Volume 78 - Number 34 / January 21 - 27, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Letters to the editor

Mendez: Squatters’ deal is fair

To The Editor:
In response to your article of Dec. 31, 2008, “Former squats are worth lots, but residents can’t cash in,” I have been supportive of the squatters gaining possession of these buildings since I first was informed of the acquisition proposal crafted in 2001 by the residents, UHAB and my predecessor, Councilmember Margarita Lopez.

As you so correctly observe in the article, it was historic that the city of New York would approve what many saw as a radical plan to give these extremely valuable buildings to squatters. The city government and many in the community opposed the plan because they believed that it acknowledged the rights of people who forcibly and illegally moved into buildings, while other buildings were being renovated for low-income housing through more conventional means. I did then, and I continue to, support the squatters, who deserve a lot of credit for their tenacity, hard work and commitment to these once-abandoned buildings.

I was chief of staff to Councilmember Lopez when the legalization-and-co-op conversion plan was approved. I remember how hard it was to reach an acceptable agreement for all concerned. A lot of hard choices and compromises had to be made. The squatters had to agree to renovate the buildings without government support, they had to agree to work through an experienced nonprofit that understood the real difficulties of financing and completing construction consistent with city codes, and they had to agree to permanent affordability. UHAB agreed to taken on this project reluctantly. Because of their experience in homesteading, they knew that the plan to complete these extensive renovations without government funding was immensely difficult.

I remember that Councilmember Lopez held meetings to ask each and every squatter to pledge that this housing would remain affordable in perpetuity. They agreed. All concerned agreed to all the terms, understanding the challenges. Everyone ultimately felt the compromises were reasonable to retain these buildings forever as low-income housing for the occupants. I distinctly remember one of the squatters prominently mentioned in your article hugging me in Tompkins Square Park and thanking me profusely for helping reach the agreement.

In my opinion, the loosened resale restrictions that these buildings are now subject to are fair. They allow the squatters to sell their units and retain more than was originally agreed. The sales price and the income caps on new purchasers seem reasonable for a moderate-income household. I firmly believe that all limited-equity co-ops sold under a variety of Department of Housing Preservation and Development programs — homesteading, community management, Mitchell-Lama, TIL, etc. — should have income and sales caps like this. There must be a balance between retaining equity for the original owners and maintaining affordability for incoming families. These buildings should not benefit just one set of occupants but must be passed on to future income-strapped residents. The lucky few households who are privileged to live in government-assisted housing get a great benefit during their occupancy. I do not think that this housing should be seen as an economic resource to maximize benefit to the owner at sale. I oppose loosening resale rules in all such cases — including the limited-equity co-op in which I live.

Again, I want to compliment the squatters for persevering through all of these years of struggle to complete the renovations of their buildings. I understand how difficult it has been. I also want to compliment UHAB, which I think has managed this very cumbersome and challenging process very ably, patiently and fairly. Yes, it took six years to renovate these buildings, but this was not a straightforward rehab project. (It should be noted that the agreement did not call for the buildings to be complete in one year. It called for the most serious building violations to be removed in that time.)

Furthermore, I believe that some of the conditions imposed at the outset were not realistic. My experience in housing tells me that reality, not malfeasance, has resulted in the work taking longer, the need for government-assisted loans and higher than projected, but still below-market, maintenance costs.

I was pleased to actively support two measures passed this year by the City Council, one which granted a tax break for 38 more years and the other that finalized legal issues related to the sale of these buildings. I did this in recognition of the squatters’ efforts and because affordable housing is becoming an ever-more scarce commodity in New York. I will do all that I can to support permanent affordable housing in these and other buildings in my City Council district.
Rosie Mendez
Mendez is city councilmember, Second Council District

UHAB stands for ‘debt’

To The Editor: 
Re “Former squats are worth lots, but residents can’t cash in” (news article, Dec. 31):

UHAB stands for “Urban Homesteading Assistance Board.” However, instead of assisting buildings in traditional low-cost homesteading, UHAB now functions primarily as a real-estate developer. Their method is to hire favored contractors at “market-rate construction prices,” leaving the homesteaders, who are paying the bills, in great debt.

The idea that UHAB is still “building affordable housing” was quickly dispelled when Director Andy Reicher insisted on establishing a special “construction management” position for our project. He then suggested filling the position with a longtime personal friend, at what we considered to be an inflated rate of $17,000 per month. The buildings unanimously countered with a highly qualified candidate at two-thirds the cost and double the knowledge in affordability and willingness to maintain homesteading (thrift) as a principle method.

