Tenants scramble to stop UWS sale

By Alec Appelbaum | January 07, 2008 04:13PM

A last-ditch tenants’ effort to block a contracted sale of an affordable Upper West Side apartment complex could yield a creative deal that would help preserve the neighborhood’s economic diversity — or prove how difficult preserving the city’s supply of affordable housing has become.
Trinity School, an elite private school, is selling to Pembroke Companies the 200-unit Trinity House, one of the last affordable complexes in the once economically-mixed Upper West Side. Pembroke owns several other buildings in the area, including at least one that used to operate under the state’s Mitchell-Lama program, established 52 years ago to cap housing costs.

Pembroke officials are meeting today with tenants, school officials and local City Council member Gale Brewer to discuss how to satisfy the seller’s terms while preserving Trinity House’s income mix. Brewer said negotiations would lead to a third-party nonprofit’s emergence as a buyer or financial partner to the tenants.

“Every building is different,” says Brewer. “If there were a little bit of assistance, because the tenants are very well organized, they could purchase it themselves. We are running the numbers very carefully.”

In 1968, Trinity constructed the site on West 92nd Street near Columbus Avenue, next to its campus, to finance expansion in the then-troubled neighborhood. The school saw a chance to offload it when the looming expiration of Mitchell-Lama protections opened the building to a potential condo conversion.  

In June, the school agreed on a $29 million sale to Pembroke, which notified tenants that it intends to leave the Mitchell-Lama program. Brewer and the tenants want a permanent subsidy for the apartments and oppose the Mitchell-Lama withdrawal, which requires approval from the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development. 

“In my area, there were 20 Mitchell-Lamas six years ago and there are three left,” Brewer said. “If a building is privatized, people move and it goes to market rates.”
Advocacy group Tenants and Neighbors is helping the tenants’ association seek a nonprofit buyer, such as the Settlement Housing Fund, that would let families with a range of incomes remain at Trinity.
“Our pitch has been that the sale is not economically viable because it would be predatory,” Tenants and Neighbors organizer Amy Chan said.

Pembroke has agreed to meet with the tenants’ association but has not committed to any changes. Advocates want Trinity, a 299-year-old institution whose alums include retired tennis star John McEnroe and CNBC’s David Faber, to reconsider the sale.
“We will be asking Trinity to consider an alternative offer endorsed by the tenants,” said Chan, who led a picket at the school’s annual fundraiser last month.

Myles Amend, Trinity’s director of development and alumni relations, denied the need for another buyer and said Trinity is “in contract and so probably wouldn’t be able to entertain another offer.”
“It will become a rent-stabilized building so there’s no possibility that anyone will be evicted,” he said.

Rich Mulieri, a Pembroke spokesman, said the developer has a solid track record with other buildings that “speaks volumes” about its civic stewardship.  
The city’s department of Housing Preservation and Development would need to cite a serious threat to the city’s affordable housing stock to reject the sale, as the state did when David Bistricer tried to buy the massive Starrett City complex.

Brewer said only a nonprofit developer could protect the complex and the neighborhood from tipping into an all-luxury zone.

The bid comes amid turbulence in middle-income housing. As programs at all government levels face being phased out, a wave of luxury development around the city has stirred fears that rapid gentrification will wipe out moderately-priced housing. Some City Council candidates, such as housing activists Brad Lander in Park Slope and Evan Thies in Williamsburg, have made new affordable housing protections central to their nascent campaigns.