In 1987, New York City was the reluctant owner of 87,000 severely deteriorated, abandoned housing units. Those requiring the least amount of renovation were fixed up and sold to private developers or nonprofit community development corporations. Those in worst condition were left under City ownership, remaining a hardship for the buildings' residents, a burden for the City, and a discouragement to future neighborhood investment.
Several years later, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development remodeled its housing policy. Rather than requiring buildings to fit its programs, it restructured its programs to fit the neighborhoods--by placing a priority on tenant and community needs. In 1994, it created the Neighborhood Entrepreneurs Program (NEP) to accelerate the renovation and sale of city-owned buildings while creating development opportunities for local entrepreneurs. The program's aim is to reestablish healthy real estate markets in low-income, urban areas and, thus, spur community revitalization in some of the City's most blighted neighborhoods.
Under the program, clusters of city-owned apartment buildings are targeted for renovation and matched with community-based entrepreneurs. A complex financing package that utilizes city, federal and private financing produces renovated units available at market rates and using federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credits as an operating reserve subsidy prevents displacement of current, low-income residents. By focusing on entire city blocks rather than isolated buildings, improvements to neighborhoods are dramatic. Contiguous buildings are also more marketable to private investors.
NEP encourages private investment by fostering the growth of a group of neighborhood-based, small-scale, owner-managers. In contrast to large development firms, the owners cultivated by NEP have a personal commitment to their buildings and the surrounding neighborhoods. By mid-1999, NEP helped 31 neighborhood firms take on the renovation and ultimate ownership of close to 200 buildings with approximately 3,000 units. At the same time, living conditions significantly improved for the tenants of the previously poorly maintained, city-owned buildings.
The transformation of West 140th Street in Harlem is one of NEP's most successful accomplishments. Once considered the City's worst block, every building was dilapidated and drug dealers ruled the street. The area also threatened the value of a nearby enclave of historic homes with long-time homeowners. Using the cluster approach, relying on three neighborhood entrepreneurs, and leveraging over $12 million in private financing, NEP rehabilitated twelve buildings, 272 residential units, eleven commercial units and two vacant lots. Three years later, the block is one of the safest in the area. It is attracting new businesses and for the first time in twenty years in Harlem two bank branches have opened.