Talking about the Bronx, Buildings & Community Development with UNHP Board members, John Reilly & Joe Muriana
John Reilly, a UNHP Board member since 1988, and lifelong Bronx resident leads the following conversation with UNHP’s 40th-anniversary honoree, Joe Muriana. UNHP is privileged to count both John and Joe as long-time board members as they each generously shared their expertise in a variety of areas as part of UNHP’s oversight and growth. As an undergraduate at Manhattan College, John started organizing with the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition the same year that Joe Muriana did and was a community organizer for the Coalition until 1980 when he was hired as the founding Executive Director of the newly formed Fordham Bedford Housing Corporation and led the organization until his retirement in 2022. Starting with a 14-unit building on 194th Street, FBHC under John’s 42 years of leadership went on to become the largest community-based affordable housing developer in NYC, a visionary leader in innovative community collaborations and sustainable affordable development, and the manager of more than 130 Bronx multifamily buildings that provide safe, decent housing for more than 4,000 low-income Bronx families and individuals. Joe’s many accomplishments are shared in this interview and on UNHP’s post honoring him.
John Reilly: Hello, this is John Reilly and I’m here with Joe Muriana today and we want to spend some time discussing community development in the Northwest Bronx, especially the work of University Neighborhood Housing as it celebrates 40 years. Joe, can you tell us a little bit about how you got involved in community work in the Northwest Bronx and your experience in coming to the Northwest Bronx?
Joe Muriana: Let me describe how I got here to the Bronx. I was born in Brooklyn and then spent some of my “tweenie” years in Staten Island. I came to the Bronx as a student at Fordham University and that was my first in-depth exposure here. While I was a student, I lived in four different neighborhoods in the Bronx, all of which were in the Northwest Bronx area: University Heights, Belmont, Fordham Bedford and, eventually settling in Mosholu Parkway.
When I was at Fordham, I heard about this group, the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, that was starting to get off the ground. It was trying to pull people together to respond to a lot of the challenges facing them in their neighborhoods and I volunteered to work for the group in my junior summer. Then after graduating from Fordham I took a job as a community organizer; I worked in the Kingsbridge Heights neighborhood for a little over eight years and then for the Northwest Bronx Coalition as Executive Director for a year and a half. That was the root of my involvement that led ultimately to my work with University Neighborhood Housing Program (UNHP). I had been hired by Fordham University after my time at the Coalition to focus on urban affairs for the University with most of my attention given to the Bronx.
Fordham University had been the creator of UNHP in 1983. It did this in response to a request from the community to become involved in a housing development project that involved a number of buildings. For those of you who have read the interview between Brian Byrne and Jim Mitchell, you know that they were involved in UNHP’s first project. When I joined the university staff part of my responsibility became handling the university’s oversight of UNHP. I was organizing the Board meetings and tracking the progress of the buildings that had been renovated by the community with UNHP’s assistance. Due to our work, UNHP was entitled to some funds and those funds were going to result in our ability to have some money to lend to further support the community. When the first money started to flow, I began to look around for another project that we could become involved in. Actually, John, you are very aware of that project. It was the acquisition of an old nursing home that ultimately became Concourse House, a shelter for women with young children; it also became headquarters for Fordham Bedford Housing Corporation (FBHC), UNHP, and eventually the Northwest Bronx Coalition, which moved into a house on the property.
526-unitJohn Reilly: So tell us a little more, Joe, about some of the other things you did while you were at the university such as working with the Fordham Road Business Improvement District (BID) and Edison Arms, and more. We just want to get some idea of the other things that were going on in the Bronx at that time.
Joe Muriana: When I first got to Fordham, the University sponsored a HUD 202 project for seniors and handicapped adults which became known as Rose Hill Apartments, named after its location behind Fordham’s Rose Hill campus. Construction had topped off, but none of the interior apartments were done and I became the person that had to track the construction on a daily basis and attend the job meetings along with Brian Byrne. Brian had won the HUD grant for the building before I started working at Fordham. I took on the work of seeing the project through to commissioning and getting the building rented up with Nayda Alejandro, our housing manager. Two student workers, among them Mary Pardo who became the building's bookkeeper, and our newly hired social worker Pat Sheahy, helped with the tenant applicant lottery. After we did the lottery, Nayda handled the interviews, hired the super, and coordinated the move-ins. That was a 119-unit building right across from the New York Botanical Gardens and behind Fordham Preparatory School. This was my exposure to getting more technically involved in some aspects of real estate ownership and management.
