Hous­ing re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion group marks 50 years

TRIP born out of con­cerns about Troy’s neigh­bor­hoods

Albany Times Union - Sunday - - BUSINESS - By Eric An­der­son Troy

Could home own­er­ship — hav­ing a fi­nan­cial stake in the com­mu­nity — give res­i­dents a path to a bet­ter life?

Troy in the 1960s, like many old in­dus­trial cities, was in de­cline. Ab­sen­tee land­lords, aban­doned build­ings, and sub­ur­ban flight were dec­i­mat­ing neigh­bor­hoods.

A mas­sive eight-lane bridge promised to cut the city’s old­est neigh­bor­hoods in two.

Vinny Lepera, then an ar­chi­tec­ture stu­dent at Rens­se­laer Polytech­nic In­sti­tute in Troy, saw home own­er­ship as a po­ten­tial way to re­verse the de­cay around him.

“Hav­ing own­er­ship is a real step­ping stone into pro­duc­tive cit­i­zen­ship,” Lepera said last month. “That’s what mo­ti­vated me then and what mo­ti­vates me now.”

Lepera had founded TAP, a pro­gram to pro­vide pro­fes­sional ar­chi­tec­tural ser­vices to low- and mid­dle-in­come res­i­dents, as his se­nior the­sis project at Rens­se­laer.

Now, he would also take on an­other re­spon­si­bil­ity.

By 1968, sev­eral com­mu­nity ac­tivists — the Rev. John Lyons, Sally Catlin, Don Miller, Carl En­gstrom, Ned Pat­ti­son, the Rev. Allen Stan­ley, Ed Co­rina, the Rev. Ge­orge O’brien, Mar­garet Mo­chon and oth­ers — had launched the Troy Re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion and Im­prove­ment Pro­gram, TRIP for short — in an ef­fort to help in­nercity res­i­dents own their homes.

Lepera, who was serv­ing as TAP’S first pres­i­dent, also ended up as ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor at TRIP. The two jobs to­gether would pay him $7,000 a year.

In the early days, the or­ga­niza-

tions had al­most no money.

But, “I wanted peo­ple to own these build­ings,” Lepera said. “So we charged ahead.

“I think we ren­o­vated 28 build­ings and sold 25 of them be­fore I left,” Lepera re­called.

Much of the early work, they did them­selves.

Dun­can Bar­rett, now pres­i­dent of af­ford­able hous­ing de­vel­oper Bea­con Com­mu­ni­ties LLC—

NY, was TRIP’S sec­ond hire and would later suc­ceed Lepera at TRIP.

Bar­rett re­calls that he and Lepera would some­times find them­selves work­ing late into the night dry walling the lat­est TRIP ac­qui­si­tion.

“We started out ac­quir­ing build­ings — va­cant, aban­doned — typ­i­cally three-story brick build­ings from the city of Troy for a dol­lar, re­ha­bil­i­tat­ing them and sell­ing them to first-time owner oc­cu­pants,” Bar­rett said.

They did the re­hab work be­cause they couldn’t af­ford to hire any­one.

Lepera con­tin­ues to work as an ar­chi­tect in Troy, and is with Ar­chi­tec­ture Plus. For many years, he was part of the ar­chi­tec­ture firm Lepera and Ward, which re­stored and ren­o­vated nu­mer­ous down­town build­ings through the 1980s.

TRIP, mean­while, worked with the Board of Co­op­er­a­tive Ed­u­ca­tional Ser­vices and Hud­son Val­ley Com­mu­nity Col­lege to train com­mu­nity res­i­dents to be­come elec­tri­cians, plumbers and car­pen­ters.

Then the lo­cal trade unions agreed to hire them.

Sev­eral started their own con­tract­ing busi­nesses, said Lepera.

The three-story brick build­ings that TRIP typ­i­cally re­ha­bil­i­tated also pro­vided their owner-oc­cu­pants with in­come apart­ments. But many new own­ers weren’t equipped to be­come land­lords.

Tina Urzan, who op­er­ates the Old Judge Man­sion Bed and Break­fast in Troy’s North Cen­tral neigh­bor­hood, re­calls how a group of neigh­bor­hood res­i­dents came up with a pro­posal for a land­lord train­ing pro­gram, win­ning a $1,000 grant from Neigh­bor­works Amer­ica, with which TRIP is af­fil­i­ated.

