The residents of 400 Grand St., six people, have spent the past four years trying fruitlessly to get the attention of their landlord, the City of New York. Now, just three months from a preliminary move out date, the only residential tenants remaining on the former Seward Park Urban Renewal Area, remain in limbo. This week, they pleaded their case yet again before Community Board 3’s land use committee. City officials were there to listen, but the residents have little faith; many of them feel they might as well be talking to a brick wall.
The five-story tenement is located on site #5 of the Essex Crossing project, which is set to break ground in the spring of 2015. Recently, the residents learned they were being asked to move out at the end of June, so the developers can begin preparing the site for construction. Over the years, CB3 has passed multiple resolutions, urging the city to focus on their situation. While officials with the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) acknowledged their federally-protected relocation rights as far back as 2011, meetings with individual tenants only began in the past several weeks. The community board decided to advocate on behalf of the tenants after they claimed the city reneged on an offer to sell them the building several years ago (read the back story here).
During Wednesday night’s meeting, HPD Assistant Commissioner Vivian Louie said the Essex Crossing developers might be able to find apartments for the six residents in buildings they own throughout the city. In her words, “they are willing to meet with the relocatees on finding alternative housing.”
Officials have said it’s proving difficult to find comparable apartments on the Lower East Side. Some of the options aren’t even in Manhattan. Last month, community board members concluded the best solution was also incredibly obvious: offer the residents apartments in Essex Crossing (500 units of affordable housing are planned). They argued that the current occupants of 400 Grand St. should be given first priority for those apartments, a right already guaranteed to former site tenants who lost their homes when the urban renewal property was condemned in 1967. But Louie maintained that federal law offers no such right to present-day residents, and they would be required to enter a lottery, just like everyone else in Community District 3.
Speaking for the tenants this week was Rosalind Black, an attorney at Manhattan Legal Services. She said, “it’s really hard for me to understand how HPD could take the position that they are in the same boat as everyone else in Community Board 3. So the tenants are very upset knowing that the housing being built is not anything they will have special preference for.” She also pointed out that the Seward Park RFP states, “best efforts should be made to fill (residential) units of new developments with eligible, existing tenants of (Parcel 5).”
Gabriella Amabile, another HPD official, responded that federal guidelines require the city to provide temporary rent subsidies to make up the difference between what the residents are paying now and what they will be paying in new apartments, and to cover moving expenses. While the agency has no obligation to place the tenants within their own community, she suggested it might be “doable” to offer them preference in the lottery.Previously, Amabile said, it had not been clear to her this was what the community board was requesting, so it’s something she would need to take back to the agency. Amabile also noted the situation is complicated because the tenants would need to move this year into temporary apartments, since the first Essex Crossing buildings won’t open until 2018.
Michael Zisser, a longtime public member of CB3’s land use committee, urged the city to make a deal. It is in everyone’s interest, he argued to “make this problem go away.” On Wednesday, the committee decided to send a letter to HPD Commissioner Vicki Been, making sure the agency is aware of the community board’s wishes regarding the 400 Grand St. tenants. Linda Jones, committee chairperson, said she’s hopeful now that relocation meetings with tenants have begun. But she’s vowed to place the issue on the land use agenda every month until there’s a resolution.
HPD officials said that while a target move-out date of June 30 has been set, the tenants will not be pushed out until they have found alternative housing.