Grant Houses’ new president brings ambitious agenda to use Columbia funding

Carlton Davis does more than just live in the Grant Houses. He hosts Halloween parties for its children, dreams of organizing a baseball team for its teenagers, and, as of Sunday, is the president of its tenant association.

But Davis said that, in addition to bringing enthusiasm to his new position, he will try to reverse what he called a troubling reluctance among the apartment’s current leaders to tap into available funds.

“As far as having any program done, I haven’t seen anything,” Davis said, referring to the development’s previous tenant association president.

The Grant Houses, New York City Housing Authority apartments on Broadway and West 125th Street, are home to more than 5,000 low-income West Harlem tenants. They are also across the street from the Manhattanville campus, a Columbia expansion which is currently under construction.

Because of its location, Grant was allotted $1.5 million in the Community Benefits Agreement, a document signed by University and community representatives in 2009, at the outset of construction on the new campus.

So far, Grant’s leaders have only used $85,000 of the CBA funds. They used the money to purchase new air conditioners for some apartment units in the building.

Marietta Dunn, the executive director of the committee of residents in charge of the CBA funds, says they currently plan to use the money for renovating “ball fields” and creating youth programs, although she did not specify which ones.

“We haven’t been as active as we wanted to be,” Dunn said. “I will say this…. Because you have a lot of money, does not mean that you’re supposed to spend it frivolously,” Dunn said.

In an interview with Spectator, Dunn said that she did not wish to discuss why more of the funds have not been utilized.

According to Davis, the money would be helpful, as Grant residents struggle with declining infrastructure and a persistent lack of youth programing.

“That place can be beautiful if we have the right programs,” Davis said.

Most importantly, he said, he wants to start programs that keep kids engaged after school, like sports tournaments, spelling bees, dance contests, and trips to museums and movie theaters.

Among Davis’ more ambitious plans is the creation of a community center—like the one at the neighboring Manhattanville Houses—and the installment of a fitness center in one of the buildings, 3170 Broadway.

Through these activities, Davis hopes to engage young people, who he said have become largely disengaged from the community and, in some cases, driven to crime.

Grant has long struggled with youth violence, which Davis sees as a result of the the lack of resources offered to its young residents. Last June, over 40 residents of Grant and Manhattanville Houses were arrested in a sweeping raid conducted by the New York Police Department.

Since the raid, both longtime resident Takisha Lassiter and Davis said violence has decreased, but there remains a need for more youth programming.

“Then they wonder why the youth here is kind of crazy,” Davis said.

For Lassiter, the lack of investment is evident in the excessive litter on the development’s grounds.

“A lot of money is not being used. You can tell from the rats,” she said.

According to Lassiter, tenant leaders’ reluctance to use the available funds has resulted in diminishing resident participation in the community. She said that she stopped going to the tenant association meetings for that reason.

“Nobody participates because they don’t see any improvements,” Lassiter said.

As the new tenant association president, Davis thinks much remains to be done in Grant. With 10 years of experience in the federal government as an assistant head of recruitment manager with the Navy—in addition to being a film producer and a former boxer and rapper—Davis believes he has the knowledge and discipline to manage Grant.

“I’m taking the military knowledge that I have into the civilian,” Davis said.

He plans first to have the lobbies of all nine buildings repainted and restored. He also wants to stop the littering outside the building with stricter enforcement and tenant cleanup patrols.

Lassiter also called for the improvement of the service of the day care center, which she claims is mediocre. She added that she would like the center to allow residents to reserve rooms for events, which she said is currently difficult to do.

“It’s horrible in there,” she said.

But for Lassiter, programs for youth remain the most important potential direction for the funds Davis may now begin to tap.

“The kids are going through hardship,” Lassiter said.