Several dozen people gathered at the brownstone at 89 Halsey Street in Bedford-Stuyvesant on a bright, hot morning earlier this month for its official ribbon cutting. The house isn’t new, however—it is more than 100 years old.
Two years ago, the Pratt Area Community Council (PACC), a Fort Greene-based nonprofit, began the painstaking task of renovating the long-neglected building. It was one of ten run-down houses in the area that were part of a large-scale housing fraud in the late 1990s, and one of the last of the ten to be sold. Its new owner, Alfred Faber, had special reason to be happy: he had called the building home as a renter for more than 30 years.
Standing amid PACC employees, government officials, community board members, city politicians, and curious neighbors, Faber spoke proudly of his new house. “They changed the whole thing,” he said of his newly refurbished home. He had to spend the last two years at another residence in the neighborhood while the work took place.
What had been a single-room occupancy building is now a four-family dwelling, with restored original wood details, fireplaces and wood floors. As they waited for the ribbon cutting, the assembled group wandered from room to room, letting out admiring gasps. It was, as Faber said, “beautiful.”
Faber moved to New York in 1971 from his native Belize at 26, following in the footsteps of his brother, then in the United States Army. He spent his first two years living in the Bronx, working in the clothing industry. In 1973 he moved to Brooklyn—he found out about a vacant room on 89 Halsey Street through a friend who had married the landlord’s daughter.
Faber befriended the owner of the building and began to do her favors: he collected rent and made sure the building was operating smoothly. The other tenants, he said, used to tell him that since he was doing all the work of a landlord, he should be the landlord himself. He found the neighborhood close-knit and welcoming. “We live together as a community,” he said. “I used to come outside in the morning and clean the sidewalks. My neighbors did the same.”
But in the late 1990s, Faber’s building was caught up in a real estate fraud that came to include more than 400 buildings throughout the city. The national Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) stepped up its 203(k) program, designed to rehabilitate poorly kept buildings and sell them to owners who would live in them. Under this program, nonprofits could receive a single loan, guaranteed by HUD, to pay for both purchase and renovation of a neglected building. Real estate speculators soon bought many of these buildings and then sold them at much higher prices to nonprofits that were not qualified to renovate them. Many of the “nonprofits” were sham operations set up specifically to bilk the program. Compounding the fraud, some of the buildings were single-room occupancy, though the 203(k) program was intended for one- to four-family homes.
As the nonprofits failed to fix their new buildings, tenants paid a heavy price. Tenants in Faber’s building were left to fend for themselves to secure heat, gas, and water. “I had to take the initiative with the other tenants,” he said.
In January of 2002, HUD and the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) entered into a new agreement to salvage the buildings that declined under the 203(k) frauds. Trustworthy non-profits, already experienced in renovating homes through other HPD programs, bought the neglected properties for a nominal fee and restored them with the help of grants from HUD and loans from other donors like the housing-focused Enterprise Foundation.
These buildings, including the 10 that PACC just sold in Brooklyn, became the property of an occupant, as the 203(k) program originally intended. Mortgages for the renovated buildings sold at a price fixed well below market rates: Faber’s house was assessed at $745,000, but he bought it for $404,000 through a mortgage from JPMorgan Chase. Long-time tenants of the buildings, such as Faber, got priority although they were not guaranteed the properties.
Engram Lloyd, director of HUD’s Homeownership Center in Philadelphia, attended the ceremony. According to Lloyd, developments like this one are especially welcome given New York’s low homeownership rate. “We know for a fact that, for children of homeowners, their grades are much better, there is a higher chance of them graduating from high school and going to college,” Lloyd said.
HPD spokesman Neill Coleman agreed, saying that his department has long worked to encourage homeownership. “It allows people who are in the neighborhood to hold equity,” Coleman said. “We see also that people who are homeowners are particularly invested in their communities.”
Drew Kiriazides, director of housing development for PACC, stressed that the renovated buildings are good candidates for ownership. “They were built as houses,” Kiriazides said. “They’re brownstones, they’re townhouses.”
There will be no restrictions on the rent Faber can charge on the other units in his new house. He said he plans to talk to real estate appraisers to help him find an appropriate rent. But, he said, “It will definitely be very reasonable.” Faber said that he already has one tenant in mind—his daughter, currently deployed in the Army in Iraq.
Above all, Faber is happy to return to his home of 30 years. “It will be a pleasure for me to be back with the neighbors,” he said. “They wished me well while I was gone.”