Southbridge residents face two votes on rent future

By Vanessa Romo

Southbridge Towers shareholders will again vote on a resolution to begin a study on the effects of privatizing the Mitchell-Lama co-op on Oct. 19 and 20. But a second vote on Oct. 26 and 27 may render the study unnecessary, if a majority of shareholders elects to remain in the Mitchell-Lama J-51 program, which grants tax exemptions and capital improvement support, for another 15 years.

The first referendum, asking shareholders to spend up to $25,000 for a study on privatizing the 1,651-unit, co-op was voted down in April 2004 but resurfaced after a petition, signed by 25 percent of the building’s shareholders, was presented to the board of directors in August.

Geraldine Lipschutz, 93, a resident of Southbridge Towers for 32 years, opposes the study and is frustrated that it has come up again so quickly. “It seems like a desperate move because just a year ago we voted it down. But they bring it up with regularity, I think, to break us down,” she said.

Lipschutz would like the board of directors to implement limits on offering similar referendums repeatedly.

Paul Viggiano, president of the Southbridge Towers board of directors, said regulations established by the Division of Housing and Community Renewal prohibit any restrictions on the frequency of referendums. “This issue, or any other issue, can come up every year as long as 25 percent of the shareholders sign the petition,” he said. “It could come up once a year or once a month.”

The study would examine the impact on shareholders of removing outhbridge Towers from the Mitchell-Lama program, which provides tax abatements and support for building repairs such as roof and concrete improvements. The study would assess the open-market value of commercial and private property, project changes in income and estimate real estate taxes increases.

If it passes it would be the first of three steps in privatizing the co-op. The second would be to submit the study, a profile of the complex and a proposal to the Division of Housing and Community Renewal requesting the removal of the Southbridge Towers from the Mitchell-Lama program. Finally, a two-thirds majority must vote in favor of becoming a privately owned co-op. The process could take up to 3 years.

“If the study is done right it will bring out all the facts,” said board member Victor Papa.

Recent legal changes in the J-51 program require shareholders to vote on maintaining the co-op’s participation in the program. An assessment conducted by D.H.C.R. about three months ago, valued the apartments at $44,000 each, with the current rent restrictions. Previously, a co-op was only eligible for the J-51 program if the apartments were valued at $40,000 or under but a new bill, passed by the state assembly in April 2005, eliminating the cap, permits J-51 tax exemptions for co-ops that commit to the program for 15 years.

A majority vote in favor of opting into the J-51 program would automatically annul the vote for the study.

“Privatization is a matter of personal choice,” said Papa. “People who can afford it will be attracted to it and people who can’t, won’t. The way that privatization has been promoted has been coated in a lot of attractive features. But people should not be fooled.”

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