THREE YEARS AGO, the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development sent tenants in several buildings in Washington Heights notices that their homes were entering the Neighborhood Redevelopment Program. NRP would bring in a community organization to purchase, rehabilitate and manage the buildings, which long ago had been taken over by the city after landlords failed to pay taxes.
It should have been a welcome event for residents of 532 West 163rd Street, which was so badly decayed that several apartments were uninhabitable. But this summer, tenants launched a revolt. They have barred the organization, the Community League of West 159th Street, from entering the building to start construction. And they've hung bedsheets out windows declaring “We Don't Want NRP! We Want Ownership!”
The tenants are up in arms because they were never informed that residents of city-owned buildings are supposed to have the opportunity to form their own cooperatives, under a program known as Tenant Interim Lease. The notices tenants received back in 2001 stated simply that they could contact the city housing agency to find out more about “other HPD disposition programs” for which the building may be eligible. It also encouraged tenants to learn more about NRP at a meeting in the neighborhood.
Under HPD policy, they should have learned about Tenant Interim Lease at that meeting. But the four tenants present report that the representative from the agency never mentioned TIL. “All they were told was that rent should go to this nonprofit,” says Rigo Santana, president of the tenants' association. “HPD wasn't clear. If they had mentioned the word 'co-op' in the notice, I guarantee you every single person would have been at that meeting.” Tenants have 120 days to let the city know they want to form a co-op, but the 163rd Street residents only found out about it earlier this year, from another community group.
HPD says its notification process is adequate. “There is a notice that goes out prior to the future owner leasing and assuming management responsibilities. And then there is a notice of sale 30 days prior to sale,” says spokesperson Virginia Gliedman. “There are notices all along that these people are getting.” Tenants, she adds, are responsible for seeking out their options. “TIL is an extraordinarily popular program–it's our biggest program, and it's certainly known in that part of the world.”
Community League director Yvonne Stennett says tenants are raising their claim too late. “During the two-and-a-half years that we've been managing them, never did they come to us and say they weren't interested” in NRP she says. “Especially now as the market is going up and gentrification is happening, tenants have to take more responsibility for their homes.”
Santana and his neighbors are holding out and lining up allies. City Councilmember Miguel Martinez wants to ensure that tenants are clearly notified of their options, and he promises to hold a hearing. Andrew Lehrer, a Legal Aid attorney who has worked with tenants in similar circumstances, agrees that notice ought to be clearer–and that developers ought to help get the word out. “Tenants should be given more specific information sooner rather than later,” says Lehrer. “Where the tenants are well organized and willing to do what it takes in terms of getting training in ownership and management, one would hope that nonprofits would go along with that and not hope to hold on to property.”