Knickerbocker tenants fighting state housing decision

By Ronda Kaysen

Knickerbocker Village, a large affordable housing complex in Chinatown, can be removed from a rent protection program, the state decided last month.

The unassuming complex of 12 bare brick towers, has been an affordable housing project since it opened in 1934. But in recent years the owners of the private property, Cherry Green Management, have taken steps to remove the property from a rent protection program called Article IV. On Jan. 13, the New York State Division of Housing and Community Renewal, which oversees the property, approved Cherry Green’s application to withdraw from the protection program.

“We’re in the process of complying with the conditions that the commissioners have established,” said Cherry Green general manager Vincent Callagy.

Commissioner Judith Calogero laid out a set of nine criteria for the owners to follow in order to withdraw from the program. Tenants in the 1,589-unit complex will be offered rent stabilized leases under the new provisions and any new tenants moving into the building will also be offered rent stabilized leases. Cherry Green cannot change the property, which sits in the triangle between the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges, into a co-op or condo for five years.

“We’ve made it very clear that the building will continue to operate as a rent stabilized building,” said Callagy.

The tenants are far from pleased with the decision. “With all this talk of low income housing, here you go. If you move the property out of Article IV, the owners can rent to whomever they choose,” said Robert Wilson, an elected member of the Knickerbocker Village Tenants Association and the association’s former president. Wilson, who is 66 years old, has lived in the building since he was two and remembers the day his neighbors at Knickerbocker, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, were arrested there.

The demographics – 68 percent of the 4,000 tenants are Chinese — might change dramatically if the building became available to anyone who wished to live there. New tenants will not have to meet income requirements enforced under Article IV. Currently, tenants must make no more than seven times their annual rent, a figure that averages about $50,000 per household. Tenants making more than that are subject to a rent surcharge. The average rent at Knickerbocker is $750 a month, said Wilson.

If the owner co-ops the building in five years, most of the current tenants would not be able to afford to buy their homes, said Wilson. The D.H.C.R. approval, however, does not allow Cherry Green to evict tenants for the purpose of going co-op for 20 years.

Knickerbocker received capital funding from the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. for building improvements last year that were intended to keep the complex affordable. If the building becomes a rent-stabilized property, it will still be eligible for the funding.

Tenants insist state law prohibits Cherry Green from withdrawing from the program under any circumstances, despite what the state rules. “I don’t see how they can deregulate it,” said Wilson. Article IV housing law, a precursor to Mitchell-Lama, has no provisions for pre-1962 buildings to move out of the program. “They’re violating the law very clearly.”

D.H.C.R. insists the restriction is simply nonsensical. “The committee’s argument — that a limited dividend housing company constructed prior to 1962 must remain under such use seemingly forever – runs counter to the structure of this and every affordable housing program,” Calogero wrote in her decision.

D.H.C.R. spokesperson Peter Moses declined to comment for this story, referring all comments to the ruling.

Tenants have four months to take the decision to housing court—a right they intend to exercise. Wilson is certain his side will prevail. “One of us is going to be unhappy again,” he said. “It would be hard to believe that it will not end up with the owners being unhappy.”


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