Vol. 18, No. 25

Dec. 29, 2005 - Jan. 11, 2006


An Anniversary Measured in Buildings and Blocks


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 back in.

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 managing them.

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 different.

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 herself.

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

From these 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 buildings.

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 right to.

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 time.

“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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