By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Tiered sconces light the pale sage walls and faux-marble floor of the corridor of 228 West 140th Street, where, in 1997, 42-year-old Denise Tuzo moved into a newly renovated apartment. Less than five years ago, the building had been a roofless shell, long abandoned by its owner and vacant for well over a decade. Now, it's home to 18 families. "It's very nice here," says Tuzo, a student and secretary at nearby City College who moved from the St. Nicholas Houses on 127th Street. "This entire block is being uplifted, and in five years, I think it will be very upwardly mobile. I was born and raised in Harlem, and I don't have any plans to leave."
Just a few blocks away, on West 129th Street, 73-year-old Josephine Richardson settles into a gold-hued, plastic-covered divan in a parlor crammed with porcelain figurines, crystal candy dishes, glass vases, and myriad chotchkes. "My ladies gave these things to me," says
Richardson, recalling her years as a domestic in Riverdale. After 34 years in this three-bedroom apartment, the gifts, including high-back chairs, china closets, and rich draperies, have piled up. Now, Richardson's landlord wants her to move to make way for renovations; one of her fears is that she'll return to a smaller apartment. "But the landlord doesn't care," she says. "They don't give a kitty, as long as you move out."
Tuzo and Richardson are neighbors, living within a 15-block radius in Harlem. And they are also joined by a Rudy Giulianiinspired housing program that promises some say threatens to forever change Harlem. Called the Neighborhood Entrepreneurs Program, NEP's goal is to return to private landlords tens of thousands of apartments across New York that fell into the city's hands when owners abandoned them decades ago. At the same time, NEP aims to draw working-class and middle-class tenants to some of the most neglected neighborhoods, including Harlem, Bed-Stuy, and the South Bronx.
Since the program began in 1994, 6000 units citywide have been renovated or are undergoing renovation through NEP. But NEP's significance lies not only in the number of buildings and tenants it touches; it is also the linchpin of the Giuliani administration's housing policy. While not on the scale of Robert Moses's slum clearance efforts, NEP's transfer of publicly owned property to private hands, its relocation of thousands of tenants, and its aim of drawing wealthier tenants to poor neighborhoods is a contemporary feat of social engineering.
"NEP is a very big part of the administration's policy, but it's a terrible idea," says Peter Marcuse, head of the doctorate program in urban planning at Columbia University. "Generally, reliance on the private market to provide decent housing in New York is a mistake. It's not going to help people who need housing."
If Giuliani's goal of privatizing city-owned housing is most clearly articulated in NEP, nowhere is NEP more prominent than in Harlem, where a third of all NEP apartments are located. Decades of abandonment by private owners left the city holding title to much of the community's housing and turned it into Harlem's biggest landlord. NEP aims to change that. And while the people who run the program say it promises better housing, a better income mix, and, in their estimation, the advantage of less government, tenants and their advocates say NEP is freighted with problems.
"We're worried about the lack of affordable housing that will ultimately develop," says Harvey Epstein, a lawyer at the Community Law Office in East Harlem. "City-owned housing has historically been a place where people could afford to live, even if it wasn't in the best condition. Now, the city is giving it to private landlords who have incentive to get tenants out. What they're attempting to do is bring the middle class into Harlem, but it's pushing poor people out." Says Donald Richardson, Josephine's son who lives with her, "We just don't fit in this neighborhood anymore."
Under NEP, longtime tenants like Richardson are temporarily relocated during renovation. But because NEP assigns permanent apartments based on a renter's income and family size, tenants don't necessarily return to their original units, or even their original buildings. Especially hard-hit are seniors who have lived for decades in large apartments where they have raised families that are now grown. They are likely to be permanently placed in studios or one-bedrooms; most will pay 30 percent of their income for rent. New tenants, like Tuzo, rent NEP apartments they find in newspaper ads and usually pay market-rate rents.
George Armstrong, who directs NEP for the New York City Housing Partnership, which runs the program with the city, says NEP does not drive out low-income people. "We really cater to the existing tenants," says Armstrong, who notes that NEP properties include a mix of vacant and occupied buildings so tenants can be relocated during renovation and new tenants brought in without displacing old ones. "We do market to other tenants, but it doesn't necessarily mean they're higher class. They're working-class people who maybe work for the Transit Authority and have five kids. To the extent that we can bring these people to the community, we don't see anything wrong with it."
