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Affordable Housing in Northern Manhattan: The New Oxymoron

By Leon Tulton

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer addressing residents and housing advocacy groups on March 3, 2007 on how the decreasing number of Mitchell-Lama housing is contributing to the affordable housing crisis in Northern Manhattan. The photo was courtesy of the Office of Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer.By Leon Tulton
East Harlem, March 3, 2007. Marion Bell and Joann Lawson share a few things in common.  Both are long-term residents of Northern Manhattan and are very active in their community; Bell as a member of Manhattan Community Board 11 and Lawson as the president of the Tenants Association at Lakeview, a 446-unit apartment complex both women call home. For the last five years, however, Bell and Lawson have also shared something in common with a growing number of tenants in Mitchell-Lama housing throughout New York City: the constant fear of being forced out of their homes if their landlords decide to leave the Mitchell-Lama program.  “[If Lakeview leaves the Mitchell-Lama program], my rent is going to double.  That I’m sure of,” Lawson said about how her home may not be so affordable any more.  ‘Do I think I can afford it?  Absolutely not.”  Thirty-six year old Bell, who has been a resident of Lakeview since age six, also expressed her desire to stay at the complex.  “This is my home,” she said.  “This is something that I don’t want to readily leave.”  Statements like these are not new to elected officials like Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer.  The concerns from his constituents about this issue have become so great that Stringer co-hosted a conference in March 2007 to address the declining stock of affordable housing in New York City as more landlords choose to leave the Mitchell-Lama program.

“The fight to save Mitchell-Lama is not new,” Stringer told the 500 plus members of the audience who attended the conference.  “Residents, advocates, and elected officials have been fighting for decades to protect this critical stock of affordable housing.”

According to the borough president, the New York State Mitchell-Lama Housing Program was created in 1955 for the purpose of building affordable housing for middle-income residents.  The program, named after two former state legislators who sponsored the legislation, MacNeil Mitchell and Alfred Lama, has been credited by many for sparking the development of affordable housing in New York City.  Developers who agreed to adhere to the regulations of the Mitchell-Lama program were rewarded with low-interest mortgage loans and property tax exemptions in exchange for building more affordable housing.  Although the Mitchell-Lama program encouraged developers to create affordable housing in the city, it also contained a provision that allowed developers to withdraw from the program, or buy out, after 20 years upon prepayment of the mortgage (or after 35 years in the case of developments aided by loans prior to May 1, 1959).  When developments buy out, they are no longer subject to Mitchell-Lama regulation, and apartment need not be kept affordable for moderate-income families.  With the real estate market in New York City at an all-time high, more landlords of Mitchell-Lama properties felt that they could make a bigger profit from their buildings through increased rent if they opted out of the Mitchell-Lama program.

The mass exodus of property owners from the Mitchell-Lama program is a growing concern among elected officials such as City Comptroller William C. Thompson.  His office has estimated that New York City has lost nearly 25 percent of its affordable housing (36, 629 units) developed under Mitchell-Lama.  In 2004 and 2006, the comptroller produced two reports that addressed the fast decline of affordable housing in the city.  “Unfortunately since the release of the 2004 and 2006 reports, the [affordable housing] situation has worsen,” Thompson said at the March event explaining that more housing units are continuing to withdraw from Mitchell-Lama at an alarming rate.  He cited how last year 28 Mitchell-Lama developments (nearly 13,000 units) had started the process to leave the program.  Of the 28, nine (approximately 5,700 units) have officially left Mitchell-Lama.  “If all 28 [developments] completely withdraw, New York City will have lost 33 percent of affordable units built under Mitchell-Lama,” the comptroller warned.

In the 2006 report, the Comptroller’s Office identified three apartment complexes in Northern Manhattan whose status in the Mitchell-Lama program was pending.  These three are Lakeview at 35 East 106th Street, Bethune Towers at 650 Lenox Avenue, and Lionel Hampton Houses at 301 West 130th Street.  East Harlem.com contacted the three buildings to get the owners” reasons for wanting to leave the Mitchell-Lama program.  Robert Seavey, one of the two co-owners of Lakeview, stated that he didn’t want to comment because he’s currently in talk with the City and State and was concerned that any public statement may hinder the on-going negotiation.  A representative of Baoton Management, the agency that runs Bethune Towers, refused to comment for this story.  “We don’t want to participate in this story,” the person said before abruptly ending the telephone conversation with this reporter.  The manager of Lionel Hampton Houses, who only identified herself as Ms. Rivera, also refused to comment and wouldn’t identify the name and contact information of the owner.  “I’m not authorized to reveal this information,” said Ms. Rivera who added that Lionel Hampton Houses has since left the Mitchell-Lama program in 2006.

Unlike other communities in Manhattan, Washington Heights and Inwood have fewer Mitchell-Lama apartments in the area.  According to the 2006 City Comptroller report, only two apartment complexes in Washington Heights and Inwood were listed as housing in the Mitchell-Lama program, Inwood Gardens and Inwood Terrance.  Despite the few Mitchell-Lama housing in the community, Washington Heights and Inwood residents may still be affected by the Mitchell-Lama crisis.  Evan Hess of Northern Manhattan Improvement Corporation argued that Mitchell-Lama tenants displaced from their apartments may look for new housing further north of the borough.  “Mitchell-Lama housing was designed for middle-class families,” he said.  “If they are priced out, they will go to neighborhoods like Washington Heights and Inwood, essentially competing with the area’s poorer residents for the few affordable housing that we have.” 

On July 2007, New Yorkers received some good news from the State when Governor Eliot Spitzer and the Division of Housing and Community Renewal announced regulation to close the “unique and peculiar” loophole, which until now has allowed landlords leaving Mitchell-Lama to immediately and drastically increase rents in their buildings to market rate.  By closing the loophole, this will potentially ensured that over 19,000 rent-regulated units would remain affordable in the future.

For Stringer, this was a small victory in the never-ending battle to preserve affordable housing for his constituents.  “The Mitchell-Lama community has been fighting to protect their homes for years,” the borough president said.  “This victory is long overdue and would never have been possible without the tireless advocacy of tenants and organizers throughout New York City and New York State.”  Bell also viewed Spitzer’s announcement as good news for tenants like herself.  “Now that we won the victory against the U&P loophole, we need to keep up the momentum that this significant victory has brought us,” she said.  “It’s fabulous that our advocacy has proven effective and we got to bring our individual talents together to fight for the cause for low-and-middle-income-targeted housing.”

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