In addition, we had made a commitment when we were seeking the support of the community for the Rose Hill project to do another project on the corner of Decatur Avenue and Oliver Place. It was the site of the old Thomas Edison studios, which had been demolished by that point. We carried through on our commitment and we worked with FBHC to create the Edison Arms HDFC. I and my staff prepared the application to HUD and working together, we ultimately got that 60-unit building funded. Both buildings were for seniors, and Rose Hill was for handicapped adults as well. Edison Arms was just for seniors.
John Reilly: There is an interesting connection between all of these. Rosehill management helps to do the property management at Edison Arms, as well as Rosehill and later we’ll talk a little more about some of the asset management work that UNHP does. UNHP was helpful recently in doing work at Edison Arms. Joe, can you tell us about the Fordham Road Business Improvement District (BID) was doing and what the circumstances were at that time?
Joe Muriana: Fordham Road had attempted to form a BID for many years. Even Brian Byrne was involved in the effort and it was passed along to me when he became Vice President for Administration at Fordham. A BID is a business improvement district, which is comprised of merchants and landlords on a commercial strip that are willing to pay for additional services along their strip to improve it. The services we had in mind were increased sanitation run by the BID itself, not by the city. The City tax department would assess the fee on the owners in their quarterly tax bills. Over time, some of the key players, who had been originally involved; Dollar Savings Bank, Sears, and Con Edison left the strip. Con Ed closed its office; Dollar Savings Bank disappeared and was replaced by Emigrant Savings and then Apple Bank. But we tried to maintain as many businesses as possible in the group. Monroe Business School and Fordham University were on either end of Fordham Road, and we were both very involved in the creation of the BID. Many of the merchants and other landlords on the strip wanted to see it happen. To make it happen you needed the support of a supermajority of the owners along the strip and we were able to get that. I think we had only one owner out of 70 oppose the creation of the BID. Then, we were able to get it approved by the City Council, the borough president, and the mayor. By the time of the final submission, Mayor Bloomberg had already taken office, and he was a major proponent of the BID. BIDs had run into some controversy when Mayor Giuliani was mayor in New York and he did not like any entity to have independent fiscal control other than him.
John Reilly: For those that don’t know it, Fordham Road was a very large and important commercial area in the northwest Bronx and in effect for the whole Bronx and the city.
Joe Muriana: We got the bid approved. I filed the articles of incorporation up at the Secretary of State; I think I was the last to sign them. Everybody had to sign them. The Mayor, the whole city council, everybody that had an ex officio position on the board plus the original Incorporators of which I was one representing Fordham.
The BID has made a terrific difference on the strip. Once we got it, we hired staff and we had a very active board made up of many people; David and Joe Rose of Rose automotive Realty played a key role and I could name many others.
John Reilly: Why don’t we talk about how UNHP then began to have a different kind of impact in the neighborhood where it was able to actually provide financing and financial assistance to organizations trying to do housing rehab in the neighborhood.
Joe Muriana: Yes, as I had mentioned, University Neighborhood had one member: Fordham University. We had very little money, but we had done one deal and we were beginning to realize some income from that deal, and we had made one loan to FBHC becoming one of a number of lenders that FBHC put together to purchase Concourse House.
After that, in 1988, Jim Buckley, who was working as the Director of the Northwest Bronx Coalition reinvestment project came over to my office at Fordham and asked if Fordham would have any interest in sponsoring an entity that could help to translate some of the reinvestment victories that were won from a number of banks by the Northwest Bronx Coalition to turn into funding realities that would essentially ensure that money got invested in concrete projects in the neighborhood. This entity would work on all the technical difficulties of doing that. While it would include organizing, it was going to be a step beyond organizing--getting involved in the loan negotiations, getting the banks to commit funds to us to maintain and renovate a specific building and make it more energy efficient.
