fight over the future of a low-income mainstay news

| 15 Dec 2015 | 01:38

Residents of a low-income co-op on the Upper West Side say an internal struggle between a majority on the board who want to privatize the building and long-time resident-shareholders who wish to maintain their subsidized status is just one chapter in a decades-old saga of mismanagement at the building.

Turin House, at Columbus Avenue and 90th Street, is a 188-unit low-income project that was formed in 1972 to provide affordable housing for residents in the neighborhood.

The building is similar to developments that occur under the Mitchell Lama affordable housing program, where a project remains affordable for a certain number of years before revising their regulatory status and possibly going private -- which would allow shareholders to sell their units for much more than they originally purchased them for. One notable difference between the two programs, however, is that it’s much harder for developments like Turin to go private, and are considered Housing Development Fund Corporations whose sole purpose is to create low-income housing.

According to the city’s Dept. of Housing Preservation and Development, there is no provision in the law for opting out as an HDFC or privatizing, even after their regulatory agreement has expired, which Turin’s did in 2012. An HPD spokesperson said that if Turin’s shareholders sought privatization the agency would “take appropriate legal action.”

But that hasn’t stopped a majority on the eight-member board at Turin from seeking ways to privatize. So far they’ve retained one of the city’s top real estate law firms, Adam Leitman Bailey, P.C., to explore their options in privatizing and have embarked on a feasibility study with Metropolitan Valuation Services, which takes into account things like market conditions and the physical condition of the building.

An advisory memo from Adam Leitman Bailey downplays the likelihood of Turin House facing legal challenges should they attempt to privatize, calling such an assertion “speculative.” The memo argues there is no settled law concerning HDFC deregulation, and that laws governing Turin’s legal existence or an HDFC privatizing is “questionable” and “uncertain at this juncture.”

Other residents in the building, including a current and former board member, say exploring a move that’s not provided for by law amounts to a wasteful boondoggle of shareholder funds.

“This building is supposed to be middle to low income and it’s unbelievable what’s been happening,” said Evelyn Rivera, a current board member at Turin House. “We keep telling them we can’t [privatize] but they’re still doing what they want to do.”

And residents aligned against privatization say Turin House is in need of extensive repairs, so that even if the board overcame a legal challenge, potential market-rate buyers would be foolish to buy a unit there.

“Our building needs so many repairs, we need our hallways redone and the plumbing is shot,” said resident Maureen Minsky, who has lived at Turin since 1995 and is currently running for a spot on the board. “No one is going to drop down that kind of money.”

There are also those, like former board member Christine Baronak, who wish for Turin House to remain affordable for future generations.

“I was a child when I moved here in 1972,” said Baronak. “It was made for people of low income in the neighborhood to feel like they could own something. Why can’t someone have the same chance that my family had?”

The other options available to Turin’s residents are to renew or modify their regulatory agreement with HPD and maintain their regulatory status. Rivera said Turin’s elderly residents are concerned they won’t be able to afford to live there should the building go private, and wish to enter into an agreement with HPD.

“I want HPD. If it goes private I won’t be able to afford to live there,” said Rivera. “There’s a lot of people there like myself that have been in the building since it first opened up. And there’s a lot of people that have come in with illegal sublets and they’re trying to push us out.”

Residents allege the building is rife with illegal sublets as well as affordable units that are occupied by friends and relatives of shareholders, who actually live elsewhere, in violation of affordable housing guidelines. Baronak estimates over 50 affordable units at Turin are either being sublet at market rates or are occupied by someone other than their owner.

In general, affordable housing guidelines prohibit subletting of any kind of affordable housing units, or, in the case of affordable co-ops, for units to be occupied by anyone other than their owner-shareholders. But due to Turin’s regulatory agreement expiring in 2012, a stark lack of oversight appears to be contributing to a climate of uncertainty and rule bending at Turin, and it’s unknown if shareholders are currently restricted from subletting by affordable housing guidelines.

According to the HPD spokesperson, the board at Turin House is responsible for enforcing business corporation law at the building, which along with PHFL, are the statutes governing Article XI Housing Development Corporation Funds.

The HPD spokesperson said the agency has no oversight of any subletting at Turin, and declined to specify what sort of regulatory restrictions are still in place there. Baronak claims Turin has to follow guidelines laid out by the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (which was involved in Turin’s formation) concerning income restrictions and family composition, and the HPD has oversight of apartment sales and transfers. She is personally in favor of entering into a modified regulatory agreement with HPD that tightens restrictions on subletting.

HPD said the agency has been negotiating with Turin’s board to offer new tax exemptions (which expired in 2009) and a regulatory agreement, but due to differences on the board and among shareholders, no agreement has been reached.

Regardless of the legality of subletting at Turin, some residents are uncomfortable with the amount of unfamiliar faces traipsing in and out of Turin House due to short-term rentals.

“People are walking around not knowing who’s next to them,” said resident Linda Burstion, who’s lived at Turin for 37 years and was a board member for five years. “People are really kind of scared, they don’t know what’s going on next door.”

Baronak, Minsky and Burstion formed a group called “Keep Turin Affordable,” and have recently been pushing elected officials and city and state agencies to examine conditions at Turin House.

Other allegations being lobbed in the deeply divided building include the board spurning internal and external waiting lists for Turin units and financial mismanagement of shareholder funds. The board is also facing a lawsuit in federal court alleging it has discriminated on the basis of race in selling apartments.

The Office of the State Comptroller said it is aware of the complaints regarding Turin but declined to comment further. Councilmember Helen Rosenthal’s office said they were recently made aware of the complaints and are investigating.