When Andrew Reicher arrived in New York in the 1970s, the Bronx was burning and the Daily News summed up the president’s attitude toward the city with the infamous headline “Ford to City: Drop Dead.” But Reicher, a native of Syracuse, N.Y., knew he had found his calling after working in the South Bronx. He soon joined the fledgling Urban Homesteading Assistance Board (UHAB), a nonprofit that has helped turn more than 1,000 derelict buildings into thriving low-income co-ops. He became UHAB’s executive director in 1981, and after 41 years of service, he retired in December. Reicher spoke with Habitat about his long tenure and its rewards.
Lightbulb moment. I was a graduate student in architecture at UC Berkeley when this guy named Don Terner showed up and gave a lecture about affordable housing in New York City. He had recently founded UHAB, a nonprofit to help rent-stabilized tenants create their own housing. That’s when I decided that’s what I was really interested in. I quit architecture school, became a VISTA volunteer and ended up working in New York with a group called South Bronx Community Housing. I did go back to California to work under Terner, who led the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development, but in 1978 I got offered a job at UHAB. The city had just started something called the Tenant Interim Lease (TIL) program, and I moved to New York for good.
Great expectations. Back then you had all these derelict buildings in the Bronx, Harlem, the Lower East Side and all through Brooklyn. Despite the efforts of the city to crack down on negligent landlords who weren’t paying their taxes by taking over their buildings, more and more buildings were being abandoned, and they were in terrible condition. A homesteading movement had taken hold where tenants were taking control of their buildings and fending for themselves. Through TIL we helped residents lease the buildings and trained them how to run and manage them as co-ops — how to run a board, keep the books, collect maintenance and do repairs. The city would sell the buildings to tenants at very low cost, which back then was $250 a unit. Soon it started to become common knowledge that if tenants wanted to run their buildings, there was a way for them to do it. Legal service lawyers, local community groups, priests down the street spread the word. Suddenly people saw neighbors taking control of their buildings, and it just grew as part of the culture.
Sea change. Thanks to years of sweat equity and community organizing, neighborhoods really started to improve. But in the mid-90s, the city stopped allowing tenants to develop their buildings, and it created programs for private developers to do so. It was a real turning point, because there were no longer going to be opportunities for tenants to be urban homesteaders and become their own developers and fix up their buildings. Somebody had to step up on their behalf, so we did. UHAB started buying the buildings from the city. We became the developer and did the rehab, not the residents, and we were their landlord for the interim. At the end of the process, the buildings became co-ops, and we sold the buildings to them.
The work continues. Over the years, UHAB has helped more than 1,200 buildings across the city become affordable co-ops. There’s probably close to 30,000 units in those buildings. And there are a lot of buildings in line that are starting or are in the middle of rehab, so it’s a growing population. For the first time, with the help of a foundation loan, we recently bought a building in the Bronx from a private developer that we’re going to turn into a low-income co-op, and we’re doing the same at another building on the Lower East Side.
Money matters. As for funding, UHAB’s main source has been the fees the co-ops pay us for the services we provide. UHAB continues to provide affordable co-ops with training and technical assistance. We help with meetings, elections, budgets, getting loans and tax abatements. We have a group fuel purchase and group insurance program that provides more affordable prices. Buildings that become Housing Development Fund Corporation co-ops are required to have a monitor, someone who assists them with the compliance aspects and makes sure that sales prices are correct and that new residents meet the income requirements. We have grants and foundation money, and we’ve always had contracts with the city. Unfortunately, this means that when the city is having funding difficulties, as it is currently, our finances become less stable.
Transition time. Why am I stepping down? Well, I’m 72, and I think it’s time for some new leadership. The city has changed. We’ve gone from abandonment to gentrification, but I don’t think the supply of delinquent buildings will ever dry up completely. It’s great to have been a steward for affordable housing for 40 years. When I first came here, I moved into a Lower East Side tenement that had been abandoned. My apartment didn’t even have windows, but it seemed like a challenge and something for an architecture student to work on. It was actually one of the first buildings in the TIL program, and we worked hard and put in a lot of sweat equity to turn it into an HDFC co-op. I’m still there.
The bottom line. When it comes down to it, UHAB’s work is not so much about the buildings — although they’re certainly important — but more about creating communities within them, the support that people give each other, and all that contributes to their neighborhoods. That’s the secret sauce of what a co-op is, and that’s what makes me most proud.