Fighting for the Right to Remain in Southwest Yonkers

    Waverly Arms is a federally subsidized building located in southwest Yonkers that my organization, Tenants & Neighbors—a tenant advocacy group—has been involved with since 2008. The building’s tenants have weathered their share of issues over the years, including conditions that almost led to a HUD foreclosure and the expiration of federal subsidies. And today, the residents are still under threat: Waverly Arms is up for sale. This situation is just one example of the diminishing supply of affordable housing within a landscape of increasing real estate market pressure across Yonkers and the campaign by housing advocates for preservation underscores the need for federal involvement in keeping affordable housing in gentrifying neighborhoods.

    Margaret Butler moved into Waverly Arms when the building first opened, over 40 years ago. The residents are tight-knit and the building functions almost like a family with most of the tenants having lived there over 20 years. Waverly Arms tenants also have strong connections to their neighborhood, which Butler describes as “safe, comfortable, and with a strong sense of community … which is why most of us have been here for so long.”

    A faith-based community development corporation built Waverly Arms with a HUD mortgage subsidy through the Section 236 program in the 1970s. Five units in the 29-unit building also receive project-based Section 8 subsidy. But at some point, Waverly Arms transitioned into private ownership and the new owner did not establish a clear line of communication with the tenants. In Butler’s words, tenants no longer had a sense of “who they were dealing with.” The conditions in the building declined rapidly in the mid-2000s. After it failed two Real Estate Assessment Center (REAC) inspections in 2007 and 2008, HUD began foreclosure proceedings on the building. Around the same time, the owners attempted to impose a 50 percent rent hike.

    At that point, Waverly Arms tenants working with Tenants & Neighbors and CLUSTER actively engaged HUD in the conversation about conditions and rents in the building. They successfully fought off the rent increase in 2009 and were able to put pressure on the owner to make enough repairs to prevent foreclosure.

    In 2012, Tenants & Neighbors began working with Waverly Arms under HUD’s Tenant Resource Network (TRN) program, established to preserve HUD-assisted affordable housing through tenant education and organizing. Tenants & Neighbors was able to hire a full-time HUD organizer and extend organizing and tenant education efforts to 16 additional properties facing expiring HUD-subsidies across New York State under TRN.

    Across the nation, 15 other tenant advocacy groups receive funding to work on HUD-subsidized housing preservation through its TRN program. In many cases, TRN funding enables groups to have expanded capacity. For example, Tenants Union of Washington State has been able to expand its work to a new city and engage with a multilingual building by hiring Swahili, Amharic, and Vietnamese translators, according to Eliana Horn, the Tenants Union’s TRN organizer.

    Initially, Waverly Arms tenants and Mariel De La Cruz, Tenants & Neighbors’ HUD organizer, campaigned for HUD subsidy contract extension to prevent a sale. Tenants participated in strategy meetings and workshops. After it became evident that the owner was not planning to refinance with HUD, tenants asked the owner to pre-pay the mortgage. Although usually, tenants seeking to preserve their affordable housing organize against prepayments, under a prepayment tenants qualify for enhanced Section 8 vouchers, which give them the right to remain in their apartments after subsidy-based restrictions and protections no longer apply. However, there is no such protection for tenants if the mortgage expires. Unfortunately, the owner allowed the mortgage to expire in Waverly Arms, and as a result, the tenants were not eligible for the enhanced vouchers.

    As the building’s future is unsure, De La Cruz worked with Waverly Arms tenants to explore other preservation avenues, including transition into rent stabilization, qualification for ordinary Section 8 vouchers, and other forms of housing subsidies like tax credits. Tenants engaged State Assemblywoman Shelley Mayer in their campaign, who reached out to city and state finance agencies and the Municipal Housing Authority.

