Mascot Flats tenants accepted a plaque on Oct. 10 from Habitat for Humanity commemorating the renovation project 30 years ago. At right in front row is Ann Rupel and at right in the middle row is Don Kao, both original homesteaders from when the building was renovated by Habitat for Humanity in 1984. PHOTO BY LINCOLN ANDERSON
BY HEATHER DUBIN | When Ann Rupel and her family were accepted as homesteaders at Mascot Flats — the first building in Manhattan renovated by Habitat for Humanity — they were living in an East Village apartment under less-than-ideal conditions.
Thirty years after the historic rehab project, Rupel still lives in Mascot Flats, on E. Sixth St. between Avenues C and D.
“We had a son born at end of 1983, and we lived in this ‘tub in the kitchen’ tenement apartment,” she said. It was rent-controlled, but the downside was two adults and a baby in one room, with no heat in the winter on weekends, and flooding from construction above.
“It felt like landlord tricks to get you out,” she said.
Rents in the neighborhood drastically increased, and Rupel felt there was nowhere in Manhattan to move.
“We had actually signed a lease on a place in Staten Island, but the commute was just so ridiculous,” she said. Luckily, they were homestead-bound instead.
After a three-month probation period, homesteaders, who paid $50 monthly dues while working to fix up the formerly derelict Mascot Flats, were in.
“It was really exciting to be part of the building,” Rupel said. “We learned a lot of stuff.”
Rupel, 60, is currently president of the co-op board, but she thinks a management company would actually be more pleasant for the building regarding tenant issues.
“It would be clear that the board isn’t the landlord,” she said. However, she acknowledged a volunteer board is better for the building with vested members.
Keeping the place afloat in the current economy has been a challenge. Some of the building’s residents are struggling with unemployment, layoffs and reduced work hours.
“Probably everybody in our building has taken a hit from that,” she said of the tough economy.
In an interview at his Mascot Flats apartment, Don Kao recalled his beginnings at the building. He had heard of a woman who bought three apartments for $1 each in a tenement building on Avenue D.
“I thought I could never live over here,” he said. “But she did it on her own.”
Kao, a counselor at the time, had met a biracial couple while leading a workshop. The woman worked at the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board (UHAB), and recruited Kao, who is Asian, to Mascot Flats for ethnic diversity.
After they were accepted, Kao, 62, and his daughter, his former partner’s niece, moved to the renovated Mascot Flats in 1986. According to Kao, the ethnic breakdown of African-Americans, Latinos, Asians and whites in the building has remained the same throughout the years.
There are studios, one-bedrooms and two-bedroom duplexes in Mascot Flats. Kao, who has changed the layout of his apartment three times, pays $365 a month, with a $100 mortgage and $100 maintenance fee.
Kao has been living with AIDS for almost 30 years, and Mascot Flats has been integral to his survival.
“When I think about it, I would’ve been in a lot of trouble if I didn’t have a place that was affordable,” he said.
Both Kao and Rupel are University of Wisconsin-Madison graduates. He credits Madison for informing his politics, and believes housing is a right.
“Madison politics are keeping this building where it is,” he said.
Kao is also on the Mascot Flats co-op board, and feels having homesteaders at the helm is fundamental.
“It keeps the value of what it’s all about,” he said.