Anxiety predominates at Westbeth tenants meeting


By Albert Amateau

The new leadership of Westbeth’s board of directors tried to reassure anxious residents last week that a comprehensive review of management and maintenance would insure the future of the federally sponsored moderate-income artists’ housing complex.

The 13-building complex on West and Bethune Sts., converted to artists’ residences and studios from the old Bell Laboratories building in 1968, faces organizational and fiscal changes in 2010 after its federal mortgage is paid off and as its city tax abatement expires, noted Ben Green, a director who was elected president of the board in May.

Moreover, residents last year began paying a 26 percent rent increase, phased in over three years, to pay for long-deferred maintenance needs including new elevators and façade work to comply with the city building code.

Residents at the Westbeth meeting on Nov. 6 got a rude reminder of the uncertain physical condition of the 11-to-14-story complex. A water pipe burst on the third floor apartment shortly after the meeting began.

Nevertheless, many of the 250 residents at the meeting were uneasy about whether the review by a board committee would result in canceling the contract of TUC Management, the company that has been running the complex for about 12 years.

“If it’s not broke, don’t fix it,” said one resident in defense of the management company. “Exactly what are you reviewing?” asked another resident.

Green, however, said he could not talk about the board’s issues with TUC because the company had just engaged an attorney in its negotiations with the board. He acknowledged that the board intended to look at the TUC contract and might renew it or engage another management company.

“Not everyone is a fan of TUC management,” said Peter Kaufman, in support of the board. Patrick Mahon a board member, noted that the unprecedented rent increase last year was recommended by TUC. “They said that was all we needed, but I want to know when will we get the next one?” he asked, adding that maintenance issues could be endless.

Green insisted that no decisions have been made yet in regard to a new management contract. He also assured residents that the board had no intention to eliminate federal Section 8 rent subsidies, which go to 75 of Westbeth’s 386 residents. “No one is going to take Section 8 out of Westbeth. In fact we want to increase the number of subsidies,” Green said.

David Buchwalter, a consultant to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development who attended the meeting, assured residents that HUD was not about to remove the subsidy or convert the building into a private co-op.

One resident said she had heard that Westbeth was about to go private and become a co-op, ending its existence as a nonprofit subsidized artists’ rental complex.

“That comes from another universe,” said Green in reference to the privatization comment. “It’s outrageous and nowhere near the truth,” Green said. “It may be a confusion with West Village Houses, across the street, which is in trouble,” he added, referring to the Mitchell-Lama rental complex just south of Westbeth, which is about to leave the city-sponsored affordable housing program.

“I can’t believe the level of hysteria in this room,” said Kate Walter, a longtime resident.

Several residents were critical of the fact that only five members of the 15-member board of directors are Westbeth residents. “Tenant members of the board are kept away from important decisions,” one resident charged. Residents also criticized the makeup of the board committee reviewing Westbeth’s management and maintenance. The seven-member board committee has only one member who is a resident of Westbeth.

But Merble Reagon, the Westbeth resident and new board member who is on the committee, declared that the review is intended to insure the continuation of Westbeth as an affordable artists’ residence.

Green said the board was apprehensive about the future when the low-interest HUD mortgage expires in 2009. “I asked Rochelle Prinze, a HUD administrator, recently what we ought to do about refinancing and she suggested that we go to Amalgamated Bank,” Green said. “I was hoping she’d say that HUD would refinance the mortgage but she didn’t and I got the definite impression that HUD wouldn’t be interested. That’s something we will have to face down the line,” Green added.

State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer is calling for a new law that would impose tighter controls on boards of directors of nonprofit corporations like Westbeth, Green noted. “It’s probably a good measure but it will mean that we will have to change some of our procedures,” he said.

The expiration of the city real estate tax abatement in 2011 also concerns the board, Green said. “It’s not certain that the City Council will renew it, and we will have to be prepared,” Green said.

One Westbeth resident also criticized the recent change in the lease of the ground-floor theater on the Bank St. side of the complex. The board last year refused to renew the lease of the Westbeth Theater Center, run for many years by Arnold Engelmann, to make way for the Actors’ Studio of New School University, which moved in earlier this month. “We shouldn’t have evicted the theater,” said one resident.

The depressed real estate market since Sept. 11, 2001, kept the complex’s large commercial space on West St. vacant, Green said. The space, temporarily occupied by a Christmas gift vendor, is the subject of negotiations between the Westbeth board and Amish Market, the gourmet supermarket with a store in Lower Manhattan. But Green said the deal is not final.