Volume 19 Issue 48 | April 13 - 19, 2007

Downtown Express photo by Jefferson Siegel

The remaining tenants at Parc Place paying reduced rents will be allowed to stay.

B.P.C. tenants beat landlord

By Josh Rogers

It may not help having the state’s attorney general as a neighbor, but it sure can’t hurt.

Battery Park City resident Andrew Cuomo, who by day is New York’s top law enforcement official, pressured a neighborhood landlord to live up to a previous agreement to extend affordable rent protections to 78 of the tenants at 225 Rector Place until 2019.

Cuomo was perhaps not motivated by local loyalty, given that in three months in office he has also used the power of his position to protect affordable housing in Starrett City. He did not stroll over to the Regatta meeting room Tuesday night to hear the cheers of tenants when they learned they would not be forced to move for 12 years.

That pleasure was left to Scott Stringer, Manhattan’s borough president, who has been working with the worried tenants for nearly two years.

“I was fighting back the tears,” Trudy Zener said after she got the news from Stringer. She and her husband are both on disability and pay about $1,200 a month for a one bedroom apartment in the building, Parc Place. They turned down the chance for an Uptown Mitchell-Lama apartment two years ago and moved to B.P.C. because Zener thought the 2019 rent guarantee in the lease was a safer bet than the state middle class housing program, which allows landlords to buy out of the program. She and other tenants found out a few months later that the building’s new owner, Yair Levy, was converting the building to condos and he believed he was not obligated to honor the riders in the leases.

Cuomo, a former federal housing secretary, did not agree to approve Levy’s book outlining the condo conversion’s terms until the landlord included the rent protections in the report, known as a “red herring” until it is finalized and becomes a “black book.”

Most of the tenants in the 315-apartment building were paying market rents and were forced to move when their leases expired. About 50 apartments are still occupied and the rest of the building has been mostly a construction zone with vacant apartments being renovated. Tenants in 48 of the apartments paying below-market rents (many just over $1,000 a month) refused to leave, saying the owner was obligated to live up to an agreement to match rent increases to rent stabilization guidelines. The number of protected units is expected to drop to 46 since one resident fighting to stay recently moved and another died. A few tenants in the building are still paying market rates.

Tenant leaders Tuesday said the victory would not have been possible without Cuomo, Stringer, U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler and James Cavanaugh, president of the Battery Park City Authority (“the landlord’s landlord” as one leader described the state agency).

When Stringer told the audience “the tenants have won the right to stay in their homes until 2019” they all applauded, something they did repeatedly during his brief remarks.

“This is like the best announcement I have ever made in my life,” said Stringer, who was clearly moved by the joy in the room.

Samuel Himmelstein, one of the tenants’ attorneys, said sudden victories are not unusual in battles with landlords, but it’s rare when the win comes outside of a courtroom. “They gave up without a court decision because of the pressure from the attorney general,” Himmelstein said after the meeting.

His law partner, Kevin McConnell, was more reserved but he prefaced his caution by telling tenants, “I’m an attorney, I’m Irish Catholic and I’m a pessimist.” He said he would feel more secure if he had a letter from the landlord confirming he would send out lease renewals, but he said the changes to the red herring are reasons to be happy.

Himmelstein quickly added that he thought Levy would “be nuts to bring any of you to Housing Court at this point.” The landlord would risk a criminal prosecution if he tried to evict tenants in defiance of the document submitted to the attorney general, according to Himmelstein. He said tenants are better off without a lease for now because the landlord can’t raise the rents until he sends out renewals.

He cautioned them to abide by their leases when they get them and to not do anything to give the landlord an eviction excuse. “Be careful,” Himmelstein said. “You’re protected but they may be watching.”

Tenants have not had a rent increase in the two years Levy has owned the building. Related Companies, the original owner, received tax breaks for setting aside 20 percent of the building’ apartments for moderate income tenants in 1986. In 2002 the firm extended the lease rider until 2019 to induce people to stay in the building after 9/11.

Stringer said the tenants “stayed and didn’t run away,” helping prevent Lower Manhattan from turning into a “ghost town” after the 2001 attack.

After Levy bought the building, he argued the rider no longer applied because he paid off the mortgage of the Housing Finance Agency. Levy, his attorney Stuart Saft and spokespersons for Cuomo did not return calls for comment.

The tenants’ attorneys said they were confident they would have eventually prevailed in court but it would have been a long and costly fight. Tenant leaders collected $100 a month from each of the apartments and raised about $75,000. They have about $50,000 left, but Kim Allen, one of the tenant leaders, said they want to hold onto the money at least a little while longer just in case they need it.

Rosa Maria Smith, 51, said she was scared, but she also had faith. “The Lord brought me here from the South Bronx and I knew I was not going to leave,” she said.

Smith and thousands of others applied for several dozen affordable apartments in the building over two decades ago and she was one of the lucky ones to be selected at random.

She moved into the building in 1986 as a single mother with two girls — “it was still too much for me, over $500” — but she managed to pay the rent, which has more than doubled over the years.

She now has six children whom she is proud to have sent to some of Downtown’s well-regarded schools, P.S. 234, P.S. 89 and I.S. 89.
Smith said since most of her neighbors have moved away “it’s so empty,” which along with the construction, reminds her of the period after 9/11 sometimes. “You get accustomed to it.”

She asked Himmelstein during the meeting if people would be willing to pay millions for newly-renovated condos next to more rundown homes they would see glimpses of every day walking through the hallways.

Himmelstein said there are many similar situations in the city and “people see that as part of living in New York City.”

The lawyers said after the meeting that tenants will have no leverage to extend the agreement after November 2019, but they are likely to be able to stay longer if they can afford market rents.

Zener, 41, a former public school guidance counselor who recently retired with disability benefits, said she can’t imagine she will be able to afford market rents in 12 years but she is relieved she does not have to find a home now. Since she and her husband, who needs a cane to walk, need to be near public transportation, they don’t want move to a more inexpensive rural area and she worries they won’t be able to afford to stay in the city when they move from Battery Park City.

On Tuesday, two years after moving into Parc Place, she began to think about decorating her apartment. “We still haven’t hung up pictures on a wall.”

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