When you ask Heydi and Dieter Rivera what they like most about their new apartment, they don’t give a typical response. The one-bedroom apartment in the Soundview section of the Bronx has a sleek kitchen appointed with stainless steel appliances, black granite countertops and dark wood cabinets with frosted glass doors. The bathroom has a European-style glass sink. The bedroom has two closets including a walk-in. The living room is filled with natural light.
“We have privacy,” says Dieter, 35.
“I’m alone,” says 28-year-old Heydi, beaming.
Being alone feels like a luxury to this couple, who immigrated to New York from the Dominican Republic with ambition and dreams, but not money. For years, they bunked in the living room of Dieter’s father’s apartment in Washington Heights, sharing the cramped space with Dieter’s dad and his brother and brother’s wife. Between the five, there was one bathroom, no privacy, no space and loud music.
Like many hardworking immigrants, the Riveras wanted the American Dream and had to learn the American way, or more precisely, the New York way, to achieve it. The newlyweds were determined to get their own apartment and figured they’d rent.
The idea of buying a place intrigued them, especially when a friend told Dieter owning could be less costly than renting. Still, Heydi got discouraged to the point of tears when she scanned apartment ads online. They could spend no more than $1,300 a month for housing and every place Heydi looked at seemed out of reach. Many co-op buildings require a 20% down payment, and Heydi knew they couldn’t swing that. They both worked full time but had no credit. Real estate brokers didn’t think they had a chance.
The Riveras were feeling dejected when they met Jean-Paul Ho at Lafayette Estates, an affordable housing development in Soundview. Ho, a vice president at Fillmore Real Estate and a top city broker working out of Brooklynand the Bronx, was leading a homebuyers seminar at the newly converted co-op building near the Long Island Sound, Bruckner Expressway and Bronx RiverParkway.
“I felt bad for them,” recalls Ho, who has made a specialty out of finding homes for low- to moderateincome clients and holding their hands through the financing process. “They were very motivated. We knew they were qualified buyers, but it would take time.”
Establishing credit was the first step. The Riveras got a credit card throughCitibank and then started working with another bank to secure a mortgage through the State of New York Mortgage Agency. Known as SONYMA, the agency helps buyers with modest incomes get fixed-rate mortgages at lower interest rates. Buyers are only required to put 5% down. Dealing with the bank’s loan officer wasn’t easy, though. Heydi sent the officer the required documents, sometimes sending the same forms over again, but after going back and forth with the bank for six months, the Riveras were turned down.
“I was so angry, disappointed, angry, angry, angry,” Heydi says.
The couple then went to the bank where they already had a credit card and, six months later, got approved for a 30-year fixed-rate SONYMA mortgage. They qualified for other programs, too, including a federal program for first-time homebuyers that gave them $8,000 in stimulus money.
The financial incentives enabled the Riveras to buy their first-floor co-op for only $135,000. Their monthly mortgage and maintenance payments, which include utilities, come to $1,200, less than their maximum budget.
“They got a steal,” Ho says, noting that other one-bedroom units that have not been upgraded in the complex rent for $1,300 to $1,400 a month.
Consisting of eight buildings, Lafayette Estates sits on lushly planted grounds. Soundview Park across the street offers more green space.
The buildings were built in 1962 as rentals for moderate-income people under the Mitchell-Lama subsidized housing program. By the late 1980s, they had fallen into severe disrepair. A group of tenants, led by the late Doris White, a longtime resident, banded together to stop vandalism and line up new owners who would work with tenants to give residents a shot at owning a co-op.
In an unusual development for a Mitchell-Lama project, the buildings were purchased for $100 million by AREA Property Partners, formerly known asApollo Real Estate Advisors. The firm plans to turn all of the nearly 2,000 apartments into reasonably priced co-ops. Getting lifelong renters to warm up to the co-op model was the biggest hurdle for AREA.
‘It was a challenge to educate and empower the residents, and explain the benefits of home ownership and everything that comes with it — the equity and the tax advantages,” says Jarrod Whitaker, AREA’s on-site project manager. “We were able to work with them and get the information out.”
A few months after sales started, the financial crisis hit. Several of the banks providing buyers with mortgages went out of business. New lenders had to be lined up.
AREA poured $7 million into improvements including new elevators, windows, the roof, security station, lobby, laundry room and landscaping. More work remains to be done. Over the next two years, the company plans to convert the remaining rental towers into co-op buildings.
The remodeled apartments attract many first-time buyers. Nearly 200 new homeowners are former tenants in the complex who took advantage of 40% to 50% discounts offered by AREA to existing residents who had been renting at the time of the co-op conversion. At market prices, a onebedroom was listed for sale at $214,875 and a two-bedroom (in contract) listed at $292,500 on Fillmore’s Web site.
People are drawn to the low prices and are surprised to find new bamboo floors, modern pendant lamps and kitchens that look high-end. Some high apartments offer views of the Manhattan skyline.
“Residents are very happy to call Lafayette home,” Whitaker says. “We have a product here that rivals any co-op or condominium in Manhattan.”
To maintain their lifestyle, the Riveras are careful with money. They do without some things people take for granted, like frequent restaurant meals and trips. Heydi cooks every day and is the only one at work to bring lunch from home. The couple has not taken a vacation in three years. Heydi mostly skips the beauty salon and styles her jet-black hair herself. She doesn’t buy Christmaspresents and doesn’t go overboard with new clothes. Her thrifty ways have rubbed off on Dieter.
“I’ve learned you don’t have to buy everything you want,” he says.
Dieter puts in 65 hours a week managing a parking garage in Manhattan, and Heydi works full time at a bakery in Grand Central Terminal. They don’t have a lot of down time, but when they are at home in their sparsely furnished, neat-as-a-pin apartment, they enjoy simple pleasures like hearing the birds sing in the morning, or not hearing anything at all. Compared to Dad’s living room, their place looks and sounds like another world. People are impressed when they visit.
“For me it’s like a dream,” Dieter says. “My family and friends come and say, ‘Wow.’”