Grace Under Pressure

Grace Perez built an influential domestic-violence program. Then she was fired.

Many attribute this growth entirely to Perez, who considers VIP a way of life. "VIP is not just a job," she says. "It's a commitment and it's a belief." Married with four children, Perez worked to expand the organization into the South Bronx, where she grew up. More recently, she's moved VIP to Queens. She's the type of executive director who would pull all-nighters to finish grant proposals or search for new funding sources while on vacation. "Grace put much more time and effort into VIP than her personal life," says Olga Rosado, who headed the VIP board several years ago. "If something needs to be done, she doesn't sit and wait. She jumps on opportunity. She tackles it."

Under Perez's guidance, VIP had thrived, raising enough funds that the organization began to think it could afford the fondest wish of any successful nonprofit: a building of its own.

"There it is," Perez shouts, pointing to an old brick building on a block of old brick buildings. The four-story residence has a padlocked fence; discarded soda bottles litter the yard. Empty for years, it requires some effort to get past the weathered facade. Still, Perez says, with a wistful sigh, "It has so much potential."

Grace Perez, anti-domestic-violence champion, and the building that proved her undoing
photo: Chad Griffith
Grace Perez, anti-domestic-violence champion, and the building that proved her undoing

For years, the organization had saved and, little by little, set aside money for a home. In 2005, facing $5,660 in monthly rent and an expiring December 2008 lease on the horizon, Perez and the board at the time launched a capital campaign. "We were paying a huge amount in rent and we thought, 'Imagine applying that to a mortgage,' " says Melissa Mark Viverito, the district's city councilwoman and the board chairperson then.

In East Harlem, affordable real estate has become tough to find. But Viverito had heard about the East 117th Street structure through the grapevine; in fact, her brother has power-of-attorney status for the seller, who lives in Puerto Rico. Legally, he could not participate in any sale of the building, but he tipped off his sister to the seller's desire to unload the property nevertheless. She, in turn, told Perez. When Perez saw No. 145, she recalls, "I thought, 'This is perfect.' "

But before she could bring the matter before the board, the broker called and relayed to her that an investment group had already made an offer that VIP could not match—$950,000.

Six months later, however, she got a call from Viverito, now a city councilwoman, who had discovered that No. 145 was back on the market. Perez swung into action, calling up the broker, and negotiated a lower price. She convinced the seller to drop to $700,000—a steal compared to East Harlem's $1 million going rate for similar buildings. By April 2006, Perez had outlined an initial funding scheme for the board. With $300,000 in reserves, she told the members, VIP had enough for a down payment ($140,000) and closing fees ($35,000). She suggested seeking a 20-year mortgage at area banks, as well as grant money for renovations. According to board minutes, Perez was encouraged to pursue the deal.

For the next seven months, Perez did just that. She contacted an architect about renovations. She secured letters of interest for two bank mortgages—first, for $1.2 million; the second, $560,000. She applied for capital funding from the city and, with Viverito's help, obtained a $500,000 allocation toward the $693,000 rehab costs. She even found a real-estate lawyer to represent VIP during the closing, pro bono.

All along, the board was as enthusiastic about the deal as its executive director, which is reflected in meeting minutes and interviews. As part of the fiscal 2007 budget, it formally approved the purchase. Not once did members voice concerns about the numbers or misgivings about the transaction generally. At least, not until the contract would land in their hands.

On January 11, Perez received the purchase agreement, which she e-mailed to the then board chairperson, Jenny Rivera, a prominent Manhattan civil rights attorney who would resign abruptly weeks later. In the e-mail, Perez informed the chair that she was waiting for instructions from the lawyer. "In the interim," she wrote, "please review." The next day, Rivera responded with two letters: "OK."

Over the ensuing two weeks, however, Perez heard nothing. She sent two e-mails and made 21 phone calls to Rivera, she says, to no avail. As a January 26 deadline neared, she reached out instead to Diaz, the vice-chairman, e-mailing him and asking for help in contacting the chairperson. "The lawyer is expecting a signed contract from us," she wrote. But there was only silence.

By January 25, she took matters into her own hands. That day, the real estate agent informed Perez that, as she recalls, "the owner wanted to put this building back on the market." She made one final call to Rivera. And then, on January 26, she could wait no more for word, and signed the contract on her own authority. She cut a check for $140,000. She delivered the documents to the VIP attorney.

Back at her office, she finally got word from Diaz. In an e-mail sent that afternoon, he wrote: "The board has decided not to purchase the 117th Street property."

To hear the VIP directors tell it, Perez committed an insubordinate act when she signed the contract on the building sale. Although Perez says she was never told to stop pursuing the transaction, the board now claims that her termination "was necessitated due to her having disobeyed a direct order from the Board." Signing the sale contract without further instructions, the board says, "placed the organization at risk."

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