NEW YORK — A battle is being fought in this city around affordable housing, and grassroots organizations are joining together in hopes of winning one: saving Starrett City for working-class families.

In 2005 New York City lost 9,272 rent-stabilized units, a 50 percent increase over 2002 according to the NYC Rent Guidelines Board. Many people are spending over half their net income on rent. Although figures vary, the 20 percent overall drop in income for working families since the 1970s, and the rise in housing costs, make the picture quite clear. The Coalition for the Homeless points out that last year, homelessness rose by 11 percent in the city and by 17 percent among families.

Built in 1974, Starrett City is the largest federally subsidized apartment complex in the country. The complex, recently renamed Spring Creek Towers, is home to 14,000 New Yorkers. It consists of 5,881 apartments in 46 buildings on approximately 140 acres, and is home to an economically and racially mixed community. Starrett City Associates, longtime owners of the complex, is led by Disque D. Deane.

Last Nov. 30, Starrett City Associates began to offer the entire property for sale, raising fears that a new owner would raise rents and squeeze out current tenants. CB Richard Ellis, the firm that brokered the Peter Cooper Village/Stuyvesant Town deal earlier in 2006, is serving as the listing agent. However, any sale must be approved by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) as well as New York City and New York State.

With a $1.3 billion dollar bid by Clipper Equity on the table, Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-Brooklyn) and Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-Brooklyn/Queens) requested congressional hearings to investigate the impact of this and other large real estate deals on affordable housing here and across the nation. “Congress should consider the forces and implications of today’s disappearing middle-class housing market,” Weiner said. “Housing costs have spiraled out of control.”

The hearings have gotten other housing advocates involved and helped Starrett tenants win the first round. The Feds denied Clipper Equity’s bid for the housing complex, saying the buyer would not be able to maintain the complex as affordable housing after paying $1.3 billion for it.

Since the first offer was turned down Clipper Equity has asked, among others, the Rev. Calvin Butts III of Harlem to join in the effort to make the purchase. Butts heads the Abyssinian Development Corporation (ADC).

Rev. Butts’ involvement has brought some consternation to City Council member Charles Barron, who has suggested that his intentions are not in the interest of current or future residents of Starrett City. Had the deal gone through, ADC would have played a substantial role in managing the complex and developing new housing on the site.

Bertha Lewis, executive director of New York ACORN, wrote in The New York Times Aug. 30, “This plan leaves tenants and taxpayers on the hook for substantial rent increases and reductions in services.” While the proposal “says nice things about housing middle-income families, it ignores the fact that the vast majority of Starrett City residents earn less than $40,000 per year or are senior citizens on fixed incomes,” she added. “This plan can’t work and should be rejected.”

Jonathan Rosen of NY ACORN told the World, “The failure of Clipper Equity’s bid to purchase Starrett City should be a warning to any would-be bidder for the complex. Anyone who plans to overpay, raise rents, cut services and hold up taxpayers need not apply. The owners of Starrett City have done incredibly well for themselves over the past 30 years. They now owe it to the taxpayers of this city who subsidized their profits to come to the table and work out a framework to keep Starrett City affordable.”

Tenants fear the huge cost to purchase the complex would preclude the buyer’s ability to maintain the level of maintenance and make a profit without raising rents, and that a new owner will opt out of state and federal programs that offer financial incentives in exchange for building and maintaining affordable housing. Currently, rents range from $1,076 to $1,592 for one, two and three bedroom apartments.

Elected officials agree that raising the Starrett units to market rate would further worsen the current affordable-housing crunch in New York City. Of the more than 1.5 million New Yorkers living in poverty, less than a third currently have access to housing deemed “affordable” by the New York City Housing Authority.

“In New York City, the most basic of needs — a place to live — has become too expensive for the middle class and those struggling to make it,” said Rep. Weiner. Legislation now being considered in Albany and Washington would protect present and future tenants in future sales of Mitchell-Lama housing.

Starrett City is just a symptom of what is happening all over New York City. East Side, West Side, all around the town, it’s the same story. Landlords, especially large corporations, are pushing tenants out either by outright purchase of buildings or by just whittling away at the governor/mayor-appointed rent guidelines board, which has just passed another 5.25 and 7.25 percent increase for one- and two-year leases on rent-stabilized apartments.

At press time, Clipper Equity’s bid has expired. The sale of the complex is on hold.

gfalsetta @cpusa.org

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