Mr. Reicher, however, flatly refused to consider the homesteaders’ candidate — proposing yet a third candidate without a construction-management firm, relevant track record or required insurance policy. We found out later that Mr. Reicher had remedied his candidate’s deficiencies by simply attaching another longtime personal friend to the project at double the cost. 

Here’s the real issue, which is similar to what we see elsewhere in the U.S. today: Run up massive bank debt for simple upgrades; stick the owners with unaffordable mortgage costs, and deny people even the equity necessary to pay off the debt. UHAB has been involved in this project for about five years. According to them, people who literally brought these buildings back from the dead 20 and 25 years ago should wind up with heavy debts and practically no equity. 

The answer is not a market-rate resale. That is untenable, given the history and nature of this project. As I suggested in The Villager article, practically all of the other H.D.F.C.’s — more than 2,000 — in New York City have already been transferred as limited-equity co-ops through the TIL program models. In fact, that exact plan was decided on by near consensus at our last general meeting by members of all 11 buildings.

As much as, if not more than, others, our buildings have been fought for, worked on and solely subsidized by us and us alone. We need to be respected for the work accomplished — and dealt with on a basis equal to established precedent throughout the city.
Eric Rassi

Show Sokolow respect

To The Editor:
Re “In search of Christopher St.” (letter, by Edwin Fancher, Jan. 7):

Edwin Fancher’s demeaning attitude toward the name change of Anna Sokolow Way for the beginning of Christopher St. is unwarranted and disrespectful. It reflects his ignorance that he would characterize it as a politically contrived act pushed through because “perhaps she had been the mother-in-law of a city councilman or some other politician... .”

If Mr. Fancher had actually read Ms. Sokolow’s bio in Wikipedia, as he claims, he could not possibly have called her merely “once...a dancer and a teacher of dance in Greenwich Village.” Wikipedia clearly describes this legendary choreographer’s transformative contributions both to the world and the stature of modern dance — not just in the U.S. but in Mexico and Israel. She also taught choreography and dance in New York City for many years, both at HB Studio and Juilliard. 

Anna Sokolow was an icon, regarded by other choreographers as one of the most powerful and creative forces in dance in the 20th century. Several groups now safeguard her legacy: the Sokolow Theatre Dance Ensemble, Sokolow Now! and the Sokolow Dance Foundation.

Why is that part of Christopher St. called Anna Sokolow Way? Simple. She lived at 1 Christopher St. for many many years and was a familiar face to many in the neighborhood — me included.

As a footnote, it’s distressing that The Villager accepted Ed Fancher’s letter without first checking the facts. Just because he was a founder of The Village Voice does not mean that his assertions should go unquestioned.
Sheila Sperber Haas

Editor’s note: We clearly understand that the letter writer felt Fancher’s Jan. 7 letter was “demeaning” toward Anna Sokolow Way and dismissive of the dancer Anna Sokolow herself. However, Fancher’s letter did not contain any factual inaccuracies, and he has the right to express his opinion. The fact that Fancher was a founder of The Village Voice had absolutely nothing to do with it.

Thanks from Westbeth

To The Editor:
Re “Westbeth comes of age: A unique artists’ complex tries to stay afloat” (news article, Jan. 7):

The artist residents of Westbeth deeply appreciate The Villager’s long article on our community in the Jan. 7 issue. Your article is especially welcome since it comes at a time when it is very important to raise public awareness of the crisis facing this unique community that contributes so significantly to the cultural life of New York City.

Our crisis is composed of three elements all arising at the same time: A proposed 60 percent rent increase, the expiration of our property-tax abatement in June 2009 and the problem of financing much-needed capital improvements at a time when mortgage opportunities are vanishing.

I also wish to emphasize that in addition to the visual-arts shows that are on exhibit in the gallery all year-round, there are poetry readings, music performances, theater events, dance performances, book readings and film showings every week throughout the year in our community room. All of these events are initiated by the artists who live at Westbeth and are free to the public. 

Finally, although I am president of the Westbeth Artists Residents Council, which sponsors all these artistic events, I am not on the Westbeth Housing Development Board. Your article is incorrect when it states that the “current WARC president is one of the three residents who sit on the Westbeth board.” This tradition was broken in May 2004.
Mae Gamble
Gamble is president, Westbeth Artists Residents Council

Westbeth: The movie

To The Editor:
Re “Westbeth comes of age: A unique artists’ complex tries to stay afloat” (news article, Jan. 7):

I read the article on Westbeth in your Jan. 7 issue. If you are interested in the rest of the story, there will be a screening of a documentary about the Westbeth artists’ community called “SPLIT SCREAM” on Sun., Feb. 8, from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Westbeth, at 55 Bethune St. Admission is free.

