The vestibule at 280 Dean Street in Brooklyn is conspicuously elegant: potted flowers, a silver-framed mirror, ornate molding. To help keep it that way, a sign hanging outside reads, “No loitering in or outside the building. The management.”

Here the management, as in 805 formerly city-owned buildings, is the residents themselves. In 1980, this four-floor walk-up became one of the first buildings to enter the city’s Tenant Interim Lease (TIL) program. With a leadership consisting largely of single mothers with full-time jobs, the tenants were able to stop the building’s spiraling deterioration. “It is our home. It is a blessing for all of us,” says Julia Joa, current president of Unidad y Progreso, the building’s co-op association.

Before the tenant takeover, the city had been close to boarding it up. “It was completely different,” recalls Milan Habel, whose mother, Maria Gomez, has lived in the building for over 20 years. “The front door used to be unlocked, and you used to see all kinds of garbage in the hallway and outside.” In the winter, they spent weeks without heat. Many units lacked electricity, and drug dealers operated out of abandoned apartments.

By 1978, residents had a new landlord: the city of New York. Tenant organizer Inez Ortiz told City Limits that “when the city took over the building, things got worse.” The disorder on the streets, where prostitutes and drug dealers reigned, seemed to seep into the building.

Then advocates from the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board convinced tenants that they could do better themselves, and in 1979 the residents of 280 Dean Street signed their lease with the city. TIL, which had been established the previous year, had the dual virtues of providing improved housing and lightening the load of the city, which had come into possession of thousands of neglected buildings. Tenants who proved their ability to organize and manage their building were later able to buy it for just $250 an apartment.

It was a bargain earned. They painted the building, using their own funds. They cleared out squatters-with the occasional help of police–and found suitable replacements. A raffle paid for a refurbished entranceway, though the tenants couldn’t afford to a buy the prize until after they had sold the tickets.

The organizers also needed to convince 60 percent of the tenants to form the co-op. Each day after work, resident Maria Killikelly would fix dinner for her kids, then go door-to-door canvassing support. Her lobbying, Killikelly recalls, “would always end up with them asking me to give them my word that when we bought the building I would fight to make sure they didn’t get locked out, that their rights would be respected.”

As the residents began to govern their building, the tenants’ association developed noisy democratic disputes that probably ensured its success. “Pure war” is how Killikelly describes those early meetings, which took place in the building’s front hallway. “But before we left those meetings, we’d accomplish something.”

Ann Henderson of UHAB, which continues to organize and advise TIL tenants, says that Unidad y Progreso’s leadership remains healthy. “They seem to nurture residents and encourage them to participate,” explains Henderson. At many other co-ops, she adds, small groups of tenant-managers have come to monopolize power and the management fees that sometimes come with it.

Even as the number of buildings suitable for conversion dwindles, TIL endures: there are currently 22 buildings in the process of transferring to tenant ownership, down from a peak of 70 in 1996. But convincing tenants to go co-op is challenging. In the program’s early days, tenants who had been fighting negligent landlords for years suddenly had an attractive alternative. Current tenants of city-owned buildings, by contrast, are often willing to endure hardships and decay in order to hold on to scarce affordable apartments.

Unidad y Progreso also came of age before the city demanded rigorous paperwork and bookkeeping, tasks that now consume precious time for resident-organizers who also need to build an energized tenant association. Recalls Henderson, “Tenants and their leadership were allowed to do their thing rather than become surrogate bureaucrats for the city.”

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