It’s been more than a year since Banana Kelly Inc., a troubled community development group in the South Bronx, transferred management of two dozen of its buildings to a neighboring organization. At the time, many of the group’s properties were falling into disrepair, and the state attorney general had just seized five years’ worth of financial records from Banana Kelly for an investigation.
Now Yolanda Rivera, Banana Kelly’s former executive director and current board chair, is having second thoughts: She’s trying to get her buildings back. While they remain in limbo, hundreds of tenants are languishing in their dilapidated apartments, waiting for badly needed repairs.
In late January, the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development sent a letter to Rivera, asking that her group transfer title of 22 of its buildings to the Southeast Bronx Community Organization. SEBCO, a 34-year-old housing group, has been managing those buildings and two others since last March, when Banana Kelly agreed in a five-year contract to relinquish all control of the properties.
Since then, SEBCO, with the help of the city, has made emergency repairs, from fixing furnaces to patching rooftops, says SEBCO’s executive vice president, Phil Foglia. But repairs, he says, are not going “as rapidly as we would like.”
In fact, he estimates another $7 to $8 million worth of work is still needed to revive those apartments. But according to Foglia, HPD refuses to put that kind of cash into the buildings as long as Banana Kelly still owns them.
In a January 25 letter, HPD told Rivera as much. “Both the physical and financial condition of the properties have deteriorated while under Banana Kelly’s ownership,” wrote Deputy Commissioner John Warren. “We believe the most appropriate next step is to convey title to SEBCO so that the viability of the buildings can be secured.”
Rivera, however, does not seem interested in doing that. In a May 13 letter, she told Foglia that Banana Kelly wants to take back the management of its buildings by June 1. SEBCO’s “interests in the properties,” she wrote, “conflicts materially with the contract they execute to manage and protect the owners of the properties.”
HPD is trying to fight this move by threatening to begin foreclosure proceedings if Banana Kelly does not cooperate. The group does, after all, have an outstanding debt to the city of more than $3 million in back taxes and water and sewer charges. According to Foglia, Banana Kelly also owes more than $1 million to vendors, including its oil company and maintenance crews.
Several calls to Yolanda Rivera and to Banana Kelly’s director, Joe Hall, were not returned by press time.
At least one Banana Kelly tenant has directly urged the city to help SEBCO take over the buildings completely. Marta Rivera, who is also chair of local Community Board 2, wrote in a note to HPD on May 6, “This Community Board has no confidence that Banana Kelly, left to their own devices, can improve their properties. Every effort should be made to remove Banana Kelly from their ownership of all the buildings.”