The pro­gram was over­seen by then-troy Po­lice Capt. John Tedesco, and con­tin­ues to this day. It has trained hun­dreds of land­lords. Tedesco re­tired ear­lier this year from the po­lice chief’s job.

TRIP also es­tab­lished a home­own­er­ship pro­gram that con­tin­ues. Lepera said it cov­ers such top­ics as credit rat­ings and man­ag­ing a mort­gage.

“They got it. The peo­ple who bought the build­ings from us were very ex­cited,” Lepera said. “There were very few fail­ures ac­tu­ally over 50 years.”

Over the years, TRIP has as­sisted more than 1,000 in­di­vid­u­als and fam­i­lies be­come home­own­ers, ac­cord­ing to Gail Padalino, direc­tor of TRIP’S Home Own­er­ship Cen­ter.

Over that time, it also re­ha­bil­i­tated more than 75 build­ings and 200 apart­ments, said Theresa New­ton, direc­tor of real es­tate de­vel­op­ment.

Neigh­bor­hood res­i­dent Bob Gam­ble was an early mem­ber of the TRIP board of di­rec­tors. He re­calls a dis­cus­sion in­volv­ing one of its spot re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion projects, and ended up pur­chas­ing the prop­erty.

That was in the early 1980s. His daugh­ter now oc­cu­pies the house, on Eighth Street.

“We ul­ti­mately moved into my par­ents’ home on 10th street, which is where we are now,” he said in an in­ter­view last month.

For much of the time he lived on Eighth, the build­ings there were owner-oc­cu­pied.

But the build­ings once again are be­ing scooped up by ab­sen­tee land­lords who are rent­ing to col­lege stu­dents, he said, adding “the stu­dents are not al­ways good ten­ants.”

Eighth Street also had been widened as the eight-lane Col­lar City Bridge to Hoosick Street was com­pleted, and park­ing was pro­hib­ited on one side, turn­ing Eighth into a busy thor­ough­fare with driv­ers speed­ing to make the light at Hoosick, or face a lengthy wait.

It was “an ideal neigh­bor­hood turned into a short­cut to the Col­lar City Bridge,” Gam­ble said.

Around that time, TRIP also was con­sid­er­ing shift­ing from spot re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion projects, where one or two build­ings might be re­paired, to larger projects, in­clud­ing apart­ment com­plexes.

The apart­ments pro­vided TRIP with steady in­come from the Sec­tion 8 fed­eral hous­ing as­sis­tance pro­gram, but also made it one of the city’s ma­jor land­lords.

“That was a philo­soph­i­cal shift for TRIP,” re­called Bar­rett. “We had 58 units we ended up rent­ing” in­stead of sell­ing.

Still, it got high marks for its ef­forts.

“Over­all, they have been pretty good for the neigh­bor­hood,” said Urzan. “They took care of the build­ings that oth­er­wise would have been taken by ab­sen­tee land­lords.

“The build­ings are su­per­vised, they’re well cared for,” Urzan said.

“We made some money on that project and paid off old debts,” Bar­rett said. “It was ac­tu­ally fin­ished un­der Bar­bara Hig­bee’s watch.”

Hig­bee suc­ceeded Bar­rett as ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor in Septem­ber 1979. Bar­rett had se­cured two fed­eral grants, a Neigh­bor­hood Strat­egy Area grant and an Ur­ban De­vel­op­ment Ac­tion Grant.

While the city of Troy ad­min­is­tered the UDAG grant, TRIP used the NSA fund­ing to fo­cus on Eighth, Ninth and 10th streets on the north side of Hoosick in Troy’s hill­side neigh­bor­hood.

In those days, there was no sec­ondary mar­ket for mort­gages, said Hig­bee, so banks of­ten didn’t have avail­able funds to meet mort­gage de­mand.

“Now, when I hear peo­ple com­plain­ing ‘they sold my mort­gage,’ the al­ter­na­tive was worse,” Hig­bee said.

The 1980s saw an in­flux of gov­ern­ment money, as well as the cre­ation of a sec­ondary mar­ket for mort­gages. Hig­bee cred­its Bar­rett and the late Sally Catlin with get­ting sev­eral banks to par­tic­i­pate, and share the risks, of mort­gages.

