University Neighborhood Housing Program: Building on 15 years of building

by Sonja Ryst

For more than a decade, rats and cockroaches had been inviting themselves into Mercedes Pichardo’s apartment on Anthony and Tremont Avenues in Mount Hope. Other unwelcome guests in the long-dilapidated housing project included drug dealers who hid their wares in the crumbling parts of Pichardo’s building, provoking visits from narcotics police and other less reputable characters.

“Landlords kept promising to get something fixed,” Pichardo said.

But promises only brought more promises, until the University Neighborhood Housing Program (UNHP) took the initiative and renovated the housisng project. Now she has a recently finished and clean living space, without even paying extra rent for it.

“I’m very happy,” Pichardo said.

UNHP celebrated its 15th anniversary on Wednesday, May 27, with a ceremony acknowledging participants in the nearly finished Tremont-Anthony project. This success is but one of many achieved by UNHP.

The two adjacent buildings on Tremont and Anthony Avenues had been abandoned long ago by their private owner and foreclosed by the mortgage holder, Freddie Mac. With no recourse for building improvements, tenants turned to the Northwest Bronx Coalition to organize improved services; UNHP worked to develop an acquisition and renovation loan from New York City and Chase Manhattan Bank. The buildings were purchased by a non-profit corporation in February 1997, and Dougert Management was selected as both the building manager and general contractor.

Now tenants like Pichardo finally have a safe, comfortable place to call home.

Kevin Alter of Dougert Management says the timely completion of construction in such a major renovation “is a credit to the extensive cooperation among the tenants, the community, the city and the bank.”

Since 1983, UNHP has been doing dozens of projects like Anthony-Tremont, helping tenants who request housing improvements by determining the amount of construction needed and obtaining the loans for renovations.

“It requires a lot of negotiation and energy to agree on how much money should be loaned,” said Guillermo Franco, director of program development. “Usually the city is not so willing to pay for the work we want done.”

In its life span UNHP has made 57 multi-family loans affecting more than 2,200 apartment units in the Bronx. It has funded and leveraged more than $15 million in housing loans, and lent $1.5 million of its own funds. To assist community-based preservation activities, the group has provided technical support such as training residents, supers and managers to implement cost-cutting measures.

“We try to avoid superficial repairs which will only laxt for a few years,” said Joe Muriana, UNHP affiliate and Fordham University’s director of government and urban affairs.

For example, when UNHP was working on the Tremont-Anthony project, it planned on fixing the bathroom fixtures and plumbing, but ended up having to demolish an entire bathroom.

“The supporting floor beams had gotten so thin, someone was going to be taking a bath and end up falling five stories down to the basement,” Muriana said.

That particular bathroom, Muriana explained, like many other projects done by UNHP, required more creative engineering to repair than a newer housing complex would.

“A speculator would have done cosmetic work,” Muriana said. “We wanted to actually cure parts of the building to make the repairs long term.”

Muriana said that obtaining funding has always posed the most difficult challenge for UNHP.

“Ever since the urban crisis of the fifties,” he said, “it’s been hard to get money into the inner cities. There are so many strings attached to loans these days, ever since national mortgage associations Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae loaned buildings more money than they could pay back.”

UNHP formed in part as an answer to the economic problems in the aftermath of the 1970s, when banks were pressed by community-based groups led by the North-west Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition (NWBCCC) to begin reinvesting in Bronx neighborhood housing.

“Fordham University and NWBCCC, sensing a potential opportunity, joined forces to reverse the decay taking place in the Bronx, focus bank lending into appropriate projects that would redevelop and preserve both the physical integrity and affordability of the area’s multi-family housing stock,” Muriana said.

Anyone who has lived longer than a year in a place knows, though, that throwing money at contractors doesn’t translate into long-term maintenance. Housing projects need on-going financial support, including services and strategies to help building owners and tenants with upkeep.

“I think UNHP has positively and very uniquely positioned itself in a community that is richh with housing and community organizations,” said William Frey, vice president and director of New York office of the Enterprise Foundation, a national organization dedicated to creating decent and affordable housing. “UNHP has been able to bridge gaps and become an incredible partner in the community,” Frey said.

Indeed, Muriana said that housing programs in the Bronx sometimes require more team work than those in Manhattan.

“We’ve always had to string pieces together to make things happen,” Muriana said.

Without the aid of high rents like those in Manhattan, Bronx constructors have to customize and borrow funds in order to keep programs affordable for tenants. Sometimes a single project might require the coordination of different sponsors.

For example, the Anthony-Tremont project involved about 10 partners, providing what Muriana called “a little bit from here and there” for the overall funding.

“It’s a challenge to one’s creativity,” Muriana said.

Far from sitting back on their couches watching the housing renovations being done, tenants are also important players on th UNHP work team. Not only do they have to seek help, they end writing letters to potential funders, filtering all the bureaucratic paper necessary to make such a renovation project happen.

In the case of Anthony-Tremont, tenants had to tolerate the noise of night and early morning construction workers. When residents heard they would have to move out while their apartments were being renovated, at first nobody wanted to volunteer. Finally, Miguel Accosta, tenant leader of the building, came forward as the first tenant to inconvenience himself by moving. Once the others saw how new and clean his apartment turned out, volunteering to move no longer seemed like a risky venture, and many followed his example.

“The relocation process really put the tenants to a test,” said Franco.

One tenant objected to moving her sixty-five year old mother and daughter, since the girl would have trouble traveling to school. When she moved back she found her heat and hot water problems totally solved, which made them “another happy family,” according to Franco.

“I was inspired by the commitment level of the tenants,” Franco said. “They demonstrated a very strong sense of humility and individual accomplishment. It shows how much more meaningful activity can become within the context of a cooperative group.”

On June 26, UNHP expected to benefit from a 25 million dollar commitment which Fannie Mae has made to the Bronx. As a result, up to thirty unit buildings should be getting renovated.

“We’ll be identifying the properties and borrowers, as well as packaging applications,” Muriana said.

The new commitment should simplify the process of obtaining loans, Muriana said, since banks prefers to save administrative costs for underwriting by working only on large checks, which require the same amount of work as small ones.

“If the project works, we may get a pipeline functioning on a regular basis,” Muriana said. “And the Bronx will continue becoming more beautiful.”