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Harlem Tenants Fear Displacement After 203(k) Scandal
By Alex Schafran

In the latest development in the 203(k) housing scandal that has rocked Harlem and the rest of the city, the Congressional Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations held hearings into the scandal at the Adam Clayton Powell Jr. State Office Building on 125th Street on Sept. 10. The hearings, which were chaired by Rep. Sue Kelly (R-NY), were also attended by Democrats Rep. Charles Rangel (from upper Manhattan), Rep. Steve Israel (Long Island), and local City Councilmember Bill Perkins, among others.

Testimony was divided into three panels: one of government bureaucrats from the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the General Accounting Office, another of victims of the scandal, and a third panel of experts from local community development organizations, foundations and HPD. The focus of the first panel was to delve into what went wrong, and the panelists, Assistant HUD Secretary John C. Weicher, GAO Director of Physical Infrastructure Stanley J. Czerwinski, and HUD Assistant Inspector General Robert C. Groves, attempted to explain how a lack of oversight by HUD and by lenders allowed the government to be defrauded of tens of millions of dollars. The congressional representatives, especially Kelly, seemed focused on the role of former HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo, now a New York Democratic gubernatorial contender.

Next to speak were those who were directly affected by the scandal. At first, the panel was scheduled to include only two potential homeowners whose efforts to purchase homes in Harlem were thwarted. After a last-minute cry that none of the almost 600 tenants left in miserable conditions by the scandal was being heard from, Rep. Kelly’s office agreed to allow Glorie Browne, a tenant at 74 West 131st St., to testify.

Browne, whose building was without heat and hot water last winter, and who has suffered through leaky ceilings, damaged walls, and water shut-offs, spoke eloquently and forcefully and captured the attention of all present, especially Rep. Rangel. "What we are most worried about," she commented,

"is the threat that the new owners, whether they are private owner-occupiers, not-for-profit groups, or speculators looking for properties to "flip," may try to displace the existing tenants from our buildings or to raise the rents beyond what we can afford."

Of particular concern to tenants and tenant activists is the lack of tenant participation in the process deciding the final disposition of the buildings. Of the 166 buildings in Harlem affected by the scandal, approximately 60 are occupied, yet no tenants or tenant groups were invited to sit either on the third panel or at the previous meetings held to discuss what to do. "In order to prevent this tragic event from happening again, it is imperative that tenants be a part of the discussions pertaining to what happens to their homes. These tenants have to become empowered and must demand participation in discussions regarding their tenant destinies," said Liz Hernandez, an organizer with the West Side SRO Law Project.

Although the third panel, which included HPD Commissioner Jerilyn Perine and Abyssinian Development Corporation President Karen Phillips, addressed the need for HUD to provide adequate funds for this project to enable a substantial portion of the buildings to remain low-income or moderate income, the interests of tenants were never broached.

A group of tenants living in 203(k) buildings, who have named themselves the 203(k) Survivors, marched outside the building before the hearings to make sure their voices were heard. Tenant demands include: no displacement, either through rent increases or evictions, full repairs and services from HUD or HPD until the final disposition is agreed upon, and the maximum number of opportunities for tenant-controlled housing, whether through limited-equity co-ops, mutual housing associations or other mechanism.

Tenants then filed in to support Glorie Browne, who has been an active part of the group. Councilmember Perkins, whose office was integrally involved in bringing the scandal to light, addressed the crowd, assuring tenants in Harlem affected by this scam that he was going to make sure that tenants would not be displaced.

Inside the hearings, Browne reiterated tenant demands. "We demand to be included in any discussions about the future of our homes!" she stated forcefully. "And we want assurances that we will have substantial opportunities to explore the possibility of bringing some of our buildings under tenants’ ownership and/or control."

As the scandal moves forward and another long winter with terrible conditions and sporadic heat and hot water approaches, tenants and tenant supporters remain committed to the fight to make their voices heard, especially in the debate over what to do. Tenants have been encouraged by the recent cooperation of HUD, which started meeting with tenants over the summer. These meetings already resulted in repairs made some occupied buildings. But unless tenants’ opinions are solicited by those making the decisions regarding the future of their homes, no solution will be complete.