Update as of, believe or not, April 1st

Westview Affordability: Frank Farance Stirs the Fire

Updated 3 weeks ago David Stone
Westview Affordability: Frank Farance Stirs the Fire
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

Frank Farance has a well-earned reputation for raising hell over wrongs he feels harm himself and his neighbors on Roosevelt Island. Always cranky and forceful, his detailed critiques can run smack into a bullseye. Other times, with all good intentions, they miss their mark. His recent "URGENT: RIOC botches Westview plan, 1000 people may lose affordable housing" letter, emailed to everyone whose cage needed rattling or who might spread the word is an extreme example of a complete miss.

Don't be mislead by the noise or the candor. Frank Farance is as fearless as they come in expressing his opinions, but his verbal attack on "RIOC's inaction and, apparent malfeasance" is about as far off base as you can get without leaving Earth's gravity field.

Let's look back at the vote in which an overwhelming majority of Westview residents approved a plan for exiting Mitchell-Lama. Negotiated between the Westview Task Force and owner David Hirschhorn, the deal was delivered to RIOC belatedly when it was disclosed at a RIOC Real Estate Committee meeting that the leaseholder had inexplicably not been given a copy.

At that meeting, in spite of insinuations in Farance's letter, Committee Chair Howard Polivy was clearly eager to get down to business reviewing and, hopefully, approving the plan. There was no evident resistance from the other Board Members present. Though all but one, David Kraut, who participated over the phone, are Rivercross residents, they were ready to work hard and long through the December holidays, as Polivy warned that they must, to get a review done on time.

A snag developed when Housing and Community Renewal, RIOC's State oversight agency, took weeks to complete its own necessary review before reporting to RIOC. HCR's responsibility was to approve the plan as fair and correct for all invested parties. When, around the first of the year, RIOC President Susan Rosenthal told us and we reported that negotiations with Westview's owner and multiple state agencies were underway, it should have been clear to everyone that HCR had not approved all elements of the affordability plan, a result that caused the opening of new discussions.

Another point that Farance whiffed on is that HCR leads the State team, which includes RIOC and Empire State Development, each with skin in the game, as subordinates. Clearly, any "INCOMPETENCE AND MALFEASANCE" (caps Farance's) attributed to RIOC are as off the mark as are his accusations of "inaction."

HCR is calling the shots, not RIOC or its Board. RIOC's role is primarily to advise and consent, in the traditional way of subordinate structural parts of the bureaucratic state machinery.

If RIOC (and HCR) can be faulted for anything, it's a lack of transparency. Communications are inexcusably lax. Neither has taken the trouble to explain what bugs them about the plan approved by tenants or what they're hoping to do about it. As deadlines pass and nervousness rises, RIOC's lapse in transparency hurts everyone, Westview tenants worst of all.

With multiple sets of moving parts making this negotiation far more complex than Farance admits, we have both visible and not so visible players pushing the scrum from different angles. Some of them may surprise you. Let's have a look.

Who's On the Field?

Unfortunately, Westview tenants and their Task Force seem to have been left completely out of the loop since the affordability plan was approved, although there may be a significant and troubling exception we will touch on in a moment. Their negotiating partner, David Hirschhorn, is still involved, of course.

For the State, Housing and Community Renewal is fronting for Empire State Development as well as RIOC. Another, invisible party, left out of Farance's missive, should be obvious: Governor Andrew Cuomo.

The Governor holds ultimate responsibility over all three and is well-known for his hands on approach to governing issues, especially those with high potential for political impact. Cuomo was strongly challenged from the left in his last primary election and is unlikely to leave himself as vulnerable again.

As for HCR, the department is finding its way through a leadership transition, its Commissioner recently promoted by Cuomo to broader statewide responsibilities. There are undoubtedly additional reshuffles bogging down decision making.

And Governor Cuomo? After investing heavily in getting the 2nd Avenue Subway opened by the end of 2016, he pivoted quickly to a State budget that depends heavily on federal funding. That money is now threatened by You Know Who and a Republican controlled Congress. That's a lot of heavy lifting, and it doesn't leave much free time for other concerns.

