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The Trials and Tribulations Of Rebuilding Brownstones

By Adam TannerSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / February 15, 1995



NEW YORK

ATTORNEY Robert Van Lierop looked across New York City for a spacious, elegant home, and decided that Harlem is as good as it gets.

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''I love old houses and beautiful Victorian architecture and detailing, and I wanted some peace and quiet,'' he says. ''I found both here.''

Mr. Van Lierop is one of a growing number of prosperous blacks and others who are moving to Harlem to spruce up turn-of-the-century town houses, most of which predate the arrival of blacks to Harlem before World War I.

''Relatively speaking, our town houses are a bargain,'' says broker Willie Suggs, who specializes in Harlem brownstones. ''You can buy a whole house for the price of a stupid little dumpy two-bedroom co-op'' elsewhere in Manhattan.

Average prices for four-story Harlem town houses range from $140,000 to $450,000, far below the Manhattan average of $1.9 million, Mr. Suggs says. The catch is that many of the brownstones are in need of restoration and sometimes total rehab.

In 1988, Van Lierop undertook the most ambitious of Harlem townhouse purchases: He bought a $140,000, four-story limestone home in Hamilton Heights that had been vacant for years and in need of complete overhaul. ''I had to go through a tortuous process to convert it,'' he says. ''I really worked at it day and night.''

For Van Lierop, bureaucracy presented as many hurdles as did the actual details of construction.

Take the ''certificate of nonharassment'' for example. Before rebuilding an abandoned or vacant house, the owner must prove to the city that the previous tenants have no claim on the property. Since many town houses were formerly boardinghouses with many residents, just figuring out this roster can require Sherlock Holmes.

Such bureaucratic hassles facing homeowners have overwhelmed even city officials such as Dennis Derryck, the director of commercial development at the Harlem Urban Development Corporation. ''Never again in Harlem; I don't want to have to go through it again,'' says Mr. Derryck, whose effort to refurbish a shell of a building into a livable home took three years.

Other people never get even that far. ''Many people don't know what it involves to redo brownstones,'' says Rev. Preston Washington, head of Harlem Congregations for Community Improvement, an alliance of churches that oversees construction projects. ''These people put all their money into these shells and they're still shells.''

Among the horror stories are contractors walking off the job when they realize how much work is involved, theft at building sites, or banks foreclosing after owners underestimate the cost of re building.

In some regards, it is easier today to buy town houses in central Harlem than in the past when it was very difficult to get bank loans, partially for racial reasons. Now ''there are many more lenders paying attention to what the credit needs are in this community,'' says Mike Lappin, president of the Community Development Corporation, a consortium of banks and financial institutions.

For all the hassles, those who do succeed in fixing up Harlem's brownstones are often delighted by the result. ''It's tough, it's hard,'' says Van Lierop, but ''it's satisfying and rewarding.''