Unregulated, Greed Usually Wins

If Westview Goes Market - Learning from Manhattan Park's Decline

David Stone

Prolonged stalling increases the risk that Westview will end up dropping Mitchell-Lama unilaterally, converting the complex into market rate rentals and coops. A look at what's become of market rate housing at Manhattan Park helps explain the dangers.

Should Westview Follow in Manhattan Park's Footsteps?
Should Westview Follow in Manhattan Park's Footsteps?
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

The comparison is not perfect.

Manhattan Park never was a Mitchell-Lama development, but its deal with RIOC from the late 1980s required a significant number of units be reserved for affordable housing. In addition, managers in the early years were sensitive to market pricing concerns, confining rent increases to rates approved for rent stabilized units citywide.

2-4 River Road rentals rely on "assistance to eligible low- and moderate-income families to rent housing in the private market," under the NYC Housing Authority's Section Eight Program.

Neighbors at 10, 20, 30 and 40 River Road have always paid market rate, under a lease agreement between Grenadier Realty, a wholly owned subsidiary of Starrett, and the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation.

RIOC is Grenadier's landlord, although trying to follow the thread of the real estate management company's identity will get you lost in a ball of yarn no self-respecting cat will take on.

Grenadier is self-described as a "multi family real estate owner/developer/manager," but information about the families is elusive, an important factor when you understand that one of the families involved in Starrett City goes by the name of "Trump."

The importance of Grenadier and Starrett connections to political power is of no small consequence and may explain RIOC's unwillingness to back tenants in disputes.

Market Rate at Manhattan Park

Roosevelt Island was relatively unknown in the early days, and little known Manhattan Park had trouble renting out apartments in the early days. Big tower ads appeared in the New York Times classifieds, a sign that low occupancy was a serious problem

Our first, one bedroom unit cost us a flat $1,000 per month in 1991 and included a hefty $400 "rent concession" used to get us into our first lease, one we could not otherwise afford.

In those days, the buildings were new and consistently well maintained.

I remember a sunny morning after a light, overnight snow, joking with the crew management sent out to clear the sidewalks that they'd better hustle if they hoped to clear the snow before it melted.

Manhattan Park was committed to offering a pleasant community experience, although they actively tried to disrupt efforts to form a tenants association, sending "observers" to make meetings uncomfortable whenever they heard about them.

Over the next 25 years, radical change hit Manhattan Park, as we've already documented. There's no need to relive that here, but feel free to click the link for background.

What concerns those of us still here is what became of Roosevelt Island's first market rate complex, left unfettered by a weak-kneed landlord at RIOC, and what may be in store for Westview if the worst thing for tenants - that is, going market rate - happens.

It also has profound implications for Roosevelt Island in general as its original intention gets buried in the race for profits.

It's Just Business

It is.

The families that own and operate Grenadier are in it for the money. We should expect nothing else. Few of us get up in the morning and go to work without expecting something in return. In that way, we're just like our wealthier cousins.

But corporate philosophies shade how profits are made and the balance of power between developers and those of us who depend on them for quality living conditions.

All real estate managers in New York don't have devilish horns protruding from their temples. Nor do they have haloes. Some sincerely do take pride in providing safe, pleasant homes for their tenants; others not so much.

Manhattan Park Laundry Room at 4:00 a.m., abandoned laundry in driers and washers, debris on the floor. Facilities are forced to handle tenants far in excess of the number for which they were designed. The results are everywhere.
Manhattan Park Laundry Room at 4:00 a.m., abandoned laundry in driers and washers, debris on the floor. Facilities are forced to handle tenants far in excess of the number for which they were designed. The results are everywhere.
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

Others, as is increasingly true with Manhattan Park, are more concerned with cosmetics, the "bright and shiny objects" as Frank Farance would say, that get newcomers into expensive leases than with overseeing the kind of environment that makes you eager to stay - or worse yet, with disguising the dominant conversion of one-time family units into packed dormitory style residences for transients.

It wasn't always like that.

In the early days, when it was harder to rent apartments, we had a live-in manager who was so eager for feedback she'd sometimes hang out in the lobby and engage tenants. It wasn't perfect, of course, but we'd settle for that level of shortcomings now.

In contemporary contrast, about five years ago, Grenadier installed a non-resident manager who doesn't speak to most of his employees, never mind tenants. Nothing in his LinkedIn profile suggest anything close to qualifications expected of a property manager in an 800+ unit complex.

Draw your own conclusions.

His assistant is, similarly, a non-resident.

Complaints, and there are many, are initially answered politely and with assurances of improvement, but when they persist, Manhattan Park management turns a deaf ear. When they are either incapable, unwilling or not allowed to do what's needed, they simply shut you out.

Like it or lump it.

As an example, when we contacted management about cockroaches, which are becoming a feature in multiple buildings, partying in the refuse room on our floor, management stopped responding after the fourth complaint, the problem left unresolved.

As time passed and Manhattan Park cooked up a scheme to not only attract more tenants but also to get them to pay more, responsiveness and responsibility decreased commensurately. 

Westview residents have no reason to believe that they will not see similar trends if their building goes market. It's already happened at Roosevelt Landings, formerly Eastwood, and only conscientious management has prevented it in Southtown and The Octagon. 