Into that mix must be added another element that has escaped notice. Take a look at the Roosevelt Islander's video again, and you will see Westview residents Sherie Helstien and Matthew Katz on the scene, there only to protest the plan in opposition to the vast majority of their neighbors. Helstien bitterly opposes the approved affordability plan and threatened, at this meeting, to take her complaints to higher authority to block its signing.

The picture gets murkier when you remember that Helstien along with fellow Maple Tree Group members Joyce Short and Linda Heimer were recently honored by State Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright. Seawright has been heavily involved in the Westview Affordability process. Although she's kept a public silence as tensions increase, she was described to me as "an enabler" by a highly placed State official in an off the record conversation where I wondered aloud about Seawright's honoring "some of the community's most divisive people."

The "divisive people" I was referring to are the Maple Tree Group activists who have Seawright's ear. Along with Helstien's attack on the affordability plan that nine out of ten of her neighbors approved, Short recently embarrassed the Common Council by driving through a plan to mount a Maple Tree Group inspired faux election of RIOC Board Members, attempting to undermine the agency and maliciously misquoting Rosenthal to push her agenda. Heimer has long been high in the hierarchy of the RIRA/Maple Tree Group Review, commonly known as the Main Street WIRE. Her most recent visible contribution was a, let's say, "creative," look at MTG's efforts to seize control of RIOC's Board.

History strongly suggests that these three, along with Katz, et al, have seized the opportunity to lobby Seawright with the usual persistence. Seawright has not publicly spoken out about the Westview deadlock, but she gave a firm salute to Helstien, Short and Heimer, all but endorsing the extremist minority trying to overthrow the plan approved by Westview tnenants.

Background Mistakes

In a separate article, we'll take a look at the foundation Farance has established for condemning RIOC on numerous occasions, including many prior accusations of malfeasance and bid rigging. For now, let's narrow it down to the more immediate issues. 

Farance quotes Susan Rosenthal: "HCR did not look at the affordability plan before the vote. ESD has not looked at the TEP payment before the vote. I'm not sure why it was done in this chronology."

He refers to it as "BALONEY!!!" The three exclamation points are his, in case you didn't understand that all in capital letters already means you are being screamed at.

For evidence, he writes about HCR's participation in Island House's process where Westview was seen as a related part of the general discussion. What Farance misses is that, days before being asked to vote, even Westview residents complained about not having seen the final plan. It isn't much of a leap to assume that the State agencies hadn't either. Well after the vote was completed, RIOC had to request a copy from a member of the Task Force. He readily complied, but shouldn't that have been automatic?

In fact, if you're looking for a factor in RIOC's silence, you might consider this extreme form of public comment, casting ridicule and emailing it to every elected official and the media. Free speech is a great thing, but it does suggest some inherent responsibility for accuracy, amusing though it is to see Farance and Helstien on the same team.

Conclusion

Poor communications or the lack of them altogether abrades trust and is a direct cause of rising tensions. That RIOC or HCR would allow this situation to fester is a troubling sign of mismanagement. More likely, the root offender is HCR, but RIOC gets muddied too.

As for Farance's familiar allegations of "malfeasance," they are even less appropriate than usual and, so far, have served mainly to antagonize. They are less likely to speed things up as they are to inspire additional foot dragging. Who did he expect would respond positively to an insulting public attack? Let's ignore human nature, shall we? Not likely.

And you can forget about anyone charging anyone with any legal violation. No one at RIOC or HCR gains materially from this standoff. So, where's the crime? Get serious.

Seawright and Helstien both owe Westview residents a clean, clear explanation of their activities regarding the Westview Affordability Plan. Both have an absolute right to oppose it. Neither has any such associated right to campaign against the resident approved plan in private. To Helstien's credit, she has been candid about her opposition, but in what ways has she followed up on her threat to undermine it with the Attorney General or other officials?

Now that the embers have been stirred, it's time for everyone to speak up. Westview's tenants are not anyone's bargaining chip.

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