BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Updated March 23, 5:15 p.m.: A group of residents of Knickerbocker Village in the Two Bridges area of the Lower East Side are trying to stop the sale of their homes to L+M Development Partners.
They are calling on RuthAnne Visnauskas, the commissioner of the state Division of Housing and Community Renewal, to stop the transfer of the sprawling property to L+M, fearing the developer’s takeover will lead to evictions.
Visnauskas must sign off on the sale of any property that falls under Article IV, as does Knickerbocker Village. Word is that a sale could be finalized as soon as March 31.
On Wednesday, the residents, joined by Councilmember Christopher Marte and Assembly candidate Grace Lee and state Senate candidate Vittoria Fariello, rallied on Cherry Street and demanded that Visnauskas stop the sale.
The opponents say that they have, in just a matter of weeks, gathered signatures of 813 residents to date who say they are against the sale. They also said the complex’s residents will be watching how elected officials weigh in on the issue — and that will be reflected in their votes when they go to the polls.
In 1933, Fred French broke ground on the low-income apartment complex, which was the nation’s first to receive federal funding through loans authorized by Congress under the Reconstruction Finance Corporation.
Knickerbocker Village sports 1,590 apartments in one dozen 13-story brick buildings surrounding two courtyards on two city blocks, bounded by Catherine, Monroe, Market and Cherry Streets.
French sold the complex in the 1970s, after which it passed through a succession of owners. In 2002, current owner Cherry Green sought permission to exit the state’s Article IV program, which would have annulled affordability protections. D.H.C.R. granted the approval.
But a lawsuit ensued and the court ruled that D.H.C.R. has no legal authority to permit such an exit — and that Knickerbocker must stay in Article IV in perpetuity.
However, the complex’s tenants now fear L+M will try to “get around Article IV” and displace current low-income tenants in order to replace them with wealthier ones. In short, tenants fear the sale will undermine Knickerbocker’s long-term affordability as “one of the last strongholds of low-income housing in Chinatown and the Lower East Side.”
Last month, Councilmember Christopher Marte told The Village Sun that his understanding was that the complex’s tenants association had, in fact, “signed an agreement” O.K.’ing the sale.
“I think the tenants association has agreed to the sale,” he stated. “But I don’t think it’s been finalized yet. I don’t trust L&M as an owner,” he added.
On Feb. 14, a spokesperson for L&M told The Village Sun, “A memorandum of understanding (MOU) was negotiated and executed by the duly elected members of the Knickerbocker Village Tenants Association, L+M and New York State Homes and Community Renewal.”
As for concerns about the complex’s future affordability, he said, “L+M is bound by the terms of the MOU and will meet its obligations to preserve affordability at Knickerbocker Village and perform $50 million of needed repairs.”
Among the complex’s residents, the group Concerned Tenants of Knickerbocker Village has been leading the opposition to the sale. The group began organizing around the issue in January.
Speaking to The Village Sun last month, Isabel Reyna Torres, a leader of the Concerned Tenants, accused D.H.C.R. of pressuring tenants to accept the L&M sale, with the agency allegedly telling tenants that if they didn’t take the deal, they would be “looking at a double-digit increase” in their rents.
Torres, who was a co-chairpreson of the tenants association until earlier this year, said she was also told by Peter Curley, an L&M representative in acquistions and asset management, in January that rents would “go up 24 percent over two years” if the sale is not made.
Meanwhile, Torres said in February, that when she went door-knocking through the complex, about 80 percent of whose residents are Chinese, she found that many tenants “knew little to nothing about what’s going on. Some are afraid,” she said, “while others don’t think there’s anything they can do.”
Indeed, in a survey the tenants association conducted in December, most respondents were either against the sale or confused about it: 199 said there were opposed, 85 were for it and 73 said they don’t know.
Adding to the mistrust have been moves by the complex’s current management, according to the Concerned Tenants. According to the group, management in 2014 wanted to hike rents by 13 percent. However, this move was denied because management was found to have been “warehousing” apartments.
As for L&M, Torres asserted, “Their overall plan is to deregulate Knickerbocker. The property itself is worth more than the buildings.”
Requests for comment by The Village Sun from members of Knickerbocker Village’s tenants association were not answered.
However, three T.A. steering committee co-chairpersons, Anna Kustera, Shi Xing Yang and Christina Zhang, did write to Governor Hochul in December, expressing their concerns over the looming sale.
