The city may have kept the birthplace of hip hop affordable for long-time residents last week when it prohibited the sale of a Mitchell Lama building where Kool Herc rocked his first block parties, but other residents facing Mitchell Lama conversion are asking “What about us?”
The residents of one such building owned by the Trinity School on the Upper West Side say that same logic that helped save Kool Herc’s building at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue should applied to their building on 91st Street between Columbus and Amsterdam avenues. The tenant association at Trinity House has appealed to city Department of Housing Preservation and Development to reject the sale, on the same basis: there’s no way the new owner would be able to afford to maintain it as affordable housing if they pay a crazy-high sale price.
HPD will not say how much Pembroke Properties is offering the Trinity School and neither will either party in the proposed sale, but Amy Chan, a Tenants & Neighbors organizer who is working with Trinity House residents said the school told parents it expects to net $24 million from the sale. If that’s the case the building will sell for an even higher price.
“If they are paying upwards of $24 million, the rents would have to double or triple to sustain that,” Chan said Friday. “So we think it would be an even easier decision for HPD.”
Pembroke and Trinity have assured tenants that if the building is bought and removed from the Mitchell-Lama program there apartments will shift to rent stabilization. And when apartments are sold as condos, whoever can’t afford to buy can stay in their rent stabilized apartment.
That’s not protection enough for Jim Paul, co-chair of Trinity House’s tenant association. “The sale price means the buyer is under pressure financially to sell these units and therefor to get tenants out,” he said Friday. “That has been the pattern in New York. Then you start having harassment and whatnot.”
Even if tenants were able to stay in their apartments happily and without hard sell tactics, Paul said, the sale and conversion is still a loss of affordable housing in a neighborhood increasingly out of reach for most New Yorkers. Under the terms Pembroke offers, once a unit is vacated it will no longer be governed by any rent restrictions.
With an aging population at Trinity House, Paul predicted even all the hold-out units could be converted to high priced condos in 25 years. Paul said about a quarter of his neighbors in the 200-unit building have low enough incomes to receive Section 8 rental assistance, others are teachers, firefighters or middle class professionals. There are a few college professors and Paul directs a public policy NGO focused on United Nations issues. These aren’t the dishwashers and supermarket cashiers that live in the Kool Herc building at 1520 Sedgwick, but they aren’t the million dollar condo crowd either.
They are the people who used to populate the Upper West Side, before it changed, as WNYC’s Brian Lehrer once said, from East Village north to Scarsdale south.
“Most people are just ordinary folks who really benefit from affordable housing, from not having to pay 65 percent of their income on rent,” said Paul. “That the city of New York allows all this to go forward is insane,” he said, referring to the proposed sale and conversion. “They talk about affordable housing and even attempt to build some and then at the same time they let all these things go though.”
Friday morning a spokesman for the Trinity School said he would return a call seeking comment on the building’s sale and its price, but he never did. Trinity House is hardly the only Mitchell-Lama building facing sale to a deep pocketed owner intent on taking it out of the program. A map of recent and pending sales shows Mitchell-Lama developments across the city slated for conversion to cash cows.
Since 2002 a handful of private investors have bought fifty subsidized and rent stabilized complexes, then taken them out of their affordable programs, according to research conducted by Tenants and Neighbors and the Urban Home steading Assistance Board (UHAB). If the city’s HPD or the state Department of Housing and Community Renewal had vetted those sales as closely as the home of hip-hop sale more than 16,000 units of affordable housing might have been preserved.
Dina Levy, director of policy and organizing at UHAB was effusive in her praise for HPD’s decision to quash the 1520 Sedgwick deal but later last week she urged HPD and its state partner DHCR to look as carefully at similar deals where affordable housing is being sold at sky-high prices. “This is a great thing. We’re very, very happy HPD acted, but this can’t be a one-off,” she said.
Levy and Amy Chan, Mitchell Lama organizer for Tenants & Neighbors, urged HPD and DHCR to adopt clear regulations governing the sale of Mitchell Lama buildings to codify under what conditions they would not approve a sale.
HPD spokesman Neill Coleman said the agency examines each sale on an individual basis and said the 1520 Sedgwick decision was not indicative of a new policy.
“What they did commit to was that they will look at sales now,” Levy said. “There was a time when HPD was not even asking for contracts. Now for sure both agencies are taking the sales as an opportunity to vet.”