John Reilly: It should be said at this point, too, that some of the organizations like Fordham Bedford Housing didn’t really have their own development staff at that time and yet they were coming up with buildings that needed renovation and this was a way that UNHP could help them bring the reinvestment dollars that Joe mentioned from the banks, the city and federal governments into these projects.
Joe Muriana: It became a real combination of different funds from religious congregations to Fannie Mae to a half dozen banks that all pitched in after some prodding. When Jim asked me whether Fordham would be interested in forming something, I said we actually already have something: University Neighborhood Housing Program. I said there might be a possibility of using that as this entity, rather than start something from scratch. We proceeded to talk to Brian Byrne, who was the university official overseeing UNHP on behalf of Fordham. What we did was envision a scenario where UNHP would have two members; one would be Fordham University and the other would be the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition. That’s how we launched what I would call a new phase of UNHP. Jim left the Coalition and became a staff member for UNHP. Eventually, we hired more staff, and we began to take some of the bank commitments that had been made as a result of community organizing and translate them into concrete projects. Mostly it was redevelopment at the beginning because we were dealing with older buildings and at that time, from 1988 to the mid-90s, the real estate market was really depressed in the Bronx and the acquisition of buildings was a whole lot easier. With these funds, we could help different neighborhood organizations acquire buildings and give them a brighter future. We worked with people of good faith who were willing to develop and improve the buildings and not rip them off.
John Reilly: We’d like to spend a little time talking about some of the renovation work that UNHP has gotten involved with over the years and then talk a little bit about some of its current activities. Joe, there has been other renovation work that UNHP has done itself like Tremont-Anthony and West Farms.
Joe Muriana: Tremont Anthony was the name for a two-building package on the corner of Tremont and Anthony Avenues. The buildings had been foreclosed by Freddie Mac when the owner couldn’t pay the mortgage. Senator Al D’Amato worked along with UNHP when he was chair of the Senate Banking committee to see that the building got transferred with viable sale terms that would enable UNHP to arrange for the acquisition of Tremont Anthony and to maintain it as affordable housing. It was a fully occupied building, but it was in danger of succumbing to the forces of over-financing which had happened to a large number of Freddie Mac-financed buildings.
John Reilly: So what happened there led to a renovation of the building that keeps it affordable.
Joe Muriana: Yes, when we started we thought it was a fairly substantial renovation Project, but it became even more substantial when we realized that almost every bathroom had to have the floor replaced due to water leaks in the building over the years. The building had some positives going for it including a good deal of commercial space on the ground floor and the commercial income helped the building’s financial situation. It meant that the building could afford a large enough loan to renovate the whole building.
John Reilly: and the rents could still be affordable to the residents.
Joe Muriana: Definitely. With a participation loan from Chase Manhattan and the City of New York, UNHP was able to ensure that the building could be renovated and operated affordably for the tenants. We tried to ensure that the residents would be able to get either Section 8 or rent vouchers of some type to make sure the rent was affordable. This was part of a larger commitment by Chase to do these kinds of loans with the City of New York’s participation loan program.on
By our 30th anniversary, we were able to do upwards of 50 buildings with Chase, the City, and other lenders. UNHP did not have a cookie-cutter approach. We were able to structure deals in buildings that worked for the tenants, owners, banks, and the City.
John Reilly: I know that UNHP helped Fordham Bedford Housing with projects on Walton Avenue, Briggs Avenue, and Mosholu Parkway. Many of these projects took place before Fordham Bedford had the capacity to do the development work for these projects. So it was very helpful for us as we were growing as an organization that UNHP was able to fill that role with us. I’m going to mention a few things about another project, a big project that Fordham Bedford Housing, worked on with UNHP and the Archdiocese of New York. There we were able to renovate more than 500 units of affordable housing at West Farms. These were eight fully occupied buildings, and they had undergone some deterioration, and the systems were wearing out. There was one boiler for the eight buildings. They have occupied buildings and there was no lead paint so we didn’t have to move the tenants and there were no structural issues but we did do all new plumbing and electrical, new boilers, new roofs and we improved security at the buildings in a number of ways. The buildings are now providing what we had always hoped for: affordable housing for more than 500 tenants. And we continue to partner in that project. Joe, did you want to just tell a little bit about Rosehill and what you’ve been doing there or did you want to say more about West Farms?