“Over the last several months, the residents and the KVTA have been expressing our concerns and fears to both HCR and L+M that the proposed terms of sale may violate Article IV — which ensures permanent affordability for our apartment complex — eventually take Knickerbocker Village out of affordability, and displace current residents,” the T.A. leaders wrote.
They expressed concerned that, under L+M’s proposal, project-based vouchers would be allowed for 397 apartments, or 25 percent of the units, plus area-median income (A.M.I.) rent tiers would be set for incoming tenants, and also that “rent caps” — meaning allowable annual increases — would be set for existing residents.
“These regulatory agreements,” the T.A. leaders warned, “enable L+M to get around Article IV restrictions without actually dissolving the Article. This is very concerning to us as Article IV is in place to protect the residents of Knickerbocker Village.”
The T.A. members said they were initially told the vouchers would “go to people on the Knickerbocker Village waiting list,” but in November learned that the open vouchers would go to people on the New York City Housing Authority waiting list.
“This is one of many examples of HCR and L+M’s reluctance to be transparent and forthcoming about the terms of the sale,” they wrote Hochul.
The “rent caps” — again, actually meaning rent increases — being proposed by D.H.C.R. and L+M are 2.5 percent starting in 2025 and then 3 percent starting in 2032 annually, in perpetuity, “both of which are higher than historical rent increases at Knickerbocker Village,” the T.A. leaders wrote. “Based on data from the last decade, the annual rent increases at Knickerbocker Village have been 1.33 percent, and we have not always received a rent increase every year.”
According to Torres, the plan under L&M is to raise rents to near $2,000, with project-based vouchers being issued to those tenants who can only afford to pay a portion of that.
However, the L&M spokesperson responded, “The rent caps are lower than historic rent increases, which have been 3.1 percent over the past 20 years, and far lower than what would be required if the sale did not go through.”
In addition, the spokesperson said rents being raised to $2,000 would only occur for apartments receiving project-based vouchers. Those tenants are currently only paying around $300 a month and the rest of the rent would be offset by the federal vouchers.
Local politicians have been on the issue, as well, with Councilmember Marte, state Senator Brian Kavanagh and Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou writing a joint letter on Feb. 3 to L&M representatives. The pols, in their letter, charged that two informational hearings for tenants, held virtually in December, were not sufficiently transparent, partly by nature of the events being remote, such as by people not having “technological access,” partly due to language barriers. In addition, the politicians said, due to unclear deadlines involving issues like the required project-based vouchers, there is general “distrust among residents and stakeholders in this process.”
“While there are many unanswered questions regarding rent increases and actual costs of maintenance and repair for the buildings,” the elected officials wrote, “the tenants should have the opportunity to conduct an independent analysis of these costs and rent determinations. We believe that it is essential for the tenants association to retain an accountant, for any analysis to be conducted, and for all tenants to have access to any findings by the accountant relating to new rent determinations prior to the next [budget rent determination] hearing.”
Torres said she does not believe the T.A. currently has an accountant. However, the L&M spokesperson said they currently do.
Torres agreed that the virtual hearings were not conducive to transparency.
“All the information sessions were so shady,” she said. “They muted us. They stopped us from communicating and talking to each other.”
However, the L&M spokesperson said, “Despite the obvious challenges of the pandemic, we have held multiple remote information sessions and are planning to hold live information sessions in the near future.”
As for the contentious vouchers, the L&M spokesperson said, “The project-based vouchers (PBVs) are the primary element of our plan. The 25 percent of families at Knickerbocker Village who will get these PBVs are by definition housing burdened, meaning they pay more than 30 percent of their income toward rent, and in many cases in excess of 50 percent of their income. Residents who get a PBV will see the rent they pay monthly decrease. The difference between the lower amount they will pay and the new higher rent will be paid by a federal subsidy. This additional federal subsidy is what allows for spending $50 million [for needed repairs] while freezing rents for residents who did not get PBVs and capping any future rent increases they might get after three years.
“Without the Preservation Plan,” he continued, “there would be no PBVs lowering rents for 25 percent of the KV families, and everyone’s rents would have increased by 8 to 12 percent for each of the next two years. Because the $50 million in repairs would then not be made, rents would most likely need to increase every year for the foreseeable future at a faster rate than inflation.”
Following the publication of this article, the L&M spokesperson had further clarifications he requested be made. For example, he noted, the projected 24 percent rent hike that Torres cited Curley telling her about actually came from D.H.C.R. itself, and was based on what would happen if the complex’s current ownership remained.
