David Stone
Opinion: Westview Task Force Takes Sides with RIOC/HCR

The Westview Task Force began a message to tenants, "While progress in discussions between NYS agencies and WV Owners has not been as fast as anticipated, due in part to RIOC President Susan Rosenthal’s extended vacation in June, still a lot has been accomplished and we are told parties are just inches away." Yes, the vacation variation is new, but haven't we heard that one before, more than once, along the troubled road to affordability?

In a note to tenants resembling RIOC's and HCR's talking points, the Task Force sought to calm justifiable frustrations of tenants who've spent more than a year and a half waiting for affordability to become reality, the fruit of a negotiated plan they overwhelmingly approved in 2016.

The note's an mishmash of evasion, misdirection, face-saving, false claims and just plain bad advice. It follows years of botched negotiations and raises a broader question - why is the Task Force - and curiously, Sherie Helstien, who opposes the plan - working to keep tenants' anger suffocated with platitudes, cliches and reassurances... and taking a gratuitous, grossly inaccurate swipe at The Daily's reporting in the process?

Nothing quite as foolish - or revealing - as taking a shot at your supporters. Whose side is the Task Force on, anyway? It's own, we'd argue.

Let's take a trip back in history.

When Westview tenants approved an affordability plan, back in September, 2016, they had every right to expect swift execution. It was, after all, based on a successful Mitchell-Lama conversion at Island House, nearly identical.

But that view defies history.

Island House got their plan approved only after battling the then new Cuomo administration at the finish line. And Westview was not part of that because their own Task Force broke away, adopting a different, far less successful strategy. Tenants got five more years of uncertainty, infighting and may walk away with no affordability deal at all.

There is no reason to believe that the Cuomo administration, which includes both RIOC and HCR, favors affordability. Much of Cuomo's agenda is set by real estate interests, little of it attuned to needs of middle and low income New Yorkers.

Also, keep in mind, RIOC has already backed away from at least two settled agreements, the original plan that was voted in and another reached after hard negotiations, early this year. The second agreement between RIOC and Westview's owners was memorialized in a letter mandated under public authorities law, written by RIOC President/CEO Susan Rosenthal, dated March 19th, this year. The letter itself is unambiguous, but chances are that Rosenthal was deceptively ambivalent, secretly, behind the scenes.

A copy of her letter is attached below.

Rosenthal promised to bring the agreement before her Board in May, getting it approved well ahead of the deadline needed to secure optimal financing arranged by the owner/sponsor.

But a funny thing, cloaked in secrecy, happened on the way to affordability. It alone belies every reassurance Rosenthal has offered since and probably before. Rosenthal and Board Chair RuthAnne Visnauskas brought the negotiated deal to RIOC's Real Estate Development and Advisory Committee (REDAC) in advance of the May session.

Rosenthal had already assured that approval was a certainty. Both ex-officio Board Members representing State agencies, Visnauskas being one of them, would certainly vote approval, leaving it necessary to win over only one of three resident Members left on a badly shrunken Board. Howard Polivy was pegged as a certain "Yes" vote.

"He always votes with us."

Yet Rosenthal and Visnauskas left the closed door REDAC meeting after too short a period to have gone over the agreement in detail, and by the time they walked away together up Main Street, it was dead. Days later, Rosenthal startled Westview's Sponsor representative, David Hirschhorn, with a fresh demand for more money.

No explanation was ever publicly offered. And since the Board has from all appearances been sidelined during negotiations all along, willing to go along with whatever was hammered out, the likelihood that the plan was ever really offered as viable is slim. At this distance, what occurred looks more like a sleazy negotiating ploy.

You'd think the Task Force would be up in arms, being left at the alter for a second time, but they are not. Years of effort and tenant investment in optimism were chucked to the gutter by RIOC's killing another promised deal, but the Task Force, two months later, says its "just inches away."

If that were true, they'd have easily gotten it done in time for the last Board Meeting prior to the financing deadline. Not even close. Rosenthal's vacation ought to be seen as a message all its own.

