For Patricia Crawford, board president of the Garden Court cooperative at 208 West 119th Street, Harlem has always been home. She was born in Harlem Hospital, the eldest of five children of a father who drove a city bus and a mother who worked as a respiratory nurse. Crawford spent her early years within a six-block radius in central Harlem, finally moving in 1973 to Garden Court, which was then privately owned affordable housing. “Back then, Harlem was a wonderful place to live, where you knew all your neighbors, they looked out for your children, and we all considered each other family,” says Crawford, who married a school custodian and raised two children. “There was a strong sense of pride and identity, whether you were working-class or on welfare.”
The residents at Garden Court, a pair of five-story buildings totalling 157-units that sit between 118th and 119th Streets, enjoyed that same sense of community, even after the city seized the building in 1996 because the owner failed to pay property taxes. “The transition was seamless,” Crawford recalls. “It was still well maintained and everything stayed pretty much the same.” But after several years, cracks began to show. Repairs weren’t being done and the building deteriorated, especially the once-beautiful courtyard, a hub where residents gathered with their kids, keeping them in the playground and off the streets.
The changes at Garden Court mirrored Harlem’s decline during the crack cocaine epidemic and the rampant crime that came with it; Crawford’s apartment was burglarized, as were the apartments of several neighbors. “Harlem went down because of drugs and abandoned buildings,” she says. At the same time, a related trend was unfolding. The city was seizing thousands of derelict buildings and fixing them up, then allowing tenants to buy their apartments for nominal amounts and turn the buildings into low-income Housing Development Fund Corporation (HDFC) co-ops. In exchange, the fledgling cooperators were granted tax subsidies to keep maintenance low. In 2000, the tenants at Garden Court banded together, took out a $400,000 mortgage and incorporated as an HDFC. It was a new day.
But starting in 2003, the co-op’s property taxes inexplicably began rising. The bills jumped from $108,015 that year to $634,828 in 2015 – a punishing 588 percent increase its tenants simply could not afford. “We were in dire straits,” says Josh Koppel, president at HSC Management and Garden Court’s property manager. For Crawford and her fellow shareholders, the challenges began the moment Garden Court went co-op in October 2000. In addition to the mortgage, other expenses quickly piled up, including hiring a new management company, superintendent, janitors, and other staff. The century-old structure also needed extensive capital improvements, from a new roof, windows, and trash compactors to masonry repairs. To fund those projects, in2002, Garden Court took out three additional loans: $75,000 from the Harlem Community Development Corporation; $304,000 from the Article 8A Loan Program, offered by the city’s department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD); and $1.4 million from the Low Income Investment Fund.
That same year, the indefatigable Crawford, who had recently retired from her job as underwriting director at New York Life Insurance and become a public health educator at Harlem Hospital Center, stepped up as board president. “I had my hands full meeting the tons and tons of requirements for those three loans and overseeing all the repairs, which went on through 2006,” she says. But she and the board were facing a far more serious financial problem: Garden Court’s out-of-control real estate taxes. “Every year we’d get hit with a dramatically bigger bill, and Pat and I couldn’t make any sense of it,” says Koppel. “At the same time, oil prices had spiked, and insurance and labor costs were going up. Our maintenance income couldn’t cover our expenses, and we had to start robbing Peter to pay Paul. Before we knew it, we owed the city $100,000, and by 2015 we owed seven times that.”
Crawford, Koppel, and the board appealed to HPD in the hopes it could untangle the mess. “But HPD wanted income certification forms of at least 80 percent of Garden Court’s residents before they would even consider helping us,” says Crawford. The board held shareholder meetings, sent mailings and made phone calls, but could never get enough people to respond. “The shareholders seemed to think the tax situation was all my fault,” she says. “I think it was out of fear and desperation, but it was not pleasant to know that people didn’t trust or respect you.”The board started knocking on other doors, including the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board (UHAB), a nonprofit that helps support affordable co-ops and tenant associations. At Crawford’s suggestion, they also met with State Senator Bill Perkins and District 9 Councilmember Inez Dickens.
“None of them could help us, and everything kept defaulting back to HPD,” says Koppel. “We were running around in circles.” The lawyer the board hired in 2011 also failed to make any headway. “He had done good work getting refunds at other co-ops we managed, but never got any traction for Garden Court,” says Koppel. The agreement specified the lawyer would work until the matter was resolved, but in 2015, Crawford, Koppel, and the board asked to be released from the contract. By that time, Garden Court owed $730,000 in taxes.
A Costly Mistake
In May of 2015, they brought in attorney Scott Goldberg, a co-owner of Metropolitan Refunds, which specializes in real estate tax programs at the city’s Department of Finance (DOF). His analysis quickly revealed that Crawford and Koppel had indeed been chasing a false lead. Garden Court’s tax nightmare boiled down to one issue: in 2003, the co-op filed a J51 application with HPD, a property tax exemption for renovating a residential apartment building, but the co-op had never received the exemption. Affordable housing projects, including HDFCs, generally get a 34-year exemption from property tax increases resulting from the improvements they make. “We found that Garden Court didn’t have that protection, and as a result the city kept increasing the value of the property, and their taxes went through the roof,” says Goldberg. “They were in an impossible situation and at risk of their mortgage lender holding them in default.”
How did the mistake happen? “Simply put, HPD determines whether an HDFC qualifies for an exemption and for how much, but it’s the DOF that issues the tax bills, and they’re not always in sync,” Goldberg explains. In this case, the DOF assessor did not properly record that it was J51-related work that increased the assessed value of Garden Court. As a result, between 2003 and2015, the co-op had been overcharged $3.3 million. Goldberg sent a letter and documents to the DOF. “To their credit, the DOF understood the dire situation of this building and agreed with my analysis,” he says. Garden Court’s tax bills from 2010 to 2015 were adjusted retroactively, and the co-op received a check for $1.7 million last January. “Things didn’t always go smoothly with the DOF, but it all worked out in the end,” Goldberg adds. “We’re still working with them to go back to 2005. It appears the DOF will adjust the account shortly, which should result in Garden Court receiving another $800,000.” And there’s another upside. “Now that the J51 is in place, their taxes will be frozen at around $100,000, which is roughly what they were before the renovations were done. That means Garden Court will save over $630,000 every year until the exemption expires in 2038, which comes to more than $12 million.” When Goldberg relayed the news with a PowerPoint presentation at a packed meeting in Garden Court’s community room last November, people stood up and cheered. “Someone actually shouted, ‘Good job, Patricia!’” says Crawford. “Scott had called me earlier to tell me about it when I was at work. I was so elated I just started weeping quietly to myself.”
Back to the Way It Used to Be
Those quiet tears say a lot about Patricia Crawford, a woman who has seen Harlem – and her home – go through decline and rebirth, a woman who has known both a sense of community and the sting of her neighbors’ distrust and disrespect. “Everything is so different in Harlem today,” says this 66-year-old Harlem native and lifelong resident. “We have different ethnicities, we’re more in touch with how other people live – a lot differently from how we grew up. I think it’s better today. There’s less crime and better schools.” As for Garden Court, she adds, “I make sure I know everyone. Anything I can do for anyone, I just do it. I think that comes from my upbringing. My gratification is being able to walk into a building that’s clean and know that people regard me with respect.”
“It is possible to fight City Hall and win, but this wouldn’t have happened without Pat,” says Koppel. “She worried day and night about every tenant, and worked so hard for them, always believing there was a solution. She never gave up.” Where did Crawford find the energy? “I wonder that myself sometimes,” she says. “I still have my hands full. But it’s all worth it. This building always had spirit, and now it’s back to the way it used to be.”