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Housing Rehabilitation Group Marks 50 Years



TimesUnion.com

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 inner-city 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 organizations 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 Troy-based 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."

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