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Brave New World

310–312 W 122nd St

West Harlem

Donna Parks never thought she would be in this position. A native New Yorker, she moved into a West Harlem rental with her parents in 1979 when she was only three years old. The building had seen better days, she recalls, noting that its lobby and hallways were rundown. It’s no wonder that when the landlord fell behind on his taxes, the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) took possession of it.

What a difference a few decades can make. Parks has stepped up from renting to owning: she’s a shareholder in that selfsame building at 310-312 West 122nd Street, which is now a cooperative corporation. The building, one of two, is no longer rundown. And Parks is president of the co-op board.

She and her neighbors owe their changed status to a city initiative, the Tenant Interim Lease (TIL) program. In TIL, city-owned properties are gut-renovated and sold back to the renter for $250. Tenant associations not only have a lease with the city to maintain and manage the properties, but they also receive training in co-op operations.

“You have this series of classes that you take in the TIL program that shows you how to manage your building,” Parks says. “You do get training from HPD and another organization called UHAB [Urban Homesteading Assistance Board]. You get that training from them on how to run your building once you’re no longer in the TIL program. They’re just little segments that they give you on how to manage your manager, how to run your building, how to work with tenants.”

Parks has gotten a taste of the pride that comes with ownership. “I feel good being in an ownership situation,” she says. “It makes me feel good to know that at a young age, I could own something.”

Parks recalls that when HPD made its offer to convert the building into a co-op in 2008, she and five other renters quickly accepted. She then spent two years in another HPD property, paying the same rent, while the city gut-renovated the two buildings. She returned in 2010 and was soon elected to the board.

That was a novel “brave new world” kind of experience for her, compared to rentals. “When you’re in a rental, you depend on the city or a landlord to take care of the building,” Parks says. “Being in a co-op [shows] you how to manage and to do things on your own – and when you move on after that, you have experience to run your own home. I will have that knowledge.” She says that being on the board is “like a full-time job. You have your regular 9-to-5 job. And this is another job you’re taking on.”

It’s a responsibility Parks takes very seriously. “At the end of the day,” she says, “if a job is not done properly or the rest of the board is not operating to the best of their ability, it comes back to me. We all share the same work tasks.”

The sales of the remaining vacant apartments, ranging from $185,000 to $205,000, brought in extra income that was placed in the reserve fund. “We made money, which we could use for future work,” she says. “Not all are so lucky.”

The board works closely with its manager, James Carbone at Finger Management, but Parks is very firm on this point: “We do not allow them to make decisions for us. They help us. Anything that has to be signed off on is signed off by the board unless we cannot get to the paperwork. Management will reach out to us, send it to us and say, ‘How should we proceed?’ Then we will say to them, ‘OK, let us look over it. Let the board deliberate, and we’ll get back to you.’ It’s for our own protection; the board wants to see everything.”

The current tenancy is a mixed bag. “You have some retirees, you have some middle-aged people, and you have some younger generation,” Parks says. “It’s a mixture. You have tenants who have lived here like 30, 40 years.” Serving with her on the board are Craig Gottlied, Steven Harper, Barbara Carazellensky, and Mikel Lyones. “We work well as a team,” Parks notes. “You have to learn new things, work with different people. You have to spend a lot of time, have a lot of communication, have a lot of patience. On the board, as time goes on, you learn to work with people who are different. At the group meetings, you get to learn different people’s culture and work together.”

Handling shareholders is another tricky task. “Some just don’t understand [about co-ops],” Parks says. “They pick a board to make decisions. Some shareholders feel that the board should present everything to them so that they can make the decision. That is very hard when we want to do something like paint our building: some want it red, some want it blue, some want it black. You cannot please everyone; it is just overwhelming.”

Despite the challenges of leaky walls and complaining shareholders, Parks is pleased to be in control of her own destiny. “I really love it,” she says. “I got a place that I was able to own. It is very good.”

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