Joe Muriana: I mentioned Rosehill earlier in terms of its original construction, but 20 years later we needed to do some more renovations. Over time the building has wear and tear and you need to replace different systems and do other kinds of work to keep the buildings in good shape. The building had a project-based Section 8 rental contract which was expiring. We needed to renew the rental contract and upgrade the buildings so we looked for partners to do a tax credit project; that’s a project where a group of private investors buy tax credits and they become limited partners in the ownership. University Neighborhood became part of the general partnership, Rose Hill Senior Apartments, which became the owner of the building. We worked with Richman to get JP Morgan Chase to purchase the tax credits generated by the project and become limited partners in Rose Hill. That’s how we got new funding that paid off the old HUD mortgage, which had been set at an outrageous rate back in 1984 because the rates were that high then. (People think inflation is bad now; we had some very high interest rates in the 80s and 90s.) At Rose Hill, we were able to reduce the interest rate to about 6% by taking out a new loan with New York City Housing Development Corporation. They paid off the old loan and we got a 20-year section 8 contract for all the residents in the building so that they would only pay up to 30% of their income toward rent; we didn’t displace any tenants. We still had the same tenants and we were able to do the renovation with tenants in place, which is difficult. UNHP became the project sponsor and Rosehill Senior Apartments became the general partner and continues to run the building today. It’s actually almost 15 years since that happened and we’re beginning the process again to upgrade and refinance the building.
John Reilly: So it’s time to start over.
Joe Muriana: I don’t think that there’s as much renovation work that needs to be done because we’ve been doing some items over time but there is some work that does need to be done and we’d like to bring in more energy-efficient systems.
That’s another thing I’d like to mention. UNHP took the lead in creating a green loan fund more than 20 years ago. This happened before global warming was really a hot topic and what that green loan fund did was take money from a number of banks and religious institutions to do green work in buildings. We got the Sisters of Charity, Fannie Mae, Apple Bank, Chase, a bunch of other banks, some of which aren’t around anymore, to participate. They all committed funds and we were able to do things that improve the energy efficiency of these buildings; the work included modernizing boilers, new roofs, new windows. The Green Loan Fund started around 1995 and a lot of our buildings benefited from it.
In addition, we created the Building Indicator Project, also known as BIP. As we saw prices rising making it harder to do community acquisitions, we thought that it was important to figure out what was happening. We had staff do research looking at the title files to find out who held the mortgages on all the buildings in the northwest Bronx. We thought it was important to know who was lending, who was buying and how much buildings cost, and what condition the buildings were in. We eventually created a citywide database, BIP. We are providing information to a large pool of folks, in addition to the banks. Banks usually know where they have a mortgage on the building. But it’s important that they know that we know they have a mortgage on the building. We want the banks to police the owner of the building to maintain the building in good repair, threatening to enforce the good repair clause in the mortgage. That way it’s not just the residents in the building that are putting pressure on an owner, but the financial institution that holds a mortgage is putting pressure on that owner and that’s leading to safer, more livable housing than what we started out with.
BIP is recognized as a valuable tool by the City, the lenders, bank regulators, and community organizations in the City. I had worked on a project that was similar in my last years at the coalition.
We investigated all the building code violations in the building and we ranked them from top to bottom; we picked out buildings that had higher levels of senior citizen occupancy. This was all part of a senior citizen organizing project because seniors were more vulnerable than others. We were funded by the federal government and we organized those buildings and we kept track of who the owners were and who the banks were that had the mortgages on it. I had some help from HPD staff person Dart Westphal who worked along with Felice Michetti in the local HPD office in West Tremont. We were able to get some work done on the building so we corrected a lot of violations. Some of the same methodologies that went into that were later transferable to the BIP project, but now there are all sorts of new technology out and new databases that make it easier to do.
