A 25-year housing saga that included everything from rat infestations to broken elevators looks to finally be over. Last week, a federal bankruptcy judge dismissed a last-minute effort to block a city plan that will allow the tenants of a pair of long-troubled Hamilton Heights
buildings to own their homes.
After several decades of fighting to get services from a series of landlords who virtually abandoned their buildings, the residents of 640 and 644 Riverside Drive thought that victory was firmly in their grasp in March 2001. The city department of Housing Preservation and Development had announced it would sell the buildings for $1 to the 600 tenants and their nonprofit partners, the Settlement Housing Fund and the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, as part of the city’s third party transfer program for troubled buildings facing tax foreclosure. The owners of the properties, who had filed for bankruptcy, owed the city $12 million in back taxes and unpaid fines.
The residents celebrated — but it turned out to be too soon. Just as the city began foreclosing on the buildings, several companies that had bought the mortgages for the properties, led by MV Associates, filed suit in federal bankruptcy court, arguing that they held valid title to
Nearly two years later, on February 5, U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Richard Bonhanon dismissed MV Associates’ claim, allowing the city and the tenants to move forward.
They acted immediately. Within two days, the building was in the hands of Neighborhood Restore, a nonprofit group that guides the city’s third party transfer program. Assuming no new legal twists emerge (MV Associates did file an appeal last week, but the city’s attorneys said they
expect an appellate court judge to reaffirm Bonhanon’s decision), HPD expects to completely transfer the buildings to the tenants and the nonprofits within a year.
The tenants say they will wait as long as they have to, but they’re breathing a sigh of relief that the final legal hurdles are out of the way. “It’s been a frustrating circus,” said 69-year-old Calvin Samuels, acting vice president of the 640 Riverside Drive tenants association.
“Now we’re going to go ahead and celebrate our victory.”