Much has changed across the Hell’s Kitchen real estate landscape, and while a cursory glance of the neighborhood’s property portfolio reveals an ever-growing number of luxury high-rises, there are still plenty of tenement-style walk-ups — and age-old challenges for residents living in them.
One organization — the Housing Conservation Coordinators (HCC), marking 50 years in Hell’s Kitchen this year — looks back at a half-century of on-the-ground organizing to protect tenants in the neighborhood and beyond.
Founded in 1972 during New York’s financial crisis, local organizers banded together to combat the effect of the city’s money woes on Hell’s Kitchen living conditions: everything from landlord abandonment, neglect and harassment that had led many locals left with frozen pipes, no electricity, heat or hot water, a lack of secure doors and windows, to deliberately-set fires and unfair evictions — many of which were captured by photographer Marcia Bricker Halperin in her work with the HCC. Based out of a storefront office on 10th Avenue, the small-but-mighty group went to work to take back buildings for tenants — sometimes at their own risk.
When Danny Haselkorn showed up to volunteer for HCC in 1980, “The person who was supposed to interview me said, ‘There’s something going on in one of the buildings on W47th Street between 10th and 11th — why don’t you go look and see what they’re doing,’” he recalled. “So we walked down there and two organizers were sitting in front of the steps, trying to prevent an eviction and were getting arrested by the police. That was my introduction to the organization — I decided that this seemed a decent place to work!” he added. “The organization backed them up and bailed them out. I started volunteering and just stayed.”
“The people that I’ll always think of are Danny Haselkorn, Bob Kalin and Nancy Kyriacou — they were unbelievably dedicated,” said Joe Restuccia, an HCC employee from 1980-1983 and current Executive Director of the Clinton Housing Development Company. “Nancy was fearless. I remember once I was out with her and a few other people for New Year’s Eve, 1981. Nancy saw the front door of a building at 646 9th Avenue open — she was the 7A administrator for the building — and she literally just stopped on New Year’s Eve at 10 o’clock at night and went into the building to check on things — all of a sudden a whole group of drug dealers who had been selling in the hallways came out,” added Restuccia. “HCC, as an organization, was never afraid to take on the toughest, the most difficult, rundown building and wade in — and it really, really makes a difference.”
Some HCC staffers, like Monica Morante, longtime HCC organizer and current senior resource coordinator, came to the organization through their own trials as a Hell’s Kitchen tenant. “I was born and raised in Hell’s Kitchen and didn’t know anything about HCC,” she told W42ST. “My landlord was notorious around the neighborhood — and still is — and one day, an attorney came knocking on our doors to find out if we qualified for HCC’s services. I had been laid off and was collecting unemployment, so I met the qualifications — and one of the attorneys for HCC told me that they were looking for an intake coordinator. I had worked for RA Institute for about 15 years as a director of retention services, making a lot more money than what the starting pay at HCC, but I said, ‘You know what, it’s in the neighborhood. I’m going to help people that I know in the neighborhood,’” said Morante.
“I took it — and ever since it was a perfect choice. I enjoy what I do. I love the people, I love the staff and I really mean it. It’s not like I’m just saying this and it’s just a great organization, community-based organization that helps people in the Hell’s Kitchen community and a little bit further up and further down.”
Others like HCC’s current Executive Director Leslie Thrope came to the organization after years in similar advocacy groups. “After I graduated from CUNY Law, my goal was to be a civil rights attorney — but it was in 1994, and Giuliani was cutting the budget,” she said. “I got a job at a Union — 32BJ — doing family law for union members, did that for nine years, and loved it. I loved advocating for clients around issues related to access to their children and it was really, really rewarding. I decided I needed to do something different after nine years and ended up coordinating a public interest law program for law students for 12 years. After 12 years, I really needed a change from that,” she added.
“I knew I loved the law, but I also knew I didn’t want to go back to practicing. I was really interested in going back to my public interest roots and working in a mission-driven organization that was based in a community that formed relationships with their clients,” said Thrope. “HCC was looking for an executive director, and it seemed like a good step. I really wanted to feel like I was coming to a place where we were all working together, a small place. So I joined and am still here after six years!”