One community group, Harlem's Action for Community Empowerment (ACE), is pushing for city council hearings on NEP. On March 11, a small group of NEP tenants and legal advocates will meet with Manhattan borough president C. Virginia Fields's office. To 60-year-old Maxine Newman, who has lived in her apartment at 128th Street and Fifth Avenue for 37 years, the issue is simple: "Rudy Giuliani's administration has a problem: poorophobia. NEP is his vehicle to rid the city of the poor."
When Giuliani unveiled NEP in 1994, it was the main component of a three-pronged plan designed to get residential property out of city hands. It is run by the department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) and an arm of the Partnership, a powerful nonprofit akin to a chamber of commerce. Through NEP, HPD transfers its buildings to the Partnership, and together they select "entrepreneurs" who get loans, management fees, construction money, and tax credits to take over deteriorated buildings. After several years, the Partnership transfers the property to the entrepreneur.
An abiding faith in the private sector is NEP's foundation, but the program is riven with mistrust from advocates for tenants. City councilmembers Stan Michels and Bill Perkins, both of Harlem, have refused to let buildings into NEP because they say rules are vague and the Partnership too unaccountable to the public. "It's clear that the city doesn't care how it gets out of being a landlord; it just wants out," says Perkins. "They just want to say, 'There were X number of buildings in this neighborhood in our portfolio but now they're not, so we have been successful because we cut it to zero.' Where the buildings went and who went with them is not nearly as relevant to them."
Legal advocates question why some entrepreneurs are selected despite owning or managing buildings that ache for repairs and are laden with tax arrears. And they complain that tenants are given little chance to opt into the Tenant Interim Lease (TIL), one of the city's oldest property disposition programs that allows tenants to turn HPD-owned buildings into low-income co-ops. While TIL is often regarded as the most satisfying option for tenants, it is the administration's least favorite, given City Hall's penchant for privatization and the fact that TIL is a truly demanding route for tenants. Default is a constant threat; a recent audit found TIL buildings owe $15.3 million in back taxes.
Mistrust of NEP is greatest among tenants, many of whom view the program as a scheme to get rid of them. "The manager just wants us to get out of here, that would make him happy," says Newman, who lives in a four-bedroom at 2071 Fifth Avenue. "I'm 60 years old. I should not be worried about this sort of stuff at this point in my life. I should be looking forward to happy, glorious things. Not this."
Francis Syn-Moie, the entrepreneur at Newman's building, says Newman is "free to come back to an apartment appropriate for her family size," but notes that because Newman's daughter lives with her and has an income, she should expect a hike from her $357.50 rent.
Tenant mistrust of landlords in city-owned buildings has been simmering so long, it's almost a matter of habit, and no one argues that changes are not needed. But critics have long claimed that HPD's legendary mismanagement was a political choice: "The city never wanted to be a landlord, and it made sure it wasn't good at it," says ACE director Nia Mason. Ironically, HPD's incompetence bolsters the ideology for a privatization program like NEP. HPD did not return calls.
Wariness stems, too, from NEP's own policies. Some NEP tenants must sign leases that allow landlords to move them from a permanent apartment mid-lease if the owner wants to put a different tenant in that apartment. "It's unconscionable, but we see it all the time," says Epstein. Armstrong of the Partnership says he only recently became aware of the provision and that "We'll work on the language."
Syn-Moie says tenants' skepticism runs so deep because what NEP promises "seems too good to be true. This program takes property that is nothing but an eyesore and makes it viable. These tenants just have to see these apartments get finished to alleviate their fears. . . . If you look at the broad picture, NEP can only add growth and rapid change to the community, and in 20 years, I think the market will have matured a lot for these properties to increase their value." That is exactly what worries Newman."Why do we have to move," she asks,"so someone else can come in?"
