In a tiny, first-floor office at the northern tip of the Bronx, Sally Dunford sat among two cluttered desks squeezed in by several more filing cabinets, fielding phone calls that came in every few minutes or so.
“Can I talk to you in five?” she said to one caller. “I’m not sure if you’re in my district, but come in and let’s see if I can help you out,” she said to another.
Dunford is the executive director of the West Bronx Housing and Neighborhood Resource Center, a small operation that she’s been running for 17 years on Bainbridge Avenue in Norwood. The job is a tough one, often putting the 60-year-old mother of four face to face with the dark and ugly world of housing in her struggling neighborhood. However for Dunford, who has lived in this pocket of the Bronx for the better part of 30 years alongside the very people she helps through her office, dedication to the same community where her mother grew up helps her get through what can be a frustrating job.
“Love is a part of this,” said Dunford, in between the many phone calls that kept coming in. “You can’t do this work for money. If you don’t really care about the people, you’re not going to be able to do this kind of job.”
Community District 7, which encompasses Norwood, Bedford Park and Kingsbridge, has one of the highest rates of housing code violations in the Bronx. People in this area are rent-burdened as well, where the average person pays more than a third of their income on rent, according to New York University’s Furnam Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy. Dunford’s organization alone handles about 1,250 cases a year among a staff of just three, who deal in everything from saving Bronx residents from living in the streets, managing the bureaucracy around city and state housing subsidies, and playing referee in landlord-tenant clashes.
But for Dunford, a heavy set woman with shoulder-length grey hair and a rapid fire tongue, it’s the Bronx’s gritty reality and loyal residents that prompted her to write in a recent open letter in the Norwood community newspaper, “Dear Bronx: I can’t remember when I didn’t love you.”
After growing up upstate in Yonkers, Dunford first came to Norwood with her husband Michael, a Vietnam War veteran and conscientious objector to the war, right out of Fordham University in the early 1970s. They met in a local bar while Dunford was involved in radical anti-war protests on campus, often getting arrested by campus police for civil disobedience.
Together, they moved out into an apartment on 208th Street, just a few blocks down from where Dunford’s mother had grown up. With the birth of their four kids – all boys – family and friends pressured the couple to move out of the Bronx.
“We made a very conscious decision for the children to not be raised in a suburban atmosphere,” Dunford said. “I wanted them in the city and for them to get to know all sorts of different people. In retrospect, it was possibly the best decision we ever made.”
Soon after moving, troubles in the South Bronx pulled her out of domestic serenity, and back into the confrontation-style activism of her university days.
“After my second son was born in 1977, the Bronx at that point had begun to burn,” recalled Dunford.
Dunford said her family considered moving out of the borough again to escape the crime and fires that were creeping northward, but ultimately decided to stay. Dunford instead got involved with several community organizations, including the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, where she lobbied in Washington to get the Community Reinvestment Act passed, a law ensuring banks made loans available to low-income neighborhoods.
After years of odd jobs and volunteer positions with various nonprofits throughout the city, a job opening came up via the Bronx Jewish Community Council, where Dunford had once worked part-time on housing cases. Brad Silver, the executive vice-president of the organization, was looking for someone to head up the West Bronx Housing and Neighborhood Resource Center.
“He asked if I knew anyone, and I said, what about me?” Dunford remembered.
That was in 1994, and Dunford has been with the organization ever since.
For Silver, who supervises West Bronx Housing, Dunford’s value lies in her ability to count clients as her own neighbors.
“It’s unusual to find somebody who’s able to administer a program, and also somebody who lives in the neighborhood,” Silver said.
Sometimes, the job calls for much more than just dealing with housing issues. Silver recalled an instance when a woman walked into Dunford’s office, crying hysterically about her abusive husband’s pending release from jail.
“By the end of the day, she got the woman and her kid on a bus to Connecticut,” he said. “She cares deeply about the people and the neighborhood.”
Today, Dunford still lives on 208th Street in Norwood with her husband Michael, who works as a nurse at nearby Montefiore Hospital. Her four sons, who Dunford believes have absorbed her social justice outlook growing up in the Bronx, now work as a teacher in the south Bronx, zoologist, health administrator, and a Target employee.
Despite the emotional trajectories that a job like Dunford’s inevitably brings, Dunford said her passion for the community is still her driving force.
“I have the most wonderful relationship in the community,” she said. “If I had a problem, I know people would come to my aid in a second.”
When asked if she’ll ever leave the job or retire, Dunford was quick to respond.
“I’m not going anywhere,” she said vehemently. “I love this work. I love this neighborhood.”