On a recent Monday, it seemed everyone in Mott Haven, in the Bronx, was driving along the Major Deegan Expressway. Steering a 2002 Hyundai that used to be black and have a passenger door handle that didn’t dangle, Courtland Hankins ripped open another ginger chew, and added the wrapper to a collection on the floor. Putting on headphones, he ran his hand over his bald head and picked up the phone.
“Mr. Jason,” he said. “I’m just on my way now.”
Hankins knew the inspector he called “Mr. Jason.” As a former housing specialist for Bronx Works and founder of the six-month-old organization Prioritizing our Homeless Humanity, which helps people leave the shelter system, Hankins had gotten to know all the Department of Homeless Services inspectors who cleared apartments for rental assistance.
This inspection would not be an easy one, he said. “Mr. Jason is a stickler.” He pulled up in front of a two-story brick building on Findlay Avenue.
The room Hankins was having inspected today had bare pinkish walls and a carpeted floor. It contained a ceiling fan, a small skylight and three electrical outlets. Once furnished with a single bed and a desk, the occupant would barely have room to move. But it would beat a bed in a shelter on Wards Island.
Hankins reviewed a checklist of everything the apartment would need to qualify for rental assistance: opening windows, functioning electrical outlets, smoke detectors, hot water, emergency exits…
“Oh.” For safe exits, the door to the small room couldn’t have a lock on it. Hankins grabbed his screwdriver and the inspection-proof door knob he kept handy. He got on his knees to quickly make the switch.
To secure affordable housing in New York requires such hoop jumping. A widening gap between wages and housing costs, exacerbated by the pandemic, has worsened housing woes for lower-income residents, with the Bronx particularly beset. This May, a preliminary vote by the panel regulating rents across rent-stabilized homes moved to hit New Yorkers with the largest increases in almost ten years, threatening to worsen an already fierce housing battle in the city.
On the displacement risk map, featured in the city’s first Equitable Development Data Tool, the South Bronx stands out in dark purple. Tenants’ risk of being priced out of their neighborhood is the city’s highest.
In Mott Haven-Port Morris, where two-thirds of residents are low-income (below 200% of federal poverty rate) and almost all non-white, 31.4% are considered severely rent-burdened, spending more than half of their income on rent, compared to the city-wide average of 25 percent. The neighborhood also has some of the worst housing, with more than a quarter of units having three or more maintenance deficiencies, like rodent infestations or cracks in walls.
But the South Bronx is also “one of the areas of the city with the most affordable housing options,” noted Themis Chronopoulos, an urban historian. Although new developments are threatening to attract higher-income residents who could drive the prices up, city subsidies have helped preserve affordable housing, he said. Moreover, “it is one of the few places where landlords still aren’t too reluctant to accept housing vouchers,” which offer low-income residents full or partial rent subsidies.
But for people like Hankins, preserving these affordable options has become a daily battle. He helps shelter residents find homes through the organization he founded, while his housing situation has led him to learn a whole lot about turning lower-income tenants into homeowners.
Until 10 years ago, Hankins, 51, knew nothing about affordable housing. “I was kind of thrown into that world by accident,” he said, in his studio on East 134th Street in the South Bronx. “I definitely didn’t expect to own this building,” he added.
In fact, in 2010, Hankins was “technically homeless” for about five months. Despite an administrative job at JP Morgan with a decent paycheck, a marital separation had him bouncing from family to friends’ couches, worrying about housing and his two kids’ visits.
“That’s when you realize you were not prepared for the avalanche,” he said. “With the expenses of living in New York, taxes and child support, the expenses that go with the split, and everything else.”
That’s when Hankins found this studio, one of 21 identical units in a four-story brick building in Port Morris. He has filled his with books, sporting equipment, a few plants and an impressive record collection, plus mixing consoles, djembe drums and large speakers. “I’m a young Bronx boy,” he said. “I grew up with hip hop.”
But if his love for hip hop remains, the Bronx has changed in many ways since Hankins grew up, starting with the cost of rent.
When he moved in in 2010, Hankins didn’t know much about his building other than paying $1,040 a month for his unit, where he could “snuggle up” with his children on weekends. When the bank laid him off two years later, Hankins applied for housing vouchers, to supplement what he earned as a substitute teacher.
Then in 2017 Jim Giddings, a real estate investor, bought the building for over $4 million and started contacting tenants, recalled Hankins. “When he started talking of increasing the rents by $500, I didn’t open the door.”
The tenants soon learned that the building was rent-stabilized, which means that the rates of possible rent increases are set annually by the New York City Rent Guidelines Board. The latest guidelines, adopted in June 2021, stated that the rent for one-year leases commencing between October 2021 and 2022 would be frozen for the first six months, and could only increase by 1.5% for the next six. But Giddings was trying to overturn this status to convert the building into market-rate housing, and raise prices. Legally, he could only deregulate the property if he could show that he’d invested in substantial rehabilitation.
The tenants had the right to challenge his effort and started organizing. “At first, it was just 10 of us in the bar down the street,” Hankins said. “Then we started holding meetings, creating email lists and group chats.”
“Everyone was sort of new to this,” said Claudia Waterton, a production design artist who lives next door to Hankins. Waterton retrieved the building’s records, connected with legal counselors from the advocacy group TakeRoot Justice and helped form an official tenants’ association.