John Reilly: Going back throughout the formation of UNHP, and even prior to that, the mission of these organizations has stayed very much the same. Even though some of the activities have changed to adjust to the times, the mission of safe and affordable housing continues to be something that is critical to our organization, and in the work that we’re going to do.
I wanted to just talk a little bit about some of the things that are going on now and sum that up. UNHP is doing asset management in the buildings that Joe has discussed, particularly Rosehill, Tremont Anthony, and Edison Arms. The BIP program is a big success and is contributing to a lot of important work in our community and others. UNHP is doing something that’s kind of unique in that they pull together meetings that involve private and community housing managers and they’re working on some of the critical issues like water and insurance costs that all of these buildings are facing. These meetings are a way for those owners and managers to exchange ideas on what the problems are and what possible solutions could be. It’s a unique way to have those discussions. UNHP does a variety of other things with individuals providing financial education assistance and training to individuals and has a whole program set up to assist people with that and to help them locate apartments through the city’s programs. That’s very important work for those individuals in our community and there’s more information available on that elsewhere.
So, Joe, going forward what are the challenges for the immediate and long-term future?
Joe Muriana: the major challenges appear to be twofold. One is the inflated values of real property and the inflated cost of acquisition. I made some reference to it when I was talking about Freddie Mac and the Tremont Anthony deal that would’ve been thoroughly unaffordable if the original mortgage had not been reduced. When UNHP started our second phase of activity back in the late 80s and got involved in more than one project, it became possible to acquire deeds for buildings for a reasonable amount of money.
John Reilly: Absolutely you could purchase a building so that you weren’t spending everything on the purchase price.
Joe Muriana: You were able to bring to bear monies whether they were on the equity side or on the mortgage side to improve the building and improve the conditions for tenants and residents who lived in the building. Now that’s become a more distant hope. We don’t do as many outright acquisitions. It’s got to be kind of a special deal. We have used low-income tax credits in Rose Hill because it provides enough money to do some of the necessary work. It’s probably easier to do existing buildings, although they have their own challenges. The cost of acquisition, coupled with the increased cost of operations of these buildings makes it difficult. Operating costs continue to rise and that includes everything from heat and hot water to taxes to water and sewer and insurance. The cost of insurance has gone through the roof I would say in the Bronx, but it’s probably in New York as a whole. The cost of property and liability insurance in the Bronx has risen by more than 20% in each of the past three years in many Bronx buildings. And this is happening in buildings without any claims on their insurance policy. If you have a loss you’re going to have an even more difficult situation purchasing insurance. It makes it extremely difficult to keep buildings on straight and narrow. for some private owners you know they’re going to pay their insurance bills before they pay something else. They might reduce the heat and defer repairs to pay these other bills and the building conditions may deteriorate.
Those are the main challenges and they have been increasing year after year but now they’re approaching a crisis point. We keep at it and we have had some successes. For instance, to help with rising water bills, UNHP successfully fought for a credit for water and sewer charges in rent regulated affordable buildings with multi-year regulatory agreements restricting tenants' income. Perhaps that’s a sign of something that can be done in other cost areas if we can link a cost to some sort of subsidy.
It’s the kind of thing that we do. We look for ideas and if something works we look for ways to do it in other areas. When I came to work in the Bronx, most of the buildings were pre-war buildings; there’s been a lot of building in the Bronx, particularly in areas where a lot of buildings burned down in the ’70s. But in most of the northwest Bronx, we did not experience that type of devastation; we experienced it more on a case-by-case basis, but we don’t want to get into such a situation again. We need to keep working with the community, the government and the private sector to make the housing of the Bronx affordable and safe for the people living here.
John Reilly I think that concludes our discussion for today. Thank you, Joe. It's been very interesting to go over the history of these different efforts to keep our housing in good shape and affordable and thank you all out there.
Joe Muriana: Thank you John for interviewing and remember don’t screw up the audio tape.
Thank you John and Joe for this interview. Come say hi to both John and Joe at UNHP's 40 & Still Fighting Fiesta on Thursday, April 27th at FBHC's Serviam Hall. Ticket and sponsorship information is here.