18, No. 25
Dec. 29, 2005 -
Jan. 11, 2006
An Anniversary Measured in
Buildings and Blocks
By JORDAN MOSS
When 2674 Valentine Ave. went abandoned in 1978 and only one
tenant was left, residents of its neighbor to the south, 2670 Valentine,
rallied to help. Having learned from their own school of hard knocks, they
paid the fuel bills so the pipes wouldn’t freeze and eventually people moved
In a microcosm, that’s what happened to the neighborhood of North Fordham.
Time and time again, neighbors added to their already busy lives the
unexpected responsibility of protecting their own living situations and then
lending their expertise to others.
It is also the story of Fordham Bedford Housing Corporation as it celebrates
its 25th anniversary this month.
In the late 1970s, the embers of destruction in the south Bronx were still
glowing. So, as buildings fell into difficulty locally, the infamous
infernos were the obvious reference point. The ending of the horror movie
had already played out in a theater nearby and no one was interested in
seeing a repeat performance.
“The sense that people had was that the abandonment that we heard about
below Fordham Road was about to hit above Fordham Road,” said Jim Buckley,
then a young community organizer for the Fordham Bedford Community Coalition
and now the executive director of University Neighborhood Housing Program.
“We were all concerned about what was coming.”
For some, the danger was all too real. Landlords abandoned buildings like
2656 Decatur Ave., where an overwhelmed city just recovering from the fiscal
crisis took over that property and many others, but weren’t capable of
Disinvestment and redlining by banks abandoning inner-city neighborhoods
starved the community of the kind of loans necessary to maintain healthy
buildings. Though the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition (NWBCCC)
and other grassroots groups succeeded in getting the Community Reinvestment
Act (CRA) through Congress, there was a lag time before that legislation
would prove useful.
“There was a gap in people understanding what CRA was,” Buckley said.
“Groups like ours had to figure out how to get banks to do something
Meanwhile, tenants like Fran Sullivan, a resident of 2656 Decatur, stepped
up to care for their buildings, collecting rents and delivering services. At
2665 Decatur, Eartha L. Ferguson did the same, working with an administrator
appointed by the city and eventually becoming the manager of the building
Ferguson and Sullivan, who had careers unrelated to housing management, were
among the many who participated in frequent meetings of the Fordham Bedford
Community Coalition as they met and strategized about how to help buildings
in similar circumstances. Both went on to long careers as managers with the
Housing Corporation. (Sullivan died last May.)
This indigenous leadership was critical to Fordham Bedford’s early
successes. “The neighborhood was fortunate to get the kind of internal
leadership that it developed,” said John Reilly, Fordham Bedford’s executive
director. “[There was] a lot of support from community leaders, who [helped]
when their own buildings were not directly affected but knew what the
repercussions would be.”
Building by building
community residents, who by necessity had become housing experts together
with NWBCCC staff organizers, came the idea to form the housing corporation.
If they could pool their experiences and harness resources from the city’s
housing programs and private foundations, maybe they could save many more
The first money came from the Campaign for Human Development, a Catholic-run
charity. When Monsignor Ahearn visited the group’s fledgling leaders, he
asked what they would do if they didn’t get the grant. “We’ll do it anyway,”
vowed Sullivan or another iron-willed local leader, as Buckley remembers it.
It was a risky way to entice a funder, but it took that kind of moxie to get
the job done at a time when landlords looking to sell were intentionally
driving out tenants by depriving them of basic services. Into that vacuum
came the speculators and even hucksters trying to collect rents they had no
At the beginning, just after it incorporated as a nonprofit in 1980, Fordham
Bedford, which didn’t even have a staff yet, purchased 260 E. 194th St. for
$100 from a landlord who wanted to wash his hands of it. The 15-unit
building had 10 empties. With only a board and volunteers to help, Fordham
Bedford got the building back up and running. Had it been allowed to go
abandoned, it could have spurred even greater neglect, said Monsignor John
Jenik, pastor of Our Lady of Refuge Church, who was a parish priest at the
“If that went [vacant] right on the corner there, it would probably take the
whole commercial strip with it,” said Jenik, who is chair of Fordham
Bedford’s board. “Who wants to go shopping [next to an abandoned building]?”
Over the years, building by building, Fordham Bedford acquired its portfolio
by piecing together loan money, grant funding and financing from city
programs. It now owns 70 buildings and manages eight co-ops. But the
Corporation’s trademark blue-and-white signs on each of its buildings do not
mark all of its accomplishments. There are dozens of other instances,
especially in the early days, where they provided technical assistance to
tenants keeping their buildings running until a landlord reappeared or a
different owner came on the scene.
In a process known as a 7A, the city has appointed Fordham Bedford to take
over the management of about 20 problem buildings. They eventually acquired
many of those properties.
And beginning in the 1990s, Fordham Bedford added a number of community
projects and programs to knit together its successes transforming buildings.
In addition to creating Concourse House, a women’s shelter, it started
Fordham Bedford Children’s Services, which provides an array of after-school
programs. It also spearheaded a number of community improvement projects
including the revitalization of Poe Park. Staff are currently working to
create an attractive pathway out of two crumbling streets leading to the new
Bronx Main Library on Kingsbridge Road.
For the future, Reilly says Fordham Bedford hopes to build new affordable
housing units and renovate some vacant private homes.
The Corporation cannot be everywhere, of course. Stressing the company’s
roots in tenant organizing, Reilly says, “Tenants still need to organize if
they’re not getting repairs.”
And if tenants need some guidance in how to do that, many of the people
central to this inspiring story are still around.
Like Eartha Ferguson. Her building incorporated in 1992 as a co-op. She’s
still managing her building and about 10 other properties for Fordham
Bedford. “I was there then and I’m there now,” she said.
After a quarter century, so is Fordham Bedford Housing Corporation.
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