“SPLIT SCREAM” is the true story of the Westbeth artists’ community. As the documentary’s producer/director, I have lived in Westbeth for 38 years, since the beginning. I interviewed 32 artists, of all disciplines, such as Merce Cunningham, Dudley Williams, Ralph Lee, the Spider Women, Billy Harper and more.

They said, “If you put all those artists into one building, there would be fights, suicides and beatings.” They had it all and more. Come and see the rest of the story.
Edith Stephen
Stephen is producer/director, “SPLIT SCREAM”

Unleashes her outrage

To The Editor:
Last night while I was walking my dog down my block in the West Village, a woman came out of her building with two golden retrievers, neither of them on a leash. As soon as I saw them approaching my dog, I called out for her to put her dogs on leashes. Right after I said this, one of her dogs quickly approached my dog growling. I then screamed at the woman to retrieve her dog. She looked at me incredulously, like, “What’s the problem?” My dog started to growl back and I was terrified that right there and then I would be in the middle of a dogfight, an unfair one. She finally grabbed her growling dog by the back of the neck and pulled him away. It was a close call. Too close.

More and more people in the West Village seem to be walking their dogs without leashes. These unleashed dogs are usually big — as in 50 or more pounds — and are often aggressive. Last year, I saw an unleashed dog about to cross Sixth Ave. at Prince St., his owner some distance behind him. The traffic light had just changed and this dog was about to walk right into oncoming traffic. I yelled for the man to get his dog. He grabbed the dog’s collar just in time. When I said he should have his dog on a leash, he cursed me in the most foul language imaginable. Here I had just saved the life of his dog and all the thanks I got was his nasty, vulgar response. I see him and his dog often and the dog is never on a leash.

Are these people not aware that there is a leash law in this city? Some years ago, a good friend of ours was walking his dog in Central Park, on a leash, when an unleashed Rottweiler attacked it. The owner of the attacking dog was facing away talking to a friend. My friend’s beloved pet of 11 years died later that day of a punctured lung. The grief and anger my friend felt led to a lawsuit against the Rottweiler’s owner. He won the lawsuit, the offending owner was fined, but it was of little consolation.

The police seem unconcerned about enforcing leash laws in the city. I suppose they prefer not to approach an owner whose dog is unleashed. If the police would start to issue tickets to owners whose dogs are off the leash, it would make the city sidewalks a much safer place for people to walk with their pets and children.
Dee Vitale Henle

Claude’s no cream puff

To The Editor:
Re “Vive la différence” (letter, by Harry Malakoff, Dec. 31):

I write to defend Claude, the former owner of Patisserie Claude on W. Fourth St., against the charge of “[bad] attitude” leveled by a letter in The Villager.

Claude is French and therefore has advanced ideas regarding civilized behavior. If you ran in to the shop and demanded, “Gimme three croissants,” he would consider that very rude, which indeed it is, and treat you with the same lack of courtesy that you had shown to him. But if you took 30 seconds to say politely, “Good morning, Claude, how are you? Could I have three croissants please?” all would be well.

I am delighted that Mr. Valdez is continuing to make the same wonderful pastries. May he be successful and not have too many obnoxious customers. For the rest of us, we should consider, when encountering rudeness, whether it originates in the other person, or in our own attitude.
Nancy L. Pasley

Singing Diether’s praises

To The Editor:
Re “The motion is unanimous: Doris, C.B. 2 grande dame, is the tops” (news article, Jan. 14):

I want to thank The Villager for the nice article they did about my birthday bash. One small error: I was not only born, but also raised, in Queens, and came to the Village in 1954 after only two years in Massachusetts.

I also want to thank the two performers who entertained at my party: David Amram, former Villager and well-known composer of orchestral and chamber-music works and film scores, who played on the piano and flute, even with a special song about me; and Cynthia Crane, current Villager and well-known cabaret singer and actress, who has performed in nightclubs here and abroad and has seven CD’s currently in circulation. Both of these performers have known me for years, and donated their talents to entertain us.
Doris Diether

E-mail letters, not longer than 250 words in length, to news@thevillager.com or fax to 212-229-2790 or mail to The Villager, Letters to the Editor, 145 Sixth Ave., ground floor, NY, NY 10013. Please include phone number for confirmation purposes. The Villager reserves the right to edit letters for space, grammar, clarity and libel. The Villager does not publish anonymous letters.


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