For about 65 per cent of NEP tenants, rent is either 30 percent of their income or a market rate, whichever is lower, says Armstrong; most of these tenants are on public assistance. Another 10 percent are new tenants whose income does not exceed 60 percent of the area median, or $29,000 for a family of four; they pay rents ranging from $375 for a studio to $575 for a four-bedroom. The final 25 percent pay market rate, but their income cannot exceed 165 percent of the area median; in this case, $85,000 a year for a family of four. Entrepreneurs sign a regulatory agreement to keep apartments affordable for 30 years, Armstrong says. Rents for the biggest apartments, four bedrooms, top out near $900.
But Epstein reasons that NEP drains low-income housing from communities in a few ways. First, entrepreneurs have evicted some NEP tenants who have not been paying rent to HPD. Second, NEP apartments become rent- stabilized at rates set by HPD and the Partnership and registered with the state. Some tenants may not pay the registered rent, which is about 20 per cent higher than the rent charged and rises yearly. When a longtime tenant leaves a low-rent apartment, the next tenant pays the steadily risen registered rent, which may even hit $2000 and become entirely deregulated. "Each of these are incremental steps: evictions get low-income people out of the apartments, and rent hikes make affordable apartments unaffordable."
Armstrong says eviction is only a last-ditch resort. "We recognize people have been living in horrible conditions, but they need to let us know what repairs need to be fixed if they're withholding their rent," he says. "Because when managers take over, we expect tenants to start paying the rent."
Even if tenants were returned to their original apartments, and even if there were no fear of losing Harlem as an affordable community, the prospect of going through NEP is daunting, especially for seniors.
"They say they're going to come and move me with one truck in one load," says Josephine Richardson, surrounded by six rooms of furniture and keepsakes. "They said we could come back, but they're going to make it from three bedrooms to two," which would create an impossible situation, since Richardson lives with a grown son, daughter, and granddaughter. "It's truly aggravating. I'm not looking for an apartment on Park Avenue. I just want a decent place that I can move to with my family and my furniture."
For Odell Johnson, who was a long-time neighbor of Maxine Newman's at 2071 Fifth Avenue, the process has been harrowing. Last October, the 60-year-old Johnson came home to find his usually orderly eight-room apartment ransacked. Johnson says contractors working for Syn-Moie tore through the place, taking a suede coat, a watch, and a camera, among other things. Syn-Moie and Armstrong say the contractors made a mistake, thinking the apartment had been abandoned. "If Mr. Johnson will itemize what he lost, we'll do what we can to replace the property," says Armstrong. "It's a no-brainer."
Things worsened after December, when Syn-Moie relocated Johnson to a studio at 125th Street and Fifth Avenue. One midnight in February, Johnson says, a man with a knife tried to mug him at the doorway to his new home. "I made such a holler," says Johnson, "that he just ran off." Syn-Moie says he's installing security cameras at the building but adds, "The fact is, I can't control what happens outside a building."
Indeed, it is within NEP buildings that the program's promises materialize, and to make the point, the Partnership regularly sends reporters, politicians, and others to 228 West 140th Street, renovated by entrepreneur LeRoy Morrison. It is here that Denise Tuzo found a two-bedroom apartment for herself and her 18-year-old son. "I saw an ad in the Amsterdam News, and I'd seen all the restoration that was happening on the block," says Tuzo. "I've seen these blocks change from being abandoned to having people move in." She pays $683 for a two-bedroom unit.
Does she think rents like hers will drive old-timers out? "With people on fixed incomes, it really squeezes the budget. I think it will become a problem gradually and they'd have to move out altogether." Given her Harlem roots, she doesn't like the idea.
Johnson likes it even less. But even with his eight roomfuls of furniture and collection of jazz books and records in storage, he says he understands the logic of a single man like himself giving up a large apartment for a family. "I don't mind that," he says. "What bothers me is, don't take me for granted, don't shuffle me around and think that I'm an idiot. And don't give me stories and then renege on me."
Johnson is awaiting a promised one- bedroom apartment in a nearby brownstone. Syn-Moie told him it will be ready in June. Johnson has his doubts, and fears he'll end up in a studio. "I feel I've been had," he says. "But I'm not sure. I won't know till June. Ask me then."