Exit from Mitchell-Lama Enters Final Phase

Westview Affordability Plan Gets a Bumpy Ride with RIOC Board

David Stone
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

Westview residents breathed a sigh of relief after approving an affordability plan allowing them to exit Mitchell-Lama, but RIOC's Real Estate Advisory Committee isn't ready to let it go forward yet.

RIOC's Real Estate Advisory Committee 10/13/16

Even before some minor fireworks sparked and fizzled at the Roosevelt Island Operating Corp.'s Real Estate Advisory Committee meeting on Thursday, October 13, surprises flavored what was a learning session for most people crowded into their small conference room.

Attendance was up because three significant issues were before the committee: plans for ferry service to Roosevelt Island, which you can read about here; consideration of the Westview Affordability Plan, recently voted on by tenants; and Youth Center renovations along with an RFP for its overall management.

The main considerations concerning the Youth Center were taken up in executive session, which means the Board was not yet prepared to deliberate unsettled details publicly, but Westview proved educational in ways not completely predictable.

Communication Gaps Exposed

The Westview Affordability Plan was on the Committee's agenda because tenants voted overwhelmingly to approve one hammered out in negotiations between the Westview Task Force and building owner David Hirschhorn. Because the Mitchell-Lama exit requires a ground lease modification between RIOC and the owner, the full Board needs to vote in favor.

This information came as a surprise to a sprinkling of Westview residents in attendance who'd been rallied by tenant Sherie Helstien to participate in an effort to halt RIOC's approval. Most thought a vote might be taken that evening.

Board approval is complicated, RIOC Acting President Susan Rosenthal explained, by the need to have it done before a cut off date in January.

Committee Chair Howard Polivy advised members Margie Smith, Fay Christian and David Kraut (participating remotely by phone) that there would be a lot of work for each of them in completing a review within a cramped timeframe.

Rosenthal explained that an appraisal of Westview commissioned by RIOC would give them a perspective on whether the plan approved was in the corporation's best interests. "It may not agree with what was approved," she advised.

Christian was puzzled.

"We were told that, if the residents were happy, it was not our place to object," she said.

Rosenthal's answer was surprising. She explained that the negotiations between the Task Force and the owner had gone on in private without involving RIOC or HCR (NYS Homes and Community Renewal, which oversees both Mitchell-Lama and RIOC) for guidance.

Here, Paul Lenner objected.

"I'm a member of the Task Force, and our meetings included HCR. We were told that they wanted tenants to be happy. I sat in on hundreds of hours of meetings to reach a reasonable compromise. We hope the expedited review will bring approval before the January cut off," he concluded.

"We will try to help you," Rosenthal assured him, explaining that her legal team was already having discussions with owner Hirschhorn, who she described as "very cooperative."

At this point, Polivy stepped in to put things in perspective.

"We will rely on our appraisal in determining if the deal is fair to the corporation. How does it fit with the spectrum of the island generally?"

Now, Helstien spoke up, calling the vote in which more than 90% of Westview tenants voted in favor "a sham."

We will consider her accusations in another article, but in front of the committee, it boiled down to her claim that it was approved, not because because tenants like the plan but because they were "scared to death" by the Task Force's tactics.

This surfaced another surprising factor to the debate with Polivy again trying to regain focus, explaining, "One of the things we will rely on is whether it’s based on an affordability plan. HCR will decide if there is a valid affordability plan."

HCR's determination of the deal's appropriateness, he suggested, would override other concerns.

But Lenner was unwilling to let Helstien's accusations stand.

"The items Sherry presented are not accurate," he said.

A tenant dispute, simple enough, but what followed was surprising.

It turns out that RIOC, although in discussions with the building's owner and aware of years of negotiations that ended with the vote, has never seen the affordability plan. Rosenthal asked Lenner to supply her with a copy, a request to which he readily agreed.

As with tenant complaints about sub metering practices that violate the terms of RIOC's ground lease with Manhattan Park, RIOC again seemed to be out of the loop, leaving tenants to fend for themselves with building owners.

Endnotes

Helstien's objections notwithstanding, RIOC's next step is to get a look at the approved affordability plan and consider it in light of the independent appraisal expected within days. As Polivy said, a lot of time will be devoted to a thorough review before any recommendation goes to the full Board.

An unreconcilable conflict exists with tenant expectations and that of some Board Members who contend that they were told that the only consideration of real concern was whether tenants were happy with the deal. Polivy's point of view amounted to "Not so fast."

A deal of this size with consequences that will extend far into the future requires a more conscientious review, and Polivy is committed to seeing it gets one.

 

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