A Herculean Task: Keeping Mitchell-Lamas Affordable

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On a mission of a very different kind than what used to draw him to the ground-floor recreation room that he made famous through music more than three decades ago, legendary hip-hop pioneer DJ Kool Herc returned to the Sedgwick Avenue apartment building in the Bronx last week in a bid to save the soul of the building itself.

As he stood alongside U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer to support an effort by the building’s residents to purchase the property and preserve it as affordable housing, Kool Herc emphasized that similar battlegrounds over fair housing exist elsewhere. “We need to recognize this building,” he told the tenants, activists and officials assembled. “But we’re seeing all throughout New York City how people are losing affordable housing.” (Meanwhile, he noted, storage facilities have sprouted all over the borough – “They got places to store your stuff, but not to keep you,” he said.)

It’s a message that resonates with housing advocates who hope that the well-publicized Bronx case will not only highlight a growing problem, but help spur state legislation to protect the city’s dwindling stock of reasonably priced apartments in the statewide Mitchell-Lama housing program.

Enacted in 1955 and named after the late state Senator MacNeil Mitchell and Assemblyman Alfred Lama, the Mitchell-Lama legislation provided a range of government-sponsored financial aid and incentives to owners who provided affordable rental apartments and co-ops for low-to-moderate income earners. But after being amended to enable owners to exit or “opt out” of the program after a period of either 25 or 30 years, the number of Mitchell-Lama units has rapidly decreased in recent years.

In a 2006 study, the city comptroller found that since its last report two years earlier, more than 25,000 Mitchell Lama units across the city were either removed from the program or on the verge of exiting, as owners sought to convert individual apartments into market-rate units or sell the entire property to large private developers. And while vigorous efforts to block proposed buyouts of other Mitchell Lama developments – including the sprawling Starrett City complex in Brooklyn and Stuyvesant Town on the Lower East Side of Manhattan – coupled with general housing market volatility, have served to stem the tide somewhat, housing advocates remain deeply concerned.

According to new figures compiled by Tom Waters, a housing policy analyst with the Community Service Society, another 37,000 Mitchell-Lama units in the city may eventually disappear without any long-term remedy to preserve them. “There’s no specific policy that addresses the systemic loss,” Waters says. “At this rate, it will take about 10 years before the entire stock is gone.”

As a result, Mitchell-Lama residents now face the daunting task of fighting to preserve those remaining units. Built in the late 1960s as a Mitchell-Lama housing complex, residents at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue received notice last February that owner BSR Management intended to opt out of the affordable housing program and sell the property to developer Mark Karasick.
“Everyone received a letter in reference to the buyout, but it barely made sense with the lingo they used. Everybody was in the dark,” recalls Gloria Robinson, 50, head of the building’s tenants association. After several meetings, the residents decided to enlist the aid of the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board (UHAB) to support their plan to negotiate with BSR and Karasick to purchase the property and control it as a rent-stabilized building. With a commitment from the city to provide millions in subsidies and funding from private donations, the group raised $11.5 million – an impressive amount, but well short of the $14 million asking price.

“Instead of negotiating and saying, ‘Okay, they got $11.5 million, let me go down to $12 million,’ they’re set on $14 million. I feel as though they don’t want to sell it to us,” says Robinson, who pays $1,100 per month for a two-bedroom apartment she shares with her two teenage children.

With the units slated to be withdrawn from the Mitchell-Lama program this Feb. 23, which is when BSR can formally opt out, residents at the complex also decided to contact a former resident, whose unique platform was seen as a fresh opportunity to bring public attention and crucial funds to their cause. Enter DJ Kool Herc, now 52 years old.

In the early and mid-1970s, the building’s recreation room served as the launching pad for hip-hop music and culture after Kool Herc, a native of Jamaica who emigrated to the Bronx in 1967, used his turntables to underscore the dance portions (also known as “breaks”) on funk and soul tunes. Thus the man once known as Clive Campbell created and popularized the breakbeat deejaying technique at the parties he threw with his sister, Cindy Campbell. And while he now lives in Long Island and continues to perform at venues across the city and worldwide, he remains a fixture in the Bronx. In July, Kool Herc participated in a ceremony at the Sedgwick Avenue complex to mark its designation as a site eligible for state and federal landmark status.

“We have so many good memories of growing up there, so we didn’t hesitate to get involved at all,” said Cindy Campbell, who also resides in Long Island. “There’s a sense of pride and community there. The tenants realized that they can fight back, but they can’t do it alone.” To cover the missing $2.5 million of the 100-unit building’s pricetag, Kool Herc is now making a direct personal appeal to the movers and shakers in the hip-hop industry. “This isn’t far-fetched in this city of moguls,” he notes. “This is where hip-hop was born. And with all the people who talk about what hip-hop did for them, now is the time to step your game up and do something positive.”

The possibility of new ownership and higher rent frightens Henrietta Brown, who has lived in the building since 1999. “If it wasn’t for my son helping to put food on my table, I don’t know where I’d be today,” she says. “I’m barely making it now. I have two home attendants, lung disease, cancer, and arthritis. We can’t afford anything else.”

For affordable housing advocates, the individual battles being waged by Mitchell-Lama tenants only highlight the lack of government action. “No one is saying that owners can’t make a profit,” says Amy Chan, a Mitchell-Lama organizer with the Tenants and Neighbors advocacy group. “This is about excess at the expense of working-class families.”

And while Assemblyman Jonathan Bing (D-Manhattan), the chairman of the subcommittee on Mitchell-Lama who recently introduced a bill requiring owners who leave the Mitchell-Lama program to give first priority to tenants to purchase the property, told City Limits that he believes bipartisan legislation with the Republican-controlled state Senate will be forthcoming in the current session, housing activists are less optimistic.

Schumer, for his part, supports the efforts of Bing and others working to modify state law, as he’s been behind a variety of moves to bolster Mitchell-Lama as the program’s deterioration has accelerated.

“The state created Mitchell-Lama for a reason, and should take immediate steps to protect it,” says Waters, who calls for legislation that provides independent reviews on the economic impact on neighborhoods whenever an owner requests to opt out, plus another measure that provides a financial incentive to new owners of newly-sold Mitchell-Lama property to retain rent-stabilized status.

“For once it’d be great to see the Assembly force the Senate to the table to deal with this,” Waters adds. “We’re seeing the enormous work that tenants are doing to fight for their homes and neighborhoods, but will the government show the same courage? That remains to be seen.”

– Curtis Stephen

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