The two neighbors became the campaign’s unofficial co-leaders. Both said the landlord tried several tactics to derail their collective effort. “He took me and another tenant to housing court,” Waterton said.
“He offered me a good deal on rent instead, if I backed off,” Hankins added.
Beyond the long hours and the administrative backlog, Hankins said what made the fight difficult was that “you’re dealing with people, and that means personalities, conflicts, disagreements… and ego.”
“The only way to get past it is to stay focused on the end goal,” Waterton agreed. The residents of 700 E. 134th St. approached that goal in 2018, when a housing advocate suggested they buy the building.
“At first, no one believed it was possible,” Hankins said, but the advocate put them in touch with the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board (UHAB), a nonprofit that helps lower-income tenants acquire and manage their housing. “They broke it down for us.”
The board proposed turning the building into a Housing Development Fund Corporation coop, an “income-restricted” solution that has allowed thousands of lower-income New Yorkers to become homeowners. The first such coops emerged in the late 1970s, when the city seized some derelict apartments.
Since then, programs like the Tenant Interim Lease program have helped turn roughly 30,000 rental units across the city into co-ops, run by resident boards.
While the board started working on the building, Hankins got an unexpected call from Bronx Works, offering him a housing specialist job. Soon, on top of his own housing issues, Hankins was helping other Bronx residents apply for housing subsidies and exit shelters, reviewing leases, and mediating disputes.
“I discovered a whole new system,” he said. He found that his patience and determination made him a good fit for the job. Between peoples’ reactions to desperate situations and the city backlog, he said, “you have to be the one who keeps it together.”
As he and his neighbors struggled to secure government funding to form a co-op at 700 E. 134th, the pandemic hit and the prospect of help started to fade.
In the bigger picture of affordable housing in New York City, their victory would send a strong message at an important legal moment. As part of a statewide Housing Justice for All movement, legislators are trying to pass the Tenants Opportunity to Purchase Act, giving tenants a first right to make an offer when a property is for sale.
“The bill would empower tenants, give them more control over their building, and preserve affordable housing by taking the properties off the speculative market,” said Elise Goldin, an organizer at New Economy Project, which has piloted affordable housing programs across the state.
On February 7, after years of work, UHAB was able to secure private financing for the Port Morris tenants and bought the building on behalf of the residents, while they prepared to become co-op owners. “The tenants were well organized, well represented and were determined,” said Giddings, the landlord, via text. “I am happy to have sold to them and wish them success.”
The new co-owners popped champagne bottles and celebrated their win outside the building with banners and megaphones.
“This was a great victory, but it is still a very rare accomplishment, especially without financial support from the city or the state,” said Goldin. Her group hopes the proposed state legislation “will help facilitate that process.” The New Economy Project is requesting $1 billion per year for five years to convert 20,000 units across the state into community-controlled affordable housing.
For now, Hankins and his new co-owners will need to hire a management team, learn to settle disputes, set resale prices and oversee the budget. They are taking classes on how to run a co-op.
“It’s not easy to run residential buildings in NYC,” Giddings added, a word of advice. “I wish the tenants success in making their common charge payments and properly maintaining the building.”
After almost five years on the front lines, Hankins and Waterton are thinking of stepping aside as leaders. “I am confident that people will step in,” Waterton said. Already, they are finalizing the coop fees, which they expect to average $1300 a month per unit.
That’s a bump from what many tenants paid in rent, but ownership means that an influx of better-off residents, expected from a 100-unit building being erected down the street, cannot raise their rents. “I can pass on this apartment to my kids, and they’ll be paying the same,” Waterton said.
Meanwhile, Hankins’ phones keep ringing; he still has one with his old Bronx Works contacts. “Just because I don’t work there anymore, doesn’t mean these people no longer need help,” he said. “But I’m gonna do it my way.”
For now, his new organization to help homeless people relies on private funding from “people who believe” in him, he said, mostly friends and family.
“He’s a really good advocate,” said Keith Vaughn, 60. Hankins helped him move into a one-bedroom in White Plains, in the Bronx, four days before Christmas. Hankins took care of all the steps to secure the city vouchers and coordinate with the landlord, Vaughn added. After a year in the Samaritan village shelter in Manhattan, “having an apartment is nice,” he said, although the Brooklyn native is still adjusting to life in the Bronx.
Hankins has applied for 501(c)(3) tax status, which would enable him to seek more substantial funding as a non-profit. Some studio sessions help him to make ends meet, but “I just have enough to keep gas in the tank to do what I do,” he said.
That tank, and the aging car it fueled, was still parked on Findlay Avenue when Hankins finished screwing in the new door knob. With the inspector on Facetime, Courtland toured the apartment, showing him each outlet, light switch and window, up close. It all looked good.
The smoke detector mounted on the wall, however, appeared a few fingers lower than the required 12-inch distance from the ceiling. “Come on, Mr. Jason,” Hankins urged. “I’ve been doing this for years and I’ve never heard of this rule. We all want the same thing here.”
Still, Hankins stood on a rickety chair and started unscrewing the device. After another 20 minutes, the apartment was cleared.
Hankins left with a smile and good news for his client. In the next few weeks, he could exit the shelter system and move into the room, his $800 rent fully subsidized by city vouchers.
Looking for the address of his next inspection, Hankins checked his phone. Six missed calls. People were getting anxious. He’d call them back on the way.