As for Torres’s accusation that L&M wants to deregulate the property, the spokesperson responded, “L+M cannot deregulate the property. Knickerbocker Village will be permanently subject to Article IV regulation and will be subject to additional tenant protections under the regulatory agreement at least until 2069. Those protections could be extended permanently if the tax exemption and the Department of Housing and Urban Development contracts are renewed, which all parties are bound to pursue. It would not be possible to build anything on the site, and there are no plans to do so anyway.”
Who really knows, though, what the future might hold for the Knickerbocker Village site? The Concerned Tenants don’t take any comfort in the fact that L&M has been moving to develop two new megatowers in Two Bridges right nearby. These residential skyscrapers would be on par in size with the massive, new One Manhattan Square tower just north of the Manhattan Bridge.
Meanwhile, awareness of the historic development’s pending sale — and resistance to it — among Knickerbocker Village tenants appears to be growing. The Concerned Tenants note how quickly they were recently able to collect petition signatures from more than 800 residents opposed to the sale.
“I hope,” Torres said, “our petitions give Knickerbocker Village tenants a glimmer of hope that we can stand up to big developers.”
The tenants plan to hold another rally next Mon., March 28, at 5:30 p.m. at 50 Madison St.
I am a Knickerbocker Village resident. It is important to note that the “duly recognized” Tenants Association, which signed the Memorandum of Understanding with L&M and DHCR, conducted their own survey on the sale, the results of which showed that the majority of tenants opposed the sale to L&M or were confused. They went ahead approving the sale anyway, though they claim to represent us. There are supposed to be TA reps in every building, but all of them in my building have quit, leaving 5 out of 12 buildings without TA representatives. Another fact worth noting is that the Concerned Tenants group has been prohibited by management to post signs, fliers or any information in the buildings, including fliers left near the mailboxes on a ledge, yet the L&M corp is allowed to cover our lobby walls with their memos, but they are not even the owner. The tenants are silenced and an outsider is given free rein to put their spin on things. Yet the majority of tenants have not been swayed.
Southbridge Towers, by the South Street Seaport, was an affordable middle-income Mitchell-Lama development. In 2014, after 8 years of conflict, shareholders voted to leave Mitchell-Lama and go to market rate.
It was widely rumored that the management company for years had allowed new residents whose incomes were very high and who were likely to vote to leave Mitchell-Lama.
It is criminal that New York State has allowed the loss of Mitchell-Lama.
Makes sense that now Southbridge Towers residents are protesting 250 Water Street development, which is bringing in affordable housing. If SBT didn’t want it, they don’t want it for anyone else in the neighborhood.
What happened at Southbridge is that “management” wanted out of Mitchell-Lama and so, for years, approved new residents (younger and more affluent) more likely to vote for market-rate rent.
So now Southbridge is more gentrified, as is much of Manhattan
(Worth noting that Mitchell-Lama Penn South voted against going to market.)
As for for more development around the Seaport area, don’t forget:
The narrow 2/3 platform at Fulton Street is an accident waiting to happen.
There have been several new luxury high-rises (and more on the way) around the narrow streets of Fulton/William/Nassau Sts. etc over the past few years.
There is now no place to walk on the sidewalk, incredible amounts of garbage and lots of Uber and e-commerce traffic generated by the new upscale residents.
Thanks, Lincoln, for this well-reported piece on the situation at KV.
As a KV resident, this has all been distressing. But worsening the situation has been Isabel Reyna Torres and Concerned Tenants spreading misinformation. Commenter Amina Ali, above, writes that Concerned Tenants have been prohibited from putting signs up. That may be so, but Concerned Tenants slipped fliers in English and Chinese under every door in KV — fliers full of misinformation about multi-thousand-dollar rent increases. They weren’t described as concerns, but as facts about the sale.
Concerned Tenants even went around distributing fliers on the very night that the actual tenants association was trying to collect those surveys. The tenants are confused and scared due to the lack of transparency and the difficulty in communicating and organizing during COVID, but also in large part because of the misinformation Torres has spread.
