announcement bodes well for those who think tenant ownership should be part of New York’s affordable housing future. In his preliminary budget proposal, Mayor Giuliani allotted $233 million to move more than 5,900 apartments to Third Party Transfer. But at least one major hurdle remains: The mayor has insisted that the City Council commit to major reforms at the Department of Buildings and elsewhere before this money is spent.

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