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Bronx Appartment Building Facing Foreclosure, Example of Troubling Trend

University Neighborhood Housing Program and Urban Homesteading Assistance Board are Trust grantees.

Problems Mount at a Bronx Building Bought in a Bubble

The New York Times
2/1/10
By Sam Dolnick

It was in the community room on the ground floor of 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the West Bronx that a young D.J. and his turntables helped to invent hip-hop, the music that spawned a global culture.

A generation later, eyes again turned to the hulking brick tower overlooking the Harlem River when tenants, politicians and housing advocates fought to keep the building in a state-run rent-protection program and out of the hands of real estate investors.

They lost the battle, and the building was sold in 2008. Now, more than a year later, housing code violations have piled up, and tenants are seething at the new landlords. Advocates and analysts say that the building’s problems could be a harbinger of a housing crisis in the city’s low-income neighborhoods, especially in the Bronx.

Here, it is not individual homes that are most under threat of foreclosure — it is whole apartment buildings occupied by hundreds of families. And it was not the residents who took out the heavy loans — it was investors who live far from the overleveraged properties.

While banks and owners seek to recoup staggering losses from overly optimistic real estate deals in neighborhoods like the South Bronx, Washington Heights and Corona, Queens, tenants have been left with some of the worst of the bust: crumbling buildings, rats and roaches, the threat of foreclosure.

Since the new owners took over at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the fall of 2008, the number of violations has jumped to 598 from 82, an increase of more than 600 percent, according to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development.

“Because it was well maintained and families decided to stay there, relationships grew and it ended up leading to one of the most important cultural contributions in decades,” said Dina Levy, director of organizing and policy at the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, a tenant advocacy group. “If that were to fall apart, it would be an indicator of what’s going to happen to communities that are stable in the outer boroughs.”

For decades 1520 Sedgwick, which has 102 units, was a much-desired, affordable address for working-class families. When Sylvia Jones moved there in 1997, she said, the lobby was so well maintained that “you could see your face in the floor.” She remembers Christmas parties, Halloween trick-or-treating, back-to-school drives. “We were like a family in there,” Ms. Jones said.

When Clive Campbell, otherwise known as D.J. Kool Herc, held the much-celebrated hip-hop parties in the community room in the early 1970s — parties many see as crucial to the early evolution of hip-hop — the whole building was invited.

Today, a ride in the building’s lurching elevator provides a glimpse of current conditions. It is far from the worst of buildings. But the testimony can be powerful.

Mordistine Alexander, on the 15th floor, said that for three months she had to use a screwdriver to enter her apartment because the lock was broken and no one ever showed up to fix it. Mary Fountain, on the sixth floor, complained of a crack in her bedroom wall, saying, “I can look through and see the sunshine.” Barbara Griles, on the 13th floor, said she planned to move out after 17 years because her toilet flooded her living room, the building’s floors were dirty and “when you ask for service, you don’t get it.”

During the height of the boom, real estate investors, many of whom were backed by private equity funds, paid top dollar for as many as 120,000 apartments across the city, most of which were either rent-regulated or were in buildings that had recently been removed from the state’s Mitchell-Lama housing program, which had kept rents relatively low, according to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development. But the market collapsed, and the new residents willing to pay higher rents never came, leaving the buildings overleveraged and vulnerable.

About 300 of those buildings were in the Bronx, and at least 40 are in foreclosure, according to the University Neighborhood Housing Program. About 100 more buildings in the borough are at risk, the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board says.

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