This is the second part of a two-part article on problems with the Charles Inniss Development on 132nd Street and Broadway. The first article, in yesterday's paper, focused on the deteriorating conditions of the housing project.
In the first week of June, Neighborhood Artists President Lavern Williams received an unexpected phone call.
“Mr. Williams,” the caller said, “I just thought you should know that they are changing the locks on your office door.”
Williams, whose organization handles art education services for homeless and indigent residents, raced back to his office at the Charles Inniss Houses development on 132nd Street and Broadway to find that his key no longer fit in the door.
The incident was yet another spark in a series of tensions and disagreements between Neighborhood Artists and Harlem Congregations for Community Improvement, which helped found Charles Inniss Houses in 2002. The two organizations have since butted heads over who has the legal right to manage the building and who is responsible for the substandard conditions, ranging from mold to sewage leaks, that have plagued residents for the last few years.
Malcolm Punter, executive vice president for HCCI, said his organization only changed the locks as part of an attempt to review social service files that Williams, who is contractually obligated under a 2002 agreement with HCCI to provide social services to the building in the form of art education, was required to give to the state.
In an interview last week, Williams said the incident was what finally drove him to make his grievances public. Since then, Neighborhood Artists has met with Community Board 9 and claims to have met with New York Attorney General and Assemblyman Keith Wright as part of a sustained publicity campaign against HCCI.
Although HCCI accuses Williams of going public in order to claim undue authority over the management of the building despite having provided poor social services, Williams asserts that HCCI has muscled his organization out of the building while illegally funneling money out of the development to third parties. He maintains that he tried to work with HCCI and did everything he could to avoid going public.
“We haven’t been bothering them over the past,” he said, referring to Community Board 9. “We tried to take it on ourselves as much as we could to reason with HCCI without taking the dirty laundry to the public.”
A struggle over management
Williams said he conceived the idea of the Inniss development in the late 1980s as a way to fight the rise of homelessness in the city. After working through a series of logistical obstacles including zoning issues and other city regulations, Neighborhood Artists received $3 million from the state Homeless Housing and Assistance Corporation in 2002.
But the funding was dependent on the cooperation of the inexperienced Neighborhood Artists, which had never developed real estate on such a scale, with HCCI, which has an extensive portfolio of developments throughout the city.
As part of a separate agreement in the same year, the two nonprofits came together to form the Charles Inniss Housing Development Fund Corporation, which comprised three HCCI representatives and two Neighborhood Artists representatives.
“The agreement was that HCCI would develop the property with Neighborhood Artists as co-sponsors, thus giving us the opportunity to learn the development process and go on our own after five years,” Williams said. “Neighborhood Artists embraced HCCI, but with caution, and with the expectation that they would respect and adhere to the contract with Neighborhood Artists.”
The history since then, Williams said, has been one of unilateral action by HCCI, which ignored routine requests for board meetings, refused to submit minutes to the Neighborhood Artists representatives on the board, and carried out management decisions without Neighborhood Artists’ approval. Many of these decisions led to the deterioration of building conditions, according to Williams.
“We held tight for the first few years, but simultaneously requesting board meetings, requesting fiduciary responsibility in terms of board-keeping,” but to no avail, Williams said. “The bottom line is that the tenants were not serviced at all.”
He also pointed to a clause in the 2002 agreement with HCCI in which Neighborhood Artists was promised that the fifth slot of the HDFC board would cease to belong to HCCI after five years and instead go to a joint designee or Neighborhood Artists designee. Such an agreement, he maintains, was never carried out.
In an interview last week, HCCI President Derek Broomes denied that the HDFC board ever ratified the clause, which appears in a copy of the contract obtained by Spectator.
“Basically he wants to control the property. The state would not allow that even if we agreed,” Broomes said. “What he is trying to achieve is a majority based on a concept that he has that after five years, Neighborhood Artists would be able to elect a fifth person.”
