April Tyler, a prominent community leader in West Harlem who was known for her advocacy for affordable housing, died on Feb. 16. She was 60 years old. Her unexpected death has impacted many residents in West Harlem, as friends and colleagues mourn her death and reflect on her decades of service to the community.
Among her many achievements, including her work as a real estate broker and as a Democratic district leader, Tyler was known by her community as a champion for affordable housing rights. Most notably, she worked with the Housing Development Fund Corporations Coalition, which represents the interests of affordable co-ops, and served as treasurer and co-chair of the Housing, Land Use, and Zoning Committee on Community Board 9, an advisory board that represents Morningside Heights and West Harlem. Colleagues who worked with Tyler on CB9 honored her life and achievements at a general board meeting on Feb. 17.
Tyler’s passion for her community manifested in her fight to keep state-level administration and local elected officials from enforcing harsh restrictions upon HDFCs. During her long career, she fought to protect rights of self-determination, to keep homes and buildings from being over-regulated, and to preserve equity in co-ops and homes. Her work aimed to prevent gentrification and protect the diversity of West Harlem.
“When the history of West Harlem is written, there’s going to have to be a chapter on April Tyler,” Mark Levine, a city councilman who represents District 7, which includes West Harlem, said.
Tyler’s death was a particular shock to Michael Palma Mir, one of the founders of the HDFC Coalition, who has worked alongside Tyler in the fight for housing rights for almost 30 years.
“She was a fighter for the community and put the needs of the community first,” Palma Mir said.
When they first met, Tyler was already a shareholder in the HDFC Coalition because she had used shared equity to personally revitalize a West Harlem building years earlier. Tyler, along with her mother Sylvia Tyler, partook in a larger movement of shareholders who purchased properties in West Harlem in the 1980s and 1990s.
This movement first began in the 1970s when many buildings were put into the city’s ownership as landlords forfeited their properties during widespread political and economic turmoil. The city soon began selling these buildings to lower-income residents who would manage the properties on their own. Having become shareholders of the affordable housing units, many new owners proceeded to invest their time and effort in turning run-down houses into affordable homes. Tyler, for example, transformed what had previously been known as a local drug den on West 138th Street and Amsterdam Avenue into a family home.
Recently, Tyler was instrumental in the community’s fight against Local Law 64, which fined all HDFC unit owners a monthly $2,000 penalty if they failed to list their residence on a government website. The law, passed without consulting the HDFC Coalition, is an example of the type of quiet political undergoings that advocates like Tyler have spent their careers attempting to dismantle.
“City agencies and administration have policies where, on the surface, it seems well-intended, but it winds up hurting rather than helping,” Palma Mir said.
These quiet and often unnoticed policies make up much of the Coalition’s work, as many of the residents of the HDFCs lack the time or access to fight complex and harmful policies individually.
Tyler was also a part of the HDFC Coalition’s effort in preventing what Palma Mir describes as the city’s “carrot and stick approach” of regulating HDFCs by forcing them to sign a regulatory agreement or lose their tax abatement.
Tyler and Palma Mir took the case to city hall and met with the mayor, who quietly withdrew the proposal. When the administration tried to make the same proposal at the state level, they went to the state legislature and pushed for that motion to be withdrawn as well.
As co-chair of the Housing, Land Use, and Zoning Committee on CB9, Tyler was also instrumental in West Harlem’s fight to prioritize affordable housing over luxury developments.
Signe Mortensen, Tyler’s fellow co-chair of CB9′s Housing, Land Use and Zoning Committee, honored Tyler’s intelligence and her expertise in navigating the policies that limit the community’s access to affordable housing.
“April knew it all. She knew it all. The intelligence, the grit, the humor, it was all wrapped up in one. She could take all that intelligence and ask the right questions,” Mortensen said. “And everything she asked was for the betterment, the good of the community.”
Palma Mir notes that there has been a movement in the community to potentially name a proposed housing finance legislature after Tyler. Tyler and Palma Mir wanted a mandate that ensured understandable HDFCs, amending legislation originally drafted in the mid-1900s.. This push for lawful clarification is an extension of Tyler’s fight to simplify and make affordable housing available.
Many of Tyler’s associates recognize that her boldness and eloquence were what allowed her to accomplish so much. Her community views her as a fierce fighter and protector of West Harlem.
Tyler is survived by her mother, Sylvia; her two sons, Dietrich Geister and Thabo Geister; and three brothers, Michael, Anthony, and Kofi. Though a memorial service has not yet been announced due to the COVID-19 pandemic, CB9 said it plans on releasing a statement about the service in the coming days. The community is planning on celebrating her life and work not only through a memorial but also in their extended effort to further her legacy.
“The best thing we can do to honor her legacy is to pick up her mantle and fight,” CB9 Honorary Harriet Rosebud said. “The best thing we can do is to hold the powers that be accountable for the actions that they take. She was relentless in her effort in doing that.”