    Yet while this work was ramping up, the owner put Waverly Arms on the market. On one hand, this action left Waverly Arms in a precarious situation. “We don’t know if Waverly Arms will stay affordable, especially for older tenants on fixed incomes,” said Butler. On the other hand, the sale presents an opportunity for a gut renovation, better management, and a commitment to long-term affordability from a new owner. After learning about the sale, tenants switched gears, refocusing on a search for a preservation purchaser.

    Systematically Shut Out

    Waverly Arms’ impending sale takes place in the context of a rental market that is increasingly inaccessible to low-income tenants. According to 2008-2012 American Community Survey five-year estimates, 55 percent of renters in Yonkers spend more than a third of their income on housing. Southwest Yonkers, like the rest of the city, has experienced a significant rise in housing prices.

    Housing costs and availability in southwest Yonkers are rooted in a broader history of planning and policy decisions by the city. The area was once an active manufacturing center on the Hudson River waterfront. In the second half of the twentieth century, the city undertook a wholesale slum clearance and low-income housing development approach to the neighborhood after the area lost much of its manufacturing base. By the 1980s, southwest Yonkers contained the majority of the city’s public and subsidized housing. The area became the focal point of a Federal desegregation suit against the city filed by the United States Department of Justice and the local branch of the NAACP. In a landmark ruling, Judge Leonard B. Sand found that the concentration of subsidized housing in southwest Yonkers “was the result of a pattern and practice of racial discrimination by city officials, pursued in response to constituent pressures to select or support only sites that would preserve existing patterns of racial segregation,” as quoted in a 1985 New York Times article.

    Judge Sand ordered the city to build or set aside 800 units of low-income housing in white and middle class East Yonkers. What followed was a contentious 27-year legal ordeal. The Yonkers City Council, under pressure from East Yonkers homeowners’ groups, resisted and appealed Judge Sand’s housing remedy into the late 1980s. Judge Sand levied fines on both the city and the dissenting individual councilmembers. The resistance to the desegregation remedy broke in 1988, when the city was on the verge of bankruptcy, with closed libraries, suspended trash collection, and looming layoffs for city employees. The final affordable units in East Yonkers were not completed until 2007.

    But during that 27-year period, Southwest Yonkers underwent significant changes. Developers saw an opportunity in the neighborhood’s proximity to the Hudson River waterfront and easy access to transit. New luxury towers went up along the Hudson River. The city commissioned a massive redevelopment plan for a 112-acre brownfield site in the neighborhood. In an interview with lohud.com, Herman Keith, the former president of the Yonkers NAACP, stated his concern that “the Southwest Yonkers neighborhoods that had found a political voice in the desegregation struggle now faced the threat of gentrification.”

    The loss of affordable housing like Waverly Arms from market pressure would be devastating to both its current residents and to future generations of low-income tenants. Assemblywoman Mayer stated that she didn’t know where the building’s tenants would go if the units were lost. It is likely that they would have to leave the neighborhood altogether, losing local networks and social capital they have developed in both the building and the neighborhood. Butler said she is “hoping and praying that the purchaser will consider the people who have built their lives” in Waverly Arms.

    Affordable housing preservation is a slow process that happens “a building at a time,” says Assemblywoman Mayer. While the need for new construction sometimes overshadows the need to preserve existing housing, it is equally important. Federally subsidized developments like Waverly Arms provide a depth of affordability not present in most recently constructed affordable housing. Project based Section 8 developments receive an operating subsidy from HUD, unlike developments built under more recent tax credit programs, making the individual units more affordable to lower-income households. Further, with the deregulation of each subsidized development, substantial public subsidies for construction and operation are lost.

    Preservation is a broader systemic issue affecting HUD developments across the country that requires a significant infusion of federal funding. As cities across the country experience gentrification—frequently in neighborhoods that underwent the cycle of disinvestment, slum clearance, and aggressive reinvestment—the need for a systemic approach to HUD-subsidized property preservation is greater than ever. Programs like TRN contribute to preservation in a unique way, allowing tenants to play an active role in the process.

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