Volume 75, Number 5 | June 22- 28, 2005

Tenant leader says L.M.D.C. cash may not be enough

By Josh Rogers

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 Michael 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 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. As The Villager was going to press, she referred this question to the state Division of Housing and Community Renewal, whose spokesperson did not comment immediately.

Knickerbocker, built in 1934, falls under Article 4, a precursor to the Mitchell-Lama middle-income housing program. Unlike Mitchell-Lama, which has a clear-cut way in which owners can buy out of the program, 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 and that, 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 energy 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 Knickerbocker Village,” he said.

In 2003, the governor and mayor agreed to $50 million of L.M.D.C. money for affordable housing.

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

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.”

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