The Task Force advises, settle down, sit back, trust the State and don't believe what you read in the newspaper, just like Sherie Helstien. The message reads like it's all up to RIOC and HCR. It's like the Sponsor and investors, the only people besides tenants with real skin in the game, are non-players, a perilous, ill-informed assumption .

Then, it goes from strange to stupid.

Taking a shot at our reporting the Task Force added, "Please note: The rumors circulated recently by a certain RI publication (That's us!) that WV negotiations “collapsed” and that WV might end up leaving the Mitchell Lama program without an affordability plan are grossly inaccurate.

"Considering the multiple regulatory and contractual barriers involved, leaving ML without an approved affordability plan is practically impossible. WV negotiations did not collapse. They are intensive and ongoing.  Yes, it has taken too long but all parties (Owners, HCR, RIOC, ESDC) stated repeatedly they were committed to conclude matters in July."

There's a short story's worth of fiction in this, and it should be clear to any thinking person that "intensive and ongoing" negotiations would've yielded results long ago. But let's just consider this humdinger of wishful thinking: "Considering the multiple regulatory and contractual barriers involved, leaving ML without an approved affordability plan is practically impossible."

It's as if the Task Force doesn't know or refuses to acknowledge that Rivercross exited Mitchell-Lama with no affordability plan of any kind, years ago. Eastwood, now Roosevelt Landings, left with a plan so lame it's been overrun with escalating rents, Airbnbs and transients after protections for the needy, especially the elderly in 546, were swept away in the exit.

Both Mitchell-Lama exits, without affordability protections, were approved by RIOC without much fuss.

Island House is the only true affordable exit from Mitchell-Lama ever pulled off on Roosevelt Island, and it was a battle.

The Task Force's statement is manifestly untrue; so, what's to gain from making it?

Fact: Sponsors are free to drop out of Mitchell-Lama into a plan of their own choosing after 20 years, a hurdle Westview leapt over decades ago. The Sponsors have long been committed to affordability but have been unable to reach an accommodation with the State. They can go market tomorrow, if they like. There'd be negotiations over terms for extending the ground lease, either way. No law forces investors and property owners into a pair of financial handcuffs as envisioned by the Task Force.

A court fight might very well ensue over terms of the ground lease, but that's far different than "practically impossible."

And RIOC may secretly covet a move to market rate. Both the State and owners would gain from increased purchase and rental prices without affordable protections. Only tenants and community values would lose.

What should frighten residents most of all immediately is this: The Task Force, contradicting its own assurances, is asking residents to show up at Thursday's Town Hall "...to put pressure on our elected representatives and RIOC. We want to know ‘What’s going on with Westview’? ‘Why is it taking so long’? ‘When will our ground lease be approved’?"

The task force reiterated this call to action by tenants "...to voice their concerns, frustration, fear, anger, etc. about the stalling of the Westview Affordability Plan and deal to exert pressure to get RIOC and elected officials to approve it 'ASAP'."

RIOC is not a participant in the meeting. None of the participants are directly involved in negotiations, and most aren't connected with them at all.

There is no plan now in place for RIOC or anyone else to approve. The last one was scraped by RIOC in April.

It would be hard to find a more useless waste of time and energy.

When the problem with the affordability plan is with RIOC and HCR, the Task Force wants residents to carry signs and yell at the City's Public Advocate, the Manhattan Borough President, the City Comptroller, our City Council Member, State Assembly Member, State Senator and Congresswoman.

What's missing here?

First, none of these people are directly involved in negotiations or responsible for their results. Second, those who are responsible, RIOC, NYS Homes and Community Renewal and, ultimately, Governor Andrew Cuomo, will be, at best, on the sidelines.

The Task Force wants tenants to fight a losing battle with the wrong people.

It's ridiculous.

RIOC should've been targeted with protests, months ago. Now, it's probably too late. RIOC may have taken tenant passivity as weakness.

With nothing to lose politically and much to gain, why would RIOC pull back and let any deal cross the always shifting goal line?

We can't come up with a reason, can you?

  1. Public Authorities Law Letter/RIOC March 19, 2018 (91.02 KB)