As part of UNHP’s 40th-anniversary celebrations, we have begun interviewing some of the people involved in our history and work. Our own story has its roots in the long history of community organizing within the Bronx. Recently, Brian Byrne - a former Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition staff person, retired Fordham University Vice-President and former UNHP Board member - and Jim Mitchell - the first executive director of both the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition and BUILD, a non-profit Bronx housing corporation - met with me ( Jim Buckley, UNHP Executive Director) to discuss the origins of University Neighborhood Housing Program. Both Brian and Jim participated in the original formation of UNHP in 1983.
The Bronx in the ’70s was severely impacted by the City’s budget difficulties, redlining by banks and insurance companies, and deteriorating building conditions that led to the abandonment of hundreds of buildings with thousands of apartments - especially in the area south of Fordham Road. People around the Bronx came together in the early 1970s to organize and turn things around. In the Northwest Bronx, a lot of this early work started with individuals who were studying and working at Fordham University.
Brian and Jim arrived separately in the Bronx in the early ’70s. They both contributed to the work that led to the creation of the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition and then started working for the Coalition in 1974. In 1981, Brian went to work for Fordham University, and in 1982, Jim became the director of a newly formed community housing organization called BUILD.
Brian Byrne first arrived at Fordham to get his doctorate in philosophy. There he met a Jesuit scholar, Paul Brant, who had been working in the Morris Heights section of the Bronx to address the growing needs of the Bronx through community organizing. Brian said, “Paul recruited me to help build an organization using the NW Bronx Catholic Clergy Conference (a group of 16 parish pastors in the NW quadrant of the Bronx) as a base.” Meanwhile, at Fordham, Brian started working to assist in the creation of an internship program for students in the community and “put together a seminar for Fordham students …and we ran a whole series of special seminars on a number of issues including Medicaid mills and connecting students with organizers and community leaders in the Bronx. That’s how I started working with the Coalition.”
While still a Jesuit scholar, Jim Mitchell had worked for two years “with an affordable housing group in the east side of Detroit.” After two years, Jim started “looking for other opportunities and Paul Brant was one of my contacts… He invited me to come to the Bronx in the spring of 1972.” Paul was also in contact with Roger Hayes - a current UNHP Board Member and a long-time friend of Jim’s. Roger had been doing community organizing work in Chicago.
Jim said that “Paul Brant’s idea was to get someone from housing and someone with an organizing background and see what could be started on the ground in the west Bronx…The work started in the Morris Heights section because Msgr. McCarthy of Holy Spirit Parish was willing to be the first guy to do something of a practical order of what up to that point had been a theory of doing something to prevent the absolute devastation of the NW Bronx.”
Both Roger and Jim came to the Bronx in the fall of 1972. At that point, there was no money around for housing. “The Nixon administration had frozen all the federal housing money.” The two men started organizing in the Morris Heights area, and their work with Msgr. McCarthy in Morris Heights became the model for the creation of the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition which was formed in 1974.
The President of Fordham University at the time was a Jesuit priest, Jim Finlay. Finlay was supportive of Paul Brant’s efforts in the Bronx and supported the creation of the seminar program that Brian Byrne had begun developing to connect students with community organizing work. When asked if Fordham ever considered leaving the Bronx the way that NYU had when it sold its Bronx campus to the CUNY system, Brian said, “Fordham never considered leaving the Bronx. Fr. Finlay was frustrated with the City and in a speech once asked ‘Why should a private religious institution stay and hold the line in the Bronx when buildings are burning and when the City doesn’t give a hoot?’ Some people thought it meant Fordham University was going to move, but Finlay told me we never were going anywhere. He said what he said to be provocative. When the city has written the Bronx off, how can the city expect private institutions to do more.”
‘Why should a private religious institution stay and hold the line in the Bronx when buildings are burning and when the City doesn’t give a hoot?’
Finlay was concerned about Fordham’s connection with the Bronx community. Brian said, “He felt that Fordham had no relationship with the community, and he hired me in 1981 to address that.” Fordham hired Brian as Assistant to the President for Urban Affairs. At the same time, the Coalition and BUILD - the recently formed housing corporation of which Jim Mitchell had become director - started working to purchase several troubled buildings by utilizing tax syndication with private investors and applying public and private funds. Brian and Jim felt that if Fordham took a role in the project, it would make the proposal more appealing to private investors. Brian said, “I went to Fr. Finlay and said this would solidify our relations with the community with minimal risk to the university. Finlay said they would do it and formed a partnership with BUILD to enable a new partnership to be formed, effectively allowing BUILD to buy a few buildings in foreclosure from different banks. While there were some questions within the university, Finlay overruled the opposition and that’s how University Neighborhood Housing Program (UNHP) was formed.” Fordham established UNHP as a non-profit corporation with a Board appointed by the University.
Jim Mitchell recalled that forming a non-profit housing organization with access to financial resources was one of the original ideas of the Coalition’s early leadership. Housing abandonment was a major problem affecting the borough in the ’70s. However, the lack of available public and private funds made that idea unrealistic at the time. Tenant organizing led to the creation of Interneighborhood Housing in Crotona in 1978 and the Fordham Bedford Housing Corporation (FBHC) in 1980. The decision to form BUILD came after the Community Reinvestment agreement between the NW Bronx Coalition and 5 banks was signed in January 1980. Jim said, “After the agreement of the banks to do 200 projects in the NW Bronx, we were trying to figure out how to use these commitments. It was part of the Coalition’s original plan to start a non-profit housing corporation that could work across the NW Bronx…So for about two years, people were thinking about how to form a group that would have more resources to acquire privately owned buildings. In 1982, BUILD was launched with the goal of being able to purchase and renovate buildings from the private sector. In 1982, opportunities to purchase three buildings in foreclosure from different banks presented themselves.” Figuring out how to finance the acquisition of the buildings led Fordham to create UNHP and thereby assist BUILD in this work.
Shortly after the acquisition was completed, the federal tax code changed, and it became impossible to do the same type of real estate deal. However, UNHP now existed. Evidence of the organization’s ability to adjust its work based on the needs of the community was clear right from the start. In 1986, UNHP made a small loan to Fordham Bedford Housing to join in the financing of Concourse House. And two years later, the NW Bronx Coalition Reinvestment Project decided to put a fund together to allow community organizations to buy buildings. The group approached Brian Byrne and Joseph Muriana at Fordham University. After some discussion, Fordham indicated that it was willing to revise UNHP’s corporate structure to make it a non-profit corporation with an equal number of Board members appointed by Fordham University and the NW Bronx Coalition. In 1988, UNHP was able to open lines of credit with 5 different banks to make loans to other non-profit corporations including BUILD and FBHC to purchase apartment buildings. Jim Mitchell said, “The work you were doing at the Coalition’s Reinvestment Project became a part of UNHP. You did a lot to support BUILD. We had a solid partnership, and UNHP helped us with a whole array of different programs in the late ’80s that advanced our work in the community. A lot of what BUILD did in those years came from UNHP’s work with us.”
To this day, UNHP’s work continues to embrace the contribution and commitment of the many people who work to ensure that the voices of the Bronx will be heard.
Read more about the community development work in the northwest Bronx