Here's why.

What's Behind the Marketing

At 30 River Road, management of apartments being converted was so lax, the Department of Buildings stepped in with a Stop Work Order.
At 30 River Road, management of apartments being converted was so lax, the Department of Buildings stepped in with a Stop Work Order.

Like so many other real estate management companies in New York, Grenadier and others on Roosevelt Island - Rivercross and Westview are exceptions - fell like teenagers with first romantic crushes for the lure of transient housing, much of it illegal but so universally ignored you can take for granted that no one's doing much of anything about it.

It will take an incident tragic enough to bring out mass media, as with PS/IS 217's rat colony, to shock officials into admitting to what we already know and taking action to stop it.

Landlords bulk up rental payments by packing in students who stay for as little as three months and are consequently not much invested in the community. In a place as confined as Roosevelt Island, the impact is jarring.

Making it worse are an increasing number of Airbnb rentals, as illegal as they are blatant, where managers of dormitory units sublet sections for single days at time.

It required multiple, increasingly alarmed reports to Manhattan Park Management before a water leak in the wall immediately adjacent to an electric circuit was fixed, exposing tenants to the risk of electrical fires for more than a week.
It required multiple, increasingly alarmed reports to Manhattan Park Management before a water leak in the wall immediately adjacent to an electric circuit was fixed, exposing tenants to the risk of electrical fires for more than a week.
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

If you're wondering if security went out the window when transients began dominating the buildings, I can assure you it has. If you're also wondering if management here is taking it seriously, you're kidding, right?

I repeat, there is nothing preventing this from happening to Westview, if the complex goes private. Neither RIOC nor law enforcement is doing much to discourage let alone stop it, a sorry reality unlikely to change.

Behind the "luxe apartments" marketing at Manhattan Park is an unfortunate truth. Where parents raised families in three bedroom apartments and diplomats once entertained are units cut up and converted into student dormitories.

Packing rotating students into living rooms now partitioned to allow three mattresses with still more in the bedrooms, all sharing a kitchen, brings in significantly more rental revenue than providing homes for families once did.

One result, along with increased income for Grenadier, is that middle class renters are being priced out. 

Luxe, yes, but only for a few, unless you consider being jammed into a high rise dormitory "luxe" living conditions.

Our floor is a good example. Not so long ago, the four three-bedroom apartments were occupied by families, two of them diplomatic families who brought an international flair with them.

Today, three of those apartments are cut up into dormitories where students rotate so frequently you hardly get to know them. Worse yet, at our building's door station, they are strangers too and so numerous that most efforts to verify identities before they vanish upstairs have been abandoned.

I asked a longtime concierge about it, especially with the threats to security combined with Manhattan Park's abandoning its longstanding insistence on allowing only approved sublets.

"Let face it," he said. "The Chinese have taken over."

What used to be unacceptable is routine: debris left for days in hallways as transients migrate routinely in and out without cleaning up after themselves. The problem of filth is magnified by managements failure to carry out even routine inspections.
What used to be unacceptable is routine: debris left for days in hallways as transients migrate routinely in and out without cleaning up after themselves. The problem of filth is magnified by managements failure to carry out even routine inspections.
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

It's not so much that the rules have changed. It's more that no one bothers taking them seriously anymore.

Conclusion

This can easily happen at Westview. Why not? What's to stop it? RIOC? Are you serious?

But the dangers are not confined to the loss of security with unknown individuals wandering the corridors and stairways. There's also the routine build up of debris and filth because transients demand less from management.

An interesting observation is that, as Manhattan Park rents have escalated, services and service employee counts have declined.

Cockroaches, silverfish and other unidentified insects have sprung from careless handling of trash.

Nine separate times, I've had no choice but to handle unsecured food waste left outside the AVAC chute. One morning, the stink got so bad, you could smell it inside our apartment.

Security?

I'm tempted to say, "What's that?"

One morning at 4:00 a.m., after seeing an intoxicated visitor slamming on a door across the hall, in tears, demanding to be let in. I asked the concierge how she got upstairs. 

"She's crazy," he said.

Another day, my wife encountered a man wandering the corridors, searching for someone's apartment.

I asked another, more veteran concierge why they were letting so many people in without verifying with a resident that they belonged upstairs.

In a variation of the "Chinese have taken over" response, he said they had no way to contact the transients already inside because they never set up telephone numbers in the system. So, they just let them jump on the elevator and hope for the best.

You see, to save money, Manhattan Park disabled a once effective intercom system that doubled as a security device but never established anything to replace it.

The result: security gone.

Having experienced two unauthorized and, so far, unexplained entries, we now double bolt and use an additional chain lock. And then, we too hope for the best.

And if you're wondering whether we alerted RIOC as well as Manhattan Park Management to these issues, of course we did. Only RIOC responded, and that was only to pass along legalese that essentially excused them of any responsibility.

After RIOC excused Manhattan Park of far worse violations with sub metering, evading responsibility again came as no surprise.

Is this what you want in Westview?

I didn't think so.

RIOC is the roadblock to seeing the agreement for which Westview residents overwhelmingly voted in favor. It might be wise to let RIOC know how overwhelmingly you still feel about.

And it's not just Westview tenants who need to be concerned. This will impact the whole of our community and permanently.

 

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