Mean­while, TRIP also rented apart­ments it couldn’t sell.

“Now we have hous­ing for peo­ple not in a po­si­tion to buy,” Hig­bee said.

She also re­cruited re­cent law school grad­u­ate Pa­trick Mad­den to be­come direc­tor of de­vel­op­ment for TRIP.

When Hig­bee de­parted, Mad­den served as act­ing ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor, even­tu­ally be­ing named Hig­bee’s per­ma­nent re­place­ment.

Mad­den, who spent 30 years at TRIP, 25 of them as ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor, over­saw the de­vel­op­ment of TRIP into “a vi­able busi­ness en­tity ... prob­a­bly one of the earliest com­mu­nity de­vel­op­ment cor­po­ra­tions in the coun­try.

“I turned it into some­thing that could com­ply with (fed­eral Hous­ing and Ur­ban De­vel­op­ment) reg­u­la­tions,” Mad­den said. “When the state came out with some pro­grams in the 1980s, we worked with them in de­vel­op­ing le­gal doc­u­ments for those pro­grams.”

Mad­den said TRIP’S prox­im­ity to the Capi­tol in Al­bany “put a re­spon­si­bil­ity on us to be a voice in com­mu­nity de­vel­op­ment.”

Mad­den was elected mayor of Troy in 2015. Chris­tine Nealon, the cur­rent ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor who pre­vi­ously served as direc­tor of com­mu­nity re­sources at Troy­based non­profit Unity House, suc­ceeded Mad­den in early 2016.

While TRIP no longer pro­vides vo­ca­tional train­ing, it con­tin­ues to re­ha­bil­i­tate hous­ing in Troy’s neigh­bor­hoods.

And it’s look­ing at new ini­tia­tives that would pro­vide res­i­dents with every­thing from prop­erty man­age­ment skills to the fi­nan­cial skills nec­es­sary to build wealth.

And chal­lenges re­main.

Sev­eral for­mer TRIP ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tors and the cur­rent direc­tor gath­ered at one of its earliest projects on a re­cent day and were dis­mayed that a few hadn’t been main­tained, and that neigh­bor­ing build­ings had been van­dal­ized.

Still, sev­eral prop­er­ties re­mained at­trac­tive and well cared for.

In Troy’s North Cen­tral neigh­bor­hood, the per­cent­age of peo­ple liv­ing in poverty de­clined slightly to 48 per­cent over the 2012-16 time pe­riod from 54 per­cent in 2005-09, ac­cord­ing to U.S. Cen­sus data from the Cap­i­tal Dis­trict Re­gional Plan­ning Com­mis­sion. A neigh­bor­ing cen­sus tract that in­cludes down­town Troy and the Congress Street cor­ri­dor saw its poverty rate worsen to 41 per­cent from 27 per­cent in the same two time pe­ri­ods, ac­cord­ing to data com­piled by Joshua Tocci of the plan­ning com­mis­sion.

TRIP helped many hun­dreds of res­i­dents in some of Troy’s poor­est neigh­bor­hoods be­come home­own­ers, build­ing their wealth and giv­ing them a stake in the com­mu­nity. Many likely moved to a dif­fer­ent neigh­bor­hood or even the sub­urbs.

TRIP “viewed hous­ing as a plat­form on which peo­ple build their lives,” said Mad­den. “We were all about cre­at­ing that plat­form.”

TRIP “was an es­sen­tial piece of turn­ing things around then,” said Nealon, “and it’s an es­sen­tial piece in con­tin­u­ing that work.”

Skip Dick­stein / Times Union

Three for­mer ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tors of TRIP, at left, stand in front of a row house on Old 6th Av­enue in Troy: Vinny Lepera, Dun­can Bar­rett and Bar­bara Jones Hig­bee. The present ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the half-cen­tury old home im­prove­ment group, Chris­tine Nealon, is at the far right.

Troy Re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion and Im­prove­ment Pro­gram

These houses were re­stored by TRIP early on to im­prove hous­ing in Troy’s in­ner-city neigh­bor­hoods. See a photo be­fore the restora­tion/e2.

Troy Re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion and Im­prove­ment Pro­gram

TRIP crews be­gin work sev­eral decades ago to re­ha­bil­i­tate two heav­ily de­cayed res­i­dences in an in­ner-city neigh­bor­hood in Troy.

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