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Editorial: Some Hope Amid Housing Crisis

Over half a million people in the west Bronx live in residential apartment buildings. At least a third of these tenants pay half of their hard-earned wages on rent. Though Bronx residents are paying thousands of dollars a year on shelter, too many of these buildings are in a desperate – sometimes life-threatening — state of disrepair.

It’s a chronic problem in the borough, made even worse over the last decade by over-leveraged investments made by sketchy investors who often hide behind shell companies, banks and mortgage servicers.  Treating the investments like the same sham commodities that precipitated the foreclosure crisis, purchasers, enabled by banks that should know better, paid prices that either made maintaining the properties untenable, or led them to try to recoup their investments by harassing tenants out of their apartments to make way for superficial improvements and people willing to pay more.

University Neighborhood Housing Program, a local nonprofit that should get more citywide attention for its critical research and policy recommendations, reveals in a recent report that “sales price per unit increased uninterrupted for the decade beginning in 1996, skyrocketing 794 percent by 2005.”

There has been too little official attention to this crisis, but tenants living in 10 buildings in the so-called Milbank portfolio organized by the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition have galvanized a rare meeting of the minds that has led to important reform.

Mayor Bloomberg and his Department of Housing Preservation and Development deserve credit for facilitating a transfer of ownership of the Milbank portfolio to a single, identifiable owner who will be held accountable by a broad coalition of tenants and public officials. The situation with Milbank has led to the city’s new Pro-Active Preservation Program and helps identify physically and financially distressed properties before they unravel and seriously threaten tenants’ safety.

It’s a program that will have no shortage of targets. UNHP’s innovative Building Indicator Project, which combines data from a variety of city databases to identify distressed properties, cites 1,052 buildings in the Bronx alone in need of attention. We hope this new program is up to handling the crisis.

For many housing experts and tenant organizers active in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the overinvestment in northwest Bronx buildings is déjà vu all over again. At that time, Freddie Mac, the quasi-federal loan institution, was loaning landlords more money than they could pay back, leading to a rash of deterioration and abandonment in northwest Bronx buildings.  We hope that the combination of the city’s new financial and record-keeping tools, effective program implementation and close consultation with tenant groups makes this latest rash of dangerous irresponsibility the last one.

A well-written report just issued by UNHP at a Fordham University forum entitled “New York City’s Multifamily Housing in Distress” is a must read for anyone concerned about the stability and health of Bronx neighborhoods. You can download it from the organization’s website at http://unhp.org/forum_multidistress.html.

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