By Julie Shapiro
Dennis Gault and Tom Goodkind were on a mission.
The Community Board 1 members, armed with concern about rising rents, set out across Battery Park City on a recent Saturday in search of rent-stabilized apartments. Posing as prospective tenants, they inquired about rentals at 11 Battery Park City buildings.
The results of Gault and Goodkind’s expedition surprised them. Although Gateway Plaza is billed as the last rent-stabilized stronghold in Battery Park City, the pair found that 54 percent of the neighborhood’s units had some rent limitations. Even more surprising is that this percentage doesn’t even include Gateway, where rental agents said there was no rent stabilization (in fact, Gateway’s unique form of stabilization is slated to expire in 2009).
“It’s good to know the neighborhood isn’t all that bad,” Goodkind said. “It seems like we do have stabilization of sorts.”
This type of stabilization does not necessarily mean affordability, but rather sustainability. The rentals start out near market rate, but tenants benefit from the right of renewal, with increases that are subject to government guidelines.
As a result, the rents agents quoted to Gault and Goodkind were similar at the stabilized and not-stabilized buildings. One-bedrooms ran in the $3,500 range and two-bedrooms in the $5,000 range, with rent-restricted apartments both above and below those figures. The pair did not ask when the rent-stabilization agreements expire.
Gault and Goodkind told rental agents that their wives had sent them on the apartment-scouting expedition. The biggest challenge besides the amount of ground covered was keeping a straight face as they listened to sales pitches for the neighborhood they have called home for many years.
Rental agents touted P.S./I.S. 89, where Gault is president of the P.T.A., by quoting top ten reading score rankings from 2002. They also plugged proximity to the Battery Park City ballfields, but dodged Goodkind’s questions on finding affordable groceries.
At buildings without stabilization, rental agents assured the pair, “We’re not looking at throwing anyone out,” Goodkind quoted. “We will keep things reasonable don’t worry.”
Meanwhile, “We know for a fact how many families have been forced to move,” Goodkind said.
Goodkind presented the results to the C.B. 1 Battery Park City Committee Tuesday night, raising more questions than answers. Board members want to gather a list of stabilized buildings, including the reason they have rent increase protection, what that entails and when the benefits expire.
The answers won’t come from the Battery Park City Authority, since spokesperson Leticia Remauro said the authority does not keep track of rent stabilization or tax abatements. And neither were answers forthcoming from the state and city housing agencies, Division of Housing and Community Renewal and the Dept. of Housing Preservation and Development, whose spokespersons each told Downtown Express that Battery Park City is a special case and that rent arrangements there are complicated.
But lawyer Samuel Himmelstein, who successfully advocated for tenants at 225 Rector Pl., unraveled some of the mystery in a telephone interview.
Many city buildings are rent-stabilized because they were built before 1974, he said, but all Battery Park City rentals were built after that. In Battery Park City, a group of buildings are rent stabilized because the owner receives a government benefit similar to a 421-A tax abatement. The city Department of Finance keeps track of these buildings but would not release the information.
Under ordinary rent stabilization, the benefits disappear when the rent hits $2,000 and household income surpasses $175,000, but there is no such cap for buildings receiving tax abatements, Himmelstein said. That’s what makes the incoming rents at stabilized buildings in B.P.C. indistinguishable from market-rate rents.
For example, Rockrose Development Corp. owns two Battery Park City Buildings: 41 River Terrace and 22 River Terrace. The 41 building is stabilized while the 22 is not, but incoming rents are nearly identical, said Kathleen Scott, director of leasing at Rockrose. The tax abatement at the 41 building expires June 30, 2019, so the rent stabilization there will expire then as well, she said.
If the landlord does not provide tenants adequate notice of the expiration date, tenants can sometimes retain stabilization even after the abatement expires, Himmelstein said. The landlord must put a clause about the expiration in every single tenant’s lease. If even one is left out, then all the tenants can remain under rent stabilization until they leave their apartments.
Christopher Albanese, principal at the Albanese Organization, said rentals in the Solaire and the Verdesian have rent restrictions. The buildings receive 421-A abatements, Albanese said, but the arrangements are complicated and also include Liberty Bond financing, a post-9/11 tax-free program.
The properties of Milford Management, on the other hand, are not stabilized, a vice president said. When the apartments were built in the 1980s, they received 10-year 421-A abatements, which have since expired. Goodkind and Gault, however, were told that Milford’s buildings at 200 Rector Place and 99 Battery Place remain stabilized, but the vice president said that was impossible because the buildings are condos.
Despite the presence of rent-stabilized buildings, Battery Park City is not an affordable neighborhood, said Martha Lavayen, realtor at Battery Park Realty.
“It’s very hard to find good affordable housing in Battery Park City,” Lavayen said. “The rents around here are ridiculous.”
After Goodkind’s presentation, committee members committed to find out more information. Goodkind and Gault hope their data will spur continued advocacy for rent-stabilization throughout Battery Park City.
The data could also serve a more personal purpose for Goodkind, who lives in Gateway and is closely watching the rent-stabilization battle there unfold.
“If there’s an opportunity for a better long-term outlook [at another building], I’ll move my family there,” he said.
Gault already moved his family from Gateway to the Solaire in 2003 because of his concern about Gateway’s future.