Tenant leader says L.M.D.C. cash may not help


By Josh Rogers

Knickerbocker Village’s courtyard.

A $50 million fund to build and preserve affordable housing in Lower Manhattan may not do as much as promised for Knickerbocker Village.

Bob Wilson, co-chairperson of the middle-income housing complex’s tenants association, said if they lose a pending court case with the landlord, the $5 million promised from the housing fund will provide little help.

“We estimate the rents here would at least triple,” Wilson said of Knickerbocker Village, a 1,584-apartment complex on Monroe, Catherine and Market Sts.

The money comes from the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, the federally-funded, state-city authority set up after 9/11 to help Downtown recover. Further details of the housing plan were unveiled last Thursday when the L.M.D.C.’s board voted to begin the allocation process.

When the governor, mayor and L.M.D.C. announced last month how they wanted to spend the corporation’s remaining $800 million, Mayor Mike Bloomberg said some money would go to preserve affordable housing for existing tenants at Knickerbocker and Masaryk Towers on the Lower East Side. When asked if that meant the protections would be temporary, Bloomberg turned to Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff, who said they would be permanent.

A spokesperson for Bloomberg and Doctoroff referred questions on the matter to the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, which developed the plan. Carol Abrams, an H.P.D. spokesperson, said if Knickerbocker’s owners bought out of the complex’s current rent limits, the $5 million would keep the apartments more affordable. She did not comment on how Doctoroff’s permanent affordability assessment squared with Wilson’s estimate of a possible tripling of rents at Knickerbocker. She referred this question to the state Division of Housing and Community Renewal, whose spokesperson did not comment.

Doctoroff, in a statement last week regarding the entire $50 million housing plan, said it “will keep hundreds of units of existing affordable housing in a good state of repair and ensure their long-term availability.”

Knickerbocker, built in 1934, falls under Article 4, a precursor to the Mitchell-Lama middle-income housing program. Mitchell-Lama has a clear provision for owners to buy out of the program, but it remains in dispute whether owners can leave Article 4.

Vincent Callagy, Knickerbocker’s general manager, said the owners, a subsidiary of Cherry Green Property, will continue their legal fight to leave Article 4. If successful, the buildings would move to the rent-stabilization program, he said.

Wilson said rent stabilization would lead to the rapid increases in rent and in addition, a court ruling in a case not directly relating to Knickerbocker makes it easier for owners to switch to market-rate rent. Currently an average one-bedroom apartment at Knickerbocker rents for about $660 a month, including electric bills.

“The problem with all of these things is we could agree with the owners now, and a new owner could walk in tomorrow and say, ‘I didn’t agree to that,’ ” Wilson said.

According to a June 16 press release issued by the mayor, governor and L.M.D.C., the Knickerbocker money will go to plumbing, roofing and electrical upgrades. Callagy said there is already about $4 million being spent on plumbing and roofing. He said there is a capital plan for the $5 million that may include energy conservation and emergency safety features, but he declined to go into specifics. He said no officials have contacted him about the coming L.M.D.C. money.

Investment in energy conservation would be a wise use of the money, since electric costs picked up by residents continue to soar, said Wilson. He said if tenants prevail in court, the $5 million would be enough to keep Knickerbocker affordable.

“It’s much more than I thought — that’s helpful,” he said.

Councilmember Alan Gerson said if the tenants lose in court, more money either from the L.M.D.C. or somewhere else will be needed so tenants can buy the complex, the largest group of affordable apartments south of Houston St.

“If we’re serious about affordable housing Downtown, we have to preserve Knicker-bocker Village,” he said.

In 2003, the governor and mayor agreed to $50 million of L.M.D.C. money for affordable housing. At the time, Doctoroff was reportedly pushing for about $200 million of L.M.D.C. money for housing, but Governor George Pataki resisted. The money was to go to build 315 new apartments at development Site 5B in Tribeca, but last year, Doctoroff announced the city would be better served by using some of the money to preserve more existing affordable apartments.

Gerson said more than $50 million is needed. “I would have hoped for at least double that,” he said. “Fifty million does not cover the affordable-housing needs of Lower Manhattan. It’s a good down payment.”

Housing plan’s parts

The new plan also includes $16 million to help community groups buy or renovate buildings in Chinatown and the Lower East Side and creates at least 160 affordable apartments, $8 million to encourage landlords to convert low-rise buildings on Fulton St. to an unspecified number of apartments, $15 million to build 77 low- and moderate-income apartments at Site 5B on Greenwich and Murray Sts., and $6 million to preserve the 1,110 units at Masaryk Towers.

Christopher Kui, executive director of Asian Americans for Equality, said there may be as many as 50 small apartment buildings on Mott, Madison and Henry Sts. where tenants’ longterm future is uncertain. He thinks the $16 million for the East Side is the best part of a good housing plan.

“It’s a good start – especially the fact that the housing shortage in the Lower East Side and Chinatown is being recognized,” Kui said.

Officials hope to use the money to help groups buy buildings with between 15 and 40 apartments where rents are below $1,000. Non-profits and developers will be eligble for up $100,000 per apartment for renovations. The owners would be required to keep the buildings in rent stabilization for 30 years.

On Fulton St., the plan is to provide forgivable loans of $25,000 – $75,000 per unit to owners of low-rise buildings to convert mostly vacant second through sixth floor spaces to apartments. The rents would have to remain affordable for 15 years.

At Site 5B, 44 apartments would be set aside for middle income tenants and 33 for low income. People living in the Community Board 1 area (roughly south of Canal St. or the Brooklyn Bridge) would have priority for 50 percent of the below-market apartments.

Masaryk plans to renovate its playground and repave areas in exchange for signing an agreement to remain in Mitchell-Lama for another 15 years. The complex is owned by the tenants and has never been considered at risk to leave Mitchell-Lama, said H.P.D.’s Abrams and Scott Langan, who manages the complex.

Langan said the tenants on the board of directors want to stay with the program. “The board is committed to affordable housing.”


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