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BY SAM SPOKONY | Knickerbocker Village, a Lower East Side affordable housing complex, will receive nearly $1.5 million to repair damage caused last year by Hurricane Sandy, officials announced on Oct 30.
That money is part of the federal disaster relief funding that was approved three months after Sandy struck last October, and is now being allocated to Knickerbocker through the NYC Build it Back program, which is administered by the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development.
“Today, we celebrate the beginning of the next phase of life for Knickerbocker Village,” H.P.D. Commissioner RuthAnne Visnauskas said during a press conference at the 12-building, 1,600-unit complex on Monroe St.
The funding, which Visnauskas said would be made available a day or two after the Oct. 30 announcement, will go directly towards repairing storm damage to the development’s 12 elevator banks.
Flooding from Sandy completely disabled Knickerbocker’s elevators for weeks, leaving many residents in dire straits as they struggled without electricity or hot water.
While temporary repairs were made at that time, the elevators are still in poor shape, requiring new cables, switches, wiring and other equipment.
The H.P.D. chief also said that, at a point yet to be determined, the Build it Back program will also provide some of the funding for a second phase of repairs, which will focus on strengthening the development’s entire electrical and heating systems, and is estimated to cost more than $5 million.
“I’m grateful and relieved to see progress being made and promises being kept,” said longtime Knickerbocker tenant leader Bob Wilson, who has lived in the complex since the 1940s. “Sandy changed the way we need to look at how we maintain Knickerbocker, and keep something like this from happening again.”
During his remarks, Wilson also gave a somewhat joking — yet deeply heartfelt — salute to Vincent Callagy, the longtime manager of Knickerbocker, and his staff for their actions to maintain the complex in the aftermath of the storm. Tenants and management have clashed at times in the past.
“I want to strongly show my appreciation for Vince Callagy, which is rare, because he and I have certainly had our times,” said Wilson, “but he and his employees, I can’t compliment them enough for what they do to operate this place day in and day out, even when we all thought it was going down.”
And four local elected officials who joined in supporting Knickerbocker tenants through their toughest moments after the storm — Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, Borough President Scott Stringer, State Senator Daniel Squadron and Councilmember Margaret Chin — stood side-by-side again last week, one year later, to celebrate the allocation of funding for repairs.
“This issue wasn’t going to go away in months — it’s going to take years,” said Stringer, a few days before he was elected to be city comptroller. “But today the city has taken a critically important step … This was a difficult place to be after the storm…but the seniors, the parents, the children and everybody pulled together to get us through that difficult time. And we have an obligation in government to continue that effort, to make sure that we’re whole again.”
And in a related issue, on Oct. 31 the City Council voted to pass legislation, sponsored by Chin, that would require the city to provide property protection and resiliency information — including the creation of emergency preparedness guidelines — to residential and commercial building owners, and would put the responsibility on owners to post emergency information to prepare tenants for extreme weather situations.
STILL WAITING FOR REBATES
Amid the positive atmosphere that surrounded the Oct. 30 announcement, the fact remains that Knickerbocker tenants have still not received the rent rebates they were promised a year ago.
Last November, after tenants spent weeks without electricity or hot water, a representative of Ares Management (formerly called AREA Property Partners), which owns Knickerbocker, said the company would ensure that “not a penny of rent will be paid for the days on which [residents] didn’t have essential services.”
But management recently confirmed that none of that money has yet been paid out.
“We’re still trying to make it happen, said Edwin Maltzman, the development’s controller, said in a phone interview.
Knickerbocker Village is a Mitchell-Lama development, so although it is owned by Ares, its cash flow is controlled by the state’s Division of Housing and Community Renewal.
Maltzman said that management has been working alongside D.H.C.R. in an attempt to fund rent rebates through insurance claims, but acknowledged that it’s still a work in progress.
Meanwhile, Wilson, the tenant leader, said in a phone interview prior to the Oct. 30 press conference that he believes the fight for rent rebates was unfeasible from the very beginning.
Typically when D.H.C.R. approves rent rebates for a Mitchell-Lama complex, those deductions must be balanced out later by rent increases in order to balance the development’s cash flow. If that ends up being the case at Knickerbocker, the process would be self-defeating.
“That’s the whole problem,” said Wilson. “They haven’t gotten the insurance companies to cover it, and if they can’t do that, then the money for rebates would eventually have to come out of the pockets of tenants.”
Wilson added that he and other tenant leaders have tried to explain this to other residents who were clamoring for the rebates, but said that it’s simply difficult to educate them through weekly meetings, and that therefore many still don’t fully understand the process. He believes that management should reach out to residents in order to explain the difficulty of securing effective rent rebates.
“[Management] would be helping themselves out if they did that,” said Wilson, “because right now, every time they walk outside, there are residents demanding the rebates.”
But even amid all the technical difficulties, Speaker Silver and Councilmember Chin, alongside the other local elected officials, are still pushing equally hard to make sure that any rebates are not paid for through later rent increases.
“I secured a promise from the owner of Knickerbocker that tenants would receive rent rebates for the time they were without essential services and that the cost of those rebates would not be passed on to the tenants,” Silver said in a statement to Downtown Express Oct. 29, the anniversary of Sandy. “I expect that promise to be kept.”
But Maltzman’s response was, at best, tentative when asked if he believes it will actually be possible to fund rebates without eventual rent increases.
“We’ll have to see about that,” he said.
Silver reiterated the point about the rebates at the Oct. 30 press conference.
Ares sent a representative — Stuart Koenig, a senior partner — to the press conference, but he declined to respond to a question about the rent rebates.