The tenants take charge. For these low-income families, a 10-year battle for decent housing pays off

LOW-INCOME families who fight and win the battle to keep their homes represent a ray of hope in a city where homelessness is a bleak fact of life for so many. Today, 31 low-income Hispanic families enjoy neat, well-kept apartments in two rehabbed 90-year-old buildings at 309-313 East Houston Street on Manhattan's Lower East Side. They fought for ten years to save the property from complete deterioration and destruction, and finally managed to buy it and do the renovations.

``This is a big victory for poor people who want decent housing. Some of us don't even speak English, but look at the way we have succeeded in our fight!'' says Gloria Constanza, a seamstress who is president of the tenant association that waged the decade-long battle.

Had their project to save their homes failed at any point, these families, too, could have become homeless statistics. With the help of two community agencies, they have instead become tenant-owners. Their homes are secure and their buildings function properly, providing not only a mended roof over their heads, but reliable heat and hot water and new plumbing.

Some of the tenants receive public assistance. Many work at low-paying jobs in factories and restaurants. Their incomes range between $4,000 and $13,000 a year. Few are high school graduates. Most came from Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic.

It was on one of the coldest days in 1977 that a few of these weary and neglected tenants went to Pueblo Nuevo, a Lower East Side multi-service community group, to ask for help in organizing themselves to get the essential building services they were entitled to.

The tenants, all women, reported that their landlord refused to purchase a new boiler, repair frozen pipes and gaping holes in the walls, mend the roof, or evict the drug addicts who loitered in hallways and empty apartments. They were also tired of coping with mice and roaches.

As a first step, they were helped to bring legal action to have an court-appointed administrator collect rents and spend them toward necessary maintenance of the buildings, with the approval of the tenants committee. Then, the tenants elected a board who cared deeply about their homes and were willing to learn the ropes of how to save them.

Later, with a $35,000 grant from the Community Service Society of New York, the tenants purchased the buildings for $36,000, only to find that the New York City Housing Department was threatening to repossess the property because of a tax debt of almost $200,000. Fortunately, they found that through a section of the Private Housing Finance Law, overdue taxes could either be absorbed by the city or payment on them extended. The tenant organization was relieved of paying over $108,000 in back taxes, and agreed to pay the remaining $76,000 over 25 years at 3 percent interest.

The tenant committee was helped first by Pueblo Nuevo and then by the Community Service Society to apply for city and state rehabilitation loans to purchase a new boiler, replace water supply and waste pipes, rewire both buildings, repoint the exterior masonry, repair the roof, and install new bathroom fixtures. In all, the tenants received $257,000 from government sources.

Owners rehabbed their own apartments, cleaned up the halls, and fixed up a community room in the basement for meetings and social gatherings. Several of the men volunteered to clean the refuse out of the back yard, repair the stairs, and wash the hall floors daily. The next project will be a party-like ``paint-in,'' with all tenants gathering to paint the hallways as well as eat some good food.

``We all know each other and help each other,'' says Ana Cruz, who is vice-president of the tenant organization and also manages a street-level beauty shop, one of three commercial spaces in the buildings. Her apartment, like others visited, was meticulously neat and clean. Plastic fitted slipcovers protected upholstered sofa and chairs. Many children live in the units, and there is much neighborly chatting in the hallways.

Since November, when the rent roll went up from $6,000 to $10,000 in order to meet the expenses, rents have averaged from $250 a month per four-room apartment to $312.50 for five-room apartments.

Pueblo Nuevo still acts as building manager, collects rents, and keeps building records. Meanwhile, the tenant-owners are continuing to learn the technical aspects of handling property, the financial implications of ownership, and what management responsibilities are.

Howard Banker, housing specialist with the Community Service Society's Ownership Transfer Project, remarks, ``It is not an easy chore for these tenants to learn how to get involved in taking care of their own buildings. But we teach them how to negotiate with contractors, see that jobs are properly done, how to find the right kind of insurance, and how to keep income and expenses in balance.''

Mr. Banker says that he feels the struggle and the victory of the East Houston Street families can serve as a model for poor families throughout the city.

``This group overcame many things and has been willing to learn and to do,'' he says. ``The women leaders have worked with heart and have proven themselves to be real fighters and very capable. And the men have had the good sense to go along and let them run the place and be proud of their accomplishment.''

The ongoing Ownership Transfer Project of the Community Service Society (a non-profit social service institution that serves low-income families in many ways) has helped families living in 600 units in 21 older structures around the city, buy, rehabilitate, and run their their buildings as a co-op.

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