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Reinforcing the Front Lines on Poverty

The 2009 Neighborhood Revitalization Program

Food Line
Hundreds of people in Washington Heights wait for hours to receive free groceries from a food pantry run by the Community League of the Heights. When the food runs out, many are turned away.

February 2010

Known, trusted, and close by, community groups are often the first place that people go to for help. Already operating on tight budgets, these groups are facing a surge of new people whose lives, jobs, and homes have been jeopardized by the recession. “With our food pantry, the line is unbelievable,” says Yvonne Stennett, executive director of Community League of the Heights. “The line has quadrupled in size. People will get in line at 6:00 AM, and we don’t open the doors until noon. I am nervous that this is just the tip of the iceberg.”

In its 31st year, The Trust’s Neighborhood Revitalization Program has made 14 grants of $40,000 to community groups meeting poverty, hunger, and unemployment head on. Staff of these organizations help prevent foreclosures and evictions, provide counsel in housing court, hold computer literacy classes, notify people of their rights, organize tenants, and help workers prepare for and find jobs. “We are finding creative ways to address growing demand with constrained resources,” says Sally Dunford of the West Bronx Housing and Neighborhood Resource Center. In her 16 years as executive director she has observed that residents often turn to clergy first with domestic problems, but by the time they come to the Center, it is often after eviction notices have been posted. Sally continues, “We became overwhelmed with people facing eviction, which is very labor intensive for a staff of four people. The earlier people come in, the easier it is to help them, and the more people we can help.” A Trust grant will help expand the Center’s program to train clergy and community leaders to identify and refer families needing help. “Thus far this program has worked very well and we are seeing far fewer people coming in at the last minute.”

Serving several neighborhoods in south Brooklyn, the Fifth Avenue Committee is seeing a sharp increase in demand. “We are seeing far more people who have been laid off from long-time employment seeking new careers; tenants needing eviction prevention services due to drastic changes in their family’s economic status; and more individuals in need of legal assistance because their unemployment claims are being challenged by a former employer. We are also seeing more cases of labor exploitation, especially related to back wages owed to immigrants as businesses try to shrink their bottom lines through skimping on wages,” says executive director Michelle de la Uz. A grant from The Trust will strengthen the group’s multiple employment projects, which have already successfully placed 2,500 Brooklynites in jobs.

At Erasmus Neighborhood Federation in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, multi-lingual housing counselors, tenant organizers, and lawyers help homeowners in this largely immigrant community with loan modifications and other ways to prevent foreclosure. Counselors also help tenants in foreclosed or abandoned properties stay put. “In the past, when a house or apartment building was foreclosed on and sold, both the tenant and the landlord would be evicted,” says Yeneika Puran, assistant director of the Federation. “But because of the Protecting Tenants at Foreclosure Act, tenants now have a voice. They cannot be evicted from the property without a 90-day notice to vacate. Tenants with absentee landlords can put their rent in escrow, which puts them in a better position to remain in their homes when the ownership of the building changes hands.”

Recipients of Neighborhood Revitalization grants not mentioned in the article are listed below. All grants are for $40,000.

Abyssinian Development Corporation, to provide services to a naturally occurring retirement community in Harlem.

Cooper Square Community Development Committee and Businessmen’s Association, to facilitate a limited equity cooperative conversion in the East Village, giving current renters an affordable option to buy their apartments.

Eviction Intervention Services, to provide housing services for elderly tenants on Manhattan’s East Side.

Mount Hope Housing Company, to help South Bronx families get benefits and financial services.

Northfield Community Local Development Corporation of Staten Island, to help homeowners avoid foreclosure.

North Brooklyn Development Corporation, to provide housing, employment, and benefits counseling services to residents of Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

Northern Manhattan Improvement Corporation, for housing and employment services for residents of northern Washington Heights.

Ocean Bay Community Development Corporation, for housing and employment services for public housing residents in Far Rockaway.

Queens Community House, for housing and employment services for residents of Jackson Heights and Corona.

University Neighborhood Housing Program, to help preserve affordable housing and expand financial services for residents of the northwest Bronx.

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