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Over the HCC’s half-century tenure, its organizers have secured several key housing and quality-of-life victories for tenants and Hell’s Kitchen residents at large. The creation of the Special Clinton District, a watershed zoning regulation to limit building height and preserve resident units, has “been modeled on other parts of the city,” said Thrope. “Without the Special Clinton District, the neighborhood would all look like it does now between 10 and 11th Avenue in the W40s,” added Danny. The HCC can also claim countless other victories, having fought to prevent the creation of the West Side Stadium, turned multitudes of previously landlord-controlled buildings into tenant-controlled low-income cooperatives, fought illegal short-term hotels and even empowered tenants to make their own critical building repairs in the wake of neglectful landlords.
“The harassment prevention was crucial, particularly when I was there in the 80s,” said Haselkorn. “If there was a finding of harassment, the landlord couldn’t get alteration permits to gut the buildings and turn them into upper income buildings as opposed to lower income buildings.”
“I remember one of my first jobs was to help run a meeting to get repairs from the city for a city owned property,” said Restuccia. “That was a normal thing to do — you just picked up and learned things over time,” he added recounting the dedication of HCC organizers to every building, no matter how few tenants were living there.
“The thing that always distinguished HCC from other advocacy organizations like this is that even if a building had a few tenants, they hung in with those tenants,” added Restuccia. “There was once an eight-unit building with only two older women living there — and the best part about it was that they hated each other!” he laughed. “The owners kept trying to get them out of this building, over and over again, but Bob Kalin worked with those two ladies until one died and the other chose to leave. But they didn’t move because they were forced.”
Thrope, Haselkorn and Morante concurred, adding that HCC has maintained long-term relationships with many of its clients over the years. “The Baby Boomers in the neighborhood are now older and the neighborhood has been gentrified,” Morante said. “A lot of things have changed and a lot of our clients that were younger now are seniors.”
HCC has since installed an older adult program, specifically designed to work with the growing population of senior residents in Hell’s Kitchen, added Thrope. “We’re finding that many of the clients that we serve were coming to us on a housing issue, but also had collateral issues — whether it be related to documents, healthcare proxies, issues related to consumer debt as they were getting older, Medicare trust pulled, income trust, all of the things that they were now experiencing,” added Thrope. “We hired a social worker in 2019 to bring into the older adult program to work specifically on the needs that target our older clients — and that’s been something that I’ve been happy to be a part of.”
Other long-term issues — ongoing landlord harassment (such as that at the notorious 410 W46th Street), fighting to make sure the city gives all New York tenants the Right to Counsel and crucially, making sure that newly arrived migrants are provided with housing support — are all on the docket for the next 50 years, said Thrope, adding that many of the neighborhood’s longest-running housing woes take multiple organizations and a considerable amount of time to push through.
“It really does take a village,” said Thrope. “It really does take a lot of people to come out and support people like the tenants at 410-412. It takes pushing HPD from all sides, not just us, but also people who have control of the dollar — the city officials who are their bosses on courts,” she added. “We try to use all of the tools in our toolkit — Danny talked about the old days and people getting arrested in front of buildings — those are one tool in the toolkit that we use, but we couldn’t do it without the partners that have the other tools in that same toolkit. I think that HCC has spent 50 years building a lot of credibility to work as part of that community organizing piece.”
As they look ahead, “We’re in a moment where the city is facing possible extraordinary budget cuts,” added Thrope. “We are advocating every day as a provider community to get more money infused in the program so we can hire more staff to be able to represent the clients — because the eviction machine is there every day. Landlords are filing claims. We have people who come in every day whose landlords are trying to evict them.”
She added, “The market rate on apartments now is skyrocketing — pushing people out of affordable housing and rent stabilized apartments is attractive to a building owner who can make money. So we are constantly under these pressures.”
But despite the challenges, the HCC’s many wins — big and small — inspire them to keep organizing for a more equitable, affordable, New York. “Every time you tell people who don’t think they have any rights that they actually do have rights and you see their eyes brighten, you’ve done something what my mother would call a mitzvah,” said Thrope. “People have a lot of anxiety around housing, and it’s nice to alleviate some of those fears.”