Pols, tenants unhappy with proposed Mitchell-Lama changes

BY SAM SPOKONY | City officials have proposed changes to the rules governing the Mitchell-Lama housing program.

The amendments sought by the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (H.P.D.) include new restrictions to the rights of succession for Mitchell-Lama units, which house low and middle income residents.

The proposed rules would no longer allow units to be handed down to a tenant’s nephews, nieces, aunts or uncles. In addition, the rules would only authorize succession in cases where the tenant of record has either passed away or been relocated to a long term care facility.

Based on the current law, Mitchell-Lama units can be handed down to anyone who lives with a current tenant of record for at least two years, and who can prove emotional and financial interdependence with the tenant.

H.P.D. believes that the rule changes will help cut down on abuse of the succession rights system.

In the past, some people have signed leases for Mitchell-Lama apartments without actually living in them, simply in order to hand down the unit to a loved one after the required two-year period. This essentially allows certain people to secure an apartment without ever being put on a waiting list, unfairly bypassing eligible people who have been on a waiting list for years in order to get an opportunity to live in a Mitchell-Lama unit.

“We are attempting to open up Mitchell-Lama units to more hardworking New Yorkers who are in desperate need of affordable housing, without disrupting life or adding anxiety to those who currently reside in Mitchell-Lama developments,” said Eric Bederman, an H.P.D. spokesperson.

But the agency is facing opposition from some elected officials and Mitchell-Lama tenants who believe the proposed rule changes go too far.

Opponents claim that the H.P.D. amendments would create a much too narrow definition of what a family is, in terms of succession rights, and that this would cause some dependent residents to unfairly lose their homes upon the death or incapacitation of their tenant of record.

“[The proposed new rules] do not reflect the current nature of the families in New York City or the reality of many lives,” said State Senator Daniel Squadron at a Nov. 6 public hearing during which H.P.D. presented its plans.

In addition to removal of the aforementioned extended family and common-law relationships from succession rights eligibility, Squadron took issue with the fact that the proposed rules do not include any reference to non-married same sex couples or long term, non-parent family caregivers.

“By removing the flexibility to evaluate joint resident relationships, the changes may well lead to any number of other inflexible and unfair rulings on succession,” he said.

Both Squadron and Councilmember Margaret Chin also spoke out on Nov. 6 against the method — or lack thereof — by which H.P.D. introduced its proposal to the public in advance of the hearing.

“The public hearing scheduled for today on the proposed amendments should have been an opportunity for the community to participate in a constructive discussion,” said Chin, “yet neither my office nor Mitchell-Lama residents and their managements received public notice in a timely enough manner to conduct sufficient outreach.”

Several days after the Nov. 6 hearing, an H.P.D. spokesperson responded to those criticisms by pointing out that the proposal is being done in accordance with the City Administrative Procedure Act process, which is the standard used by city agencies for rule changes.

But the fact remained that Bob Wilson, a longtime tenant leader at Knickerbocker Village, a 1,600-unit Mitchell-Lama development on the Lower East Side, was not aware of the proposed rule changes until this reporter asked him for comment on Nov. 8.

After reading over a summary of the proposed changes to succession rights, Wilson said they seem “too strict” for his liking.

“I’m all for cracking down on abuse of succession rights, because we’ve seen it here before, and we resent it, but [H.P.D.] needs to be careful with this,” said Wilson. “It looks like they could end up throwing people out of apartments when they don’t deserve to be thrown out. And why are they even trying to define what family is, in this day and age?”

During his testimony at the Nov. 6 hearing, Squadron did acknowledge that “it is clear that reform of the Mitchell-Lama program is required,” and said that he is eager to make “common sense changes” to broaden eligibility and ensure the program remains sustainable.

But the Senator implied that his own approach to reform, undertaken primarily through community outreach and communication with fellow elected officials, could serve as a model for H.P.D. as it seeks to forge new rules.

Earlier this year, Squadron was able to work with Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and other assemblymembers to pass legislation that made would make some of those “common sense” changes to the Mitchell-Lama program — specifically, changes that would allow people with a broader range of income levels and family compositions to enter the program.

On Nov. 14 Squadron announced that Governor Andrew Cuomo had signed that bill.

“Now, thanks to our legislation, more families will have the chance to make a life here, no matter what their family looks like,” said Squadron, in a statement released that day. “This is a big win for New Yorkers, especially as our city faces an affordability crisis.”

Again responding to criticism following the Nov. 6 hearing on its proposed Mitchell-Lama changes, H.P.D. claimed that the hearing was just the beginning of the amendment process, rather than the end.

“The hearing was an opportunity to get feedback from Mitchell-Lama residents and those familiar with the program, and we will carefully consider all of the comments prior to finalizing the rule changes,” said Bederman.

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