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Dozens of Waterside Plaza families vulnerable to hikes as tenants retire

Under a current proposal, those who stop working after 2019 may not be able to have their rents adjusted, even if their incomes decline.

A new agreement limiting rent increases at Waterside

A new agreement limiting rent increases at Waterside Plaza is slated to come before the City Council next week.  Photo Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

They have spent years at Waterside Plaza, raising children, toiling through careers and cultivating a close-knit community near the United Nations headquarters.

But now, dozens of families with established roots in the housing development may not be able to live out their golden years in the complex because a new rental agreement put foward by the city does not appear to hold water for those slated to retire after 2019, according to Janet Handal,  who heads  the tenants association.  

"Most of them won’t be able to stay at Waterside once they retire," Handal said. "They’d be paying 66 percent of their income on rent."

Waterside Plaza, which stretches alongside the East River between East 26th and 29th streets in Manhattan, contains 1,400 apartments, of which 325 fall under an agreement that limits rent increases to 4.25 percent a year, according to the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development. 

Under an agreement slated to come before the City Council next week,  those 325 units would be protected by limits on rent increases until the current occupants move out, and then would enter a more common affordable housing program for the remainder of the 75-year deal.

But the city has not committed to recalibrating rent rates for all 325 units on a regular basis, which means those who retire after the end of 2019 may be saddled with high bills when their income declines after they stop working, according to Handal. 

Handal said it would be unfortunate to see an exodus of older, longtime residents who have cultivated a sense of community at Waterside, which was  built in the 1970s, initially part of the Mitchell-Lama middle-income housing program. She and her neighbors packed a City Council subcomittee hearing on the proposal Monday to express their concerns.

"Most of us have lived in Waterside for 30 to 40 years, and raised families," Handal said. 

She said the cap on rent hikes has helped her and her neighbors, but they have still absorbed a 276 percent increase in rent since 2000, compared  with the 76 percent increase authorized in rent-stabilized apartments.

The city's agreement with the landlord, Waterside Plaza Ground Lessee LLC, whose head officer is former Lt. Gov. Richard Ravitch, does not expire until 2069. The owners made a request to  HPD for a ground lease extension, because they found financing challenging with the lease expiration, according to an HPD representative. 

The owners were willing to negotiate affordability restrictions and protections for the current residents in exchange for greater project stability, the HPD representative said. 

Tenants in the 325 units would be offered various protections, depending on their incomes. Those with household incomes of at least 165 percent of the metro area median income (AMI), currently $154,935 a year for a family of three, would not see their rent increase more than 4.25 percent a year, according to HPD. 

Families with incomes below that threshold will be eligible for a rent freeze — or if they are currently paying more than 30 percent of their income in rent, will not be asked to pay more than that portion, according to HPD.

Handal estimated that 83 of the 325 families in regulated units plan to retire after 2019, and many of them would be vulnerable under the current proposal.

Richard Cunningham, who has lived at Waterside for more than 40 years, told City Council members earlier this week that he fears he will have to find a new home because he will not be retiring in the next year, but lacks the savings to cover his current rent for years to come. 

“Unfortunately, at 73, I’m faced with a situation that I never thought I’d face in my life. I may not be able to put a roof over my head,” Cunningham said.

Jeremy Hoffman, executive director of multifamily preservation at HPD, told lawmakers that the income residents earn at the end of 2019 will be used to determine their rents.

When asked about those  who retire after 2019, HPD spokeswoman Elizabeth Rohlfing said the agency is still discussing the deal with various parties. 

"We look forward to continuing our work with Council Member [Keith] Powers, local elected officials, the Waterside Tenants Association, and the owner to navigate the necessary steps to secure long-term affordability for the many low-, moderate-, and middle-income residents and seniors at this development," Rohlfing said in a statement. 

Correction: A prior version of this article inaccurately described the length of the proposed 75-year deal. 

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