HCCI also objects to Williams’ understanding of the contracts behind the development, saying the 2002 award agreement between the two organizations and the HHAC specified that Neighborhood Artists was not a co-sponsor and that HCCI would have full authority to manage the building.
According to a legal analysis from the New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, authored in March 2013 at the request of HCCI and obtained by Spectator, only HCCI and the HDFC board as a whole are sponsors of the building, regardless of Neighborhood Artists’ role in the board.
The analysis quotes a section from the final award agreement with HHAC, which says that HCCI will be empowered to act “fully on behalf of both sponsors” in the event of any disagreement between the two. In other words, although the HDFC held the legal title to the building, only HCCI was authorized to make management decisions.
Follow the money
In an interview last week, HCCI provided Spectator with a series of invoices from Williams, who was billing the development for totals up to $4,000 every four months as payment for his art workshops in the building. Punter said the anger after HCCI voted to cut off funding for these programs was the real reason behind Williams’ publicity campaign.
“Instead of needing arts, we needed a social service component, because the transition from being homeless to now having a residency requires more than art,” HCCI President Derek Broomes said. “And so the decision was made that the building could no longer support Mr. Williams’ type of work. And once that was relayed to him, that’s when all the verbal mayhem started.”
An HCCI statement also called Neighborhood Artists’ services, which are funded out of a social service budget line that reached almost $20,000 in 2009, “inadequate.”
Although Williams argued against these points, he also pointed to financial documents to raise questions about HCCI. According to audits from 2007-09, the development is owed roughly $15,000 from other HCCI developments, such as the under-construction Bradhurst Apartments, implying that money was once taken out of the development without Neighborhood Artists’ approval.
In the same email statement to Spectator, HCCI reiterated that it was the only organization empowered to make decisions concerning the management of the building. Despite requests from Spectator, however, the statement neither addressed why the money was initially removed nor whether HCCI was contractually permitted to remove funds from the development and move them to affiliated developments.
Williams, however, said that the movement of Charles Inniss money to other developments is “illegal, no matter what they say.”
Reaching out locally
In the hope of garnering community support, Neighborhood Artists launched a publicity campaign targeted at local organizations and politicians. Williams made a presentation at this month’s general Community Board 9 meetings, drawing an almost unanimous vote for a letter of support to fully reinstate any lost Section 8 vouchers, which provide funding for low-income families for housing, at the development.
“What we are really hoping to accomplish is to get the Department of Housing Preservation and Development’s attention and get Section 8 reinstated,” Rev. Georgette Morgan-Thomas, the chair of Community Board 9, said. “You’re talking about marginal-income people with children who are being charged the market rate.”
In an interview last week, Phil Lavoie, divisional vice president for New York of WinnResidential, the third-party property manager at HCCI, said all vouchers had already been reinstated.
However, the letter will also voice support for Williams’ request for pro bono legal aid, which he said is required for pursuing the campaign in court.
Morgan-Thomas said the board wanted to avoid passing a resolution too quickly because such a document would have to be “painstakingly crafted to address these issues.”
“We have a responsibility not to wait on anyone else, but to protect the people in this district,” she said.
Williams also claimed to have met with State Assemblyman Keith Wright, although representatives at the office were unable to confirm the meeting after several requests from Spectator.
Likewise, although the New York Post reported that members of both Neighborhood Artists and HCCI met with the state attorney general earlier this year, Punter denies that HCCI ever attended a meeting with the attorney general, and when reached for comment, the office was also unable to confirm that a meeting took place.
“I know we have received a request, but I cannot confirm that we ever met with them,” said Karin Kunstler Goldman, section chief at the office’s Charities Bureau.
Although the tension between the two organizations seems set to continue for the foreseeable future, Williams said he is confident that he will be proved right eventually.
“I was raised to say you give them enough rope to hang themselves,” he said. “They’ve hung themselves, so it’s time to pull the noose.”