850 Longwood Avenue has a long and varied history. When first built, it represented the best in luxury rental housing that the Bronx had to offer. Built beside the #2 and #5 IRT elevated subway lines, the building boasted spacious apartments, light, air, and the borough’s first elevator building when it first opened in 1925. For decades, the building thrived. But like much of the pre-war stocking stock making up the rental housing sector in New York City, urban disinvestment, redlining, crime, arson, landlord abandonment, and finally the crack epidemic turned this building into a dilapidated hulk, which by the late 1980s housed desperate tenants alogside crack dealers, drug users and prostitutes. Here is how Barry Bearak, in a 1992 Los Angeles Times article, described existing conditions in the late 80s to early 90s:
850 Longwood was described as a “weary old building, “with…mangled front door and paint smeared across…the portico.” He goes on to say that “drug operations thrive…taking grasp like creeping vines and spreading floor to floor. With them follow…fires, vermin and a mortal spray of gunfire.”
By 1987, the crack epidemic destroyed this building and the social norms that existing between and among residents in the same way that crack destroyed the South Bronx (and other urban neighborhoods), along with an entire generation of our youth. By 1990, the local crack dealer who resided in the building was looked upon as the de facto landlord, controlling access and services.
Around this time, Banana Kelly got involved with the project. Our organizer at the time began working with residents and working concurrently around and through the drug dealers and their constant parade of customers and transient boarders. By the end of 1990, we were able to convince the city that there was enough resident involvement and interest to warrant financing. Banana Kelly was able to secure title from the Bank of Tokyo in 1991 and concurrently closed on $2.2 million in construction loan funds from the city, through its Department of Housing Preservation and Development, and through a private loan from the Community Preservation Corporation.
It took a long time to sort through the problems in the building, and although work commenced and much work was completed, by 1993 the project started to fall into arrears on all of it financial obligations. Vendor and mechanics liens began piling up due to non-payment for work performed and goods purchased. We fell behind on mortgage payments and failed to complete the work required by our building loan contracts. As a series of investigations proceeded against Banana Kelly, as sponsor and developer for this rehab project, the private lender felt compelled in 2000 to commence foreclosure proceedings against the 850 Longwood Avenue HDFC.
While all of this was going on, and Banana Kelly was headed towards the brink of bankruptcy, one of the ongoing investigations – by the New York State Attorney General – began to prepare a petition that was intended to be filed in the Bronx Supreme Court. The relief requested, had the papers been served and filed, would have been for the forced removal of the board of directors and executive staff of Banana Kelly from Banana Kelly and all its affiliated housing companies. By this time, 400 units under the organization’s control had been transferred to a holding company by the group’s primary investor in low income housing tax credit properties. Of its remaining portfolio of 23 buildings with nearly 600 units, three buildings (including 850) were in mortgage foreclosure by private lenders; five buildings were scheduled for in rem foreclosure by the city; these same fire buildings were in bankruptcy court; most of the tenants were part of a massive rent strike; all of the union service employees had been fired in violation of our collective bargaining agreement; there were millions of dollars-worth of municipal and private debt, liens popping up from all directions, and deplorable living conditions for the 2,000 or so residents that were in these buildings.
In November of 2002, through a set of voluntary agreements, the Banana Kelly board and executive staff were removed by the Attorney General and replaced by a new board selected by then Attorney General Elliott Spitzer. This new board, faced with an effectively bankrupt organization and deplorable living conditions for its tenants, and left with six staff members operating out of one office, proceeded to correct the myriad problems (with much help from partners in and out of government). Of course, one top priority was getting 850 Longwood back on track.
In 2004, we settled the foreclosure action and closed on a new rehab/refinance loan with the city and CPC. The work needed required relocating all of the residents, which took time. We also started with one contractor, and then needed to hire a new contractor when the original contractor got caught up in a local scandal. But by 2009, all of the work was completed and we were ready to convert from construction to permanent financing. But this was not to be. Sometime that spring, Banana Kelly’s construction manager informed us that there was a gap between the floor and wall on one of the lines of apartments. He was instructed to place a ¾” molding along the space and seal it, the thinking being that this is an old building and settlement is not surprising.
A week later he came back to the office to inform us that the space had now expanded above the molding that was installed. Now, we knew we had a problem – and a potentially life-threatening one. We immediately proceeded to vacate three complete lines with over 15 households out of fear that we could have an interior building collapse. And it is a good thing that we did.
Upon review and assessment of the situation, it became clear that sometime in the early 1990s someone had done work in the basement. As part of that work, a structural beam was replaced. The beam was properly sized for the five floors of load it would carry, but instead of placing the full wooden beam on top of the steel beam that ran masonry to masonry, the wooden beam was “notched” so that is could be placed on the 2” lip making up the lower portion of the I-Beam. Upon inspection, that beam was buckling and would have collapsed eventually, pulling down five floors on three apartment lines with it.
We were, of course, grateful that we were able to catch this problem in time. It goes without saying that this further delayed the project, while adding substantial relocation costs as well. Due to this problem and the resulting assessment and recommendations by structural engineers, it became necessary to place reinforcing steel throughout the building, which in turn required us to relocate all tenants both inside (through “checker-boarding”) and outside the building.
It is now November of 2016. The building, with 35 units and 6 storefronts, has been completed renovated and tenanted for more than two years. Finally, on November 4th , 2016 we closed on permanent financing – finally putting to rest 25 years of construction financing drama and tenants unable to feel permanently at home in their homes. The beauty of this building has been restored. Our tenants now live in stable, affordable housing. As we have reached this important and long, strived-for milestone, this important neighborhood landmark stands as a metaphor for what can be accomplished when government, a local community development group, lenders, property managers, elected officials, and tenants work together to accomplish great things. We are truly proud of this work and appreciate all the assistance we have had, and the patience and dedication of our residents who cooperated and facilitated this process at every, difficult phase.