By Jon Schuppe
EAST HARLEM — Forty years ago, when East Harlem was pocked with abandoned apartment buildings, a fledgling community group set about turning some of them into affordable housing.
The volunteers at nonprofit organization Hope Community Inc. put together enough cash to buy five buildings, and offered below-market rents for low-income residents. The group grew to be one of East Harlem’s biggest landlords, with more than 1,300 apartments in 74 buildings.
But the original properties, which included a mix of subsidized and market rate apartments, fell into disrepair.
Now a $14 million project is underway to restore those century-old buildings without any rent hikes for their occupants.
The building's tenants, who pay an average monthly rent of $825, have been skeptical of the expensive project. All over East Harlem — and many other low-income neighborhoods — private investment groups have bought apartment buildings with plans to replace rent-stabilized tenants with those who will pay market rates.
Tenants have accused landlords of withholding repairs to force them out. And some of the investors have gone belly-up, leaving their buildings in limbo.
But Hope said it isn’t like those other landlords.
"We want the community to know that we are not about to fix buildings and chase them out," Deputy Executive Director Carmen Vasquez said.
Hope said a $5.7 million low-income housing tax credit provided by the federal government and distributed through the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development enables them to make the improvements without raising rents. The rest of the money came in the form of loans made through various banks and public agencies.
"Before this, we had no subsidies for these buildings," said Stephen Starensier, HOPE’s director of real estate development. "Rents were kept very low and we lost money on them."
The five buildings, on East 104th Street, East 109th Street and Madison Avenue, are known by Hope collectively as Muscoota, an Indian name for the land that encompassed East Harlem in the days when Manhattan was first settled by the Dutch.
This summer, Hope began moving tenants of the 63 Muscoota apartments into temporary housing so it could complete the renovations. Most will be able to move back within 60 days, Hope says. The one exception is 20 East 109th Street, which is undergoing a gut rehab, and will be uninhabitable for a year. Residents of that building have been placed in other Hope-run properties.
When they move back in, residents will have new kitchens, bathrooms, security systems, insulation, stairs and more. All the work is expected to be completed by summer 2011.
Though construction has already begun at two of the Muscoota buildings, Hope will hold a groundbreaking ceremony Friday, Sept. 17 at noon at 153 East 104th Street, between Lexington and Third avenues.