I’m worried, too, but I just don’t understand the motivations here. I was on all those Zoom meetings. No one was censored. It’s ridiculous. Instead of trying to get the facts straight and get everyone informed about the rent determinations and how that will work with the incoming vouchers for rent-burdened tenants, we get stuff like this: https://mobile.twitter.com/IReynaTorres1/status/1475625131385016327/photo/1 and this https://mobile.twitter.com/IReynaTorres1/status/1471649442990366725
These tweets, along with her statement in the article — “Their overall plan is to deregulate Knickerbocker. The property itself is worth more than the buildings” — are indicative of the unfounded fearmongering and misinformation that has made it only more difficult for tenants to come together and ensure long-term affordability, whoever is the owner.
What if this energy was put toward getting an even lower rent-increase cap, for a longer-time horizon? Or more concessions — say a time table for capital improvements for our aging roof, or the installation of solar panels or green roofing? Instead we get this.
As a member of the KVTA, I wanted to clarify that the KVTA was initially contacted by the writer Lincoln Anderson back in February, but he did not respond to any of our e-mails and unfortunately has not given the TA a fair chance to respond. The Knickerbocker Village Tenant Association has worked tirelessly with HCR and L+M over the past year to get the best deal possible for all the tenants with support from our elected officials. With the sale of KV to L+M, tenants are receiving a 3-year rent freeze and future rent increases cannot exceed 2.5% per year. 397 current tenants will receive Project Based Vouchers and will pay only 30% of their income to rent. L+M will invest $50 million in capital work on the property. The decision to accept L+M’s proposal was a tough one to make, but we weighed the alternatives and realized it would have been worse with the probability of higher rent increases, putting a further strain on the tenants during these challenging times. If the Concerned Tenants group stops the sale, tenants will face a massive rent increase, which HCR projects at 8-12% this year and another 8-12% the next year. The Concerned Tenants have no solutions for high rent increases, and Article 4 does not protect against increases as long as they’re justified. What do we tell tenants when their rents increase by $100 or by $200 a month? Many tenants will no longer be able to afford to live at KV and will be forced to move. What will the Concerned Tenants tell them then?
Hi Anna, I apologize, it’s very possible that I did not see your e-mail responses because, unfortunately, in a problem I only discovered last week, there was, starting in February, an unasked-for “anti-spam filter” put on some of my e-mail addresses that I still get through a hosting service that I no longer use except for those e-mail addresses. That anti-spam filter actually was screening out a lot of e-mails that I actually would have liked to receive. So I apologize, but I simply was not getting e-mails from certain people on the lincoln at thevillagesun dot com address. Another address, lincolnande at gmail dot com was working fine. I believe the same problem happened with Anna Pastoressa of the Freedom Agenda’s e-mails in support of the new Chinatown jail project, which blew up into a Twitter storm until the problem was finally figured out. I apologize and I definitely would like to fairly represent the KVTA’s position on the sale plan for KV and will do so in a follow-up article. Also, let me know if you would like to write an op-ed-type “talking point,” which is always welcome. — Lincoln
Isabel Torres resigned from the KVTA in early 2021 not 2022 after the KVTA was told L+M was interested in purchasing the property. She was involved in the initial conversations but decided to resign from the KVTA. There is no mention in the article about the 2019 rent increase hearing at KV. Tenants received a 3% in 2020 and 3% in 2021 rent increase. It would have been a lot higher if elected officials and HCR did not come through with the tax abatement which amounted to $3 million a year. The owner’s request was justified. With the rising inflation costs for everything from oil, labor, insurance, etc… HCR has projected another large rent increase on the horizon. What’s the plan if the sale is stopped and that large, justified rent increase comes? Will Christopher Marte help provide similar funding like the tax abatement Margaret Chin got for KV in 2019? I didn’t hear it during his speech today. The KVTA collected funds from tenants and hired a lawyer. There was a KV tenants Zoom meeting where HCR, L+M and elected officials attended. The lawyer (David Hershey Webb) was also in attendance. The meeting was more than 3 hours long and every single tenant question was answered. And the lawyer told tenants that many residents of Mitchell-Lama buildings have seen double-digit rent increases due to rising costs and that this L+M deal is better than if there was no deal. The lawyer was also referred to the KVTA by Isabel Torres after she had resigned.
Trying to understand how the sale of the property could undermine any of the Article 4 protections? If anything, it seems like there’s going to be an injection of equity to finance repairs, a regulatory agreement adding affordability requirements, and an opportunity for some of the most vulnerable residents in the area to afford a safe place to live with the infusion of PBVs. Why would we not want to expand public housing resources?
This article really undermines the work of the duly elected TA here and only serves to scare tenants at a time when they need clear information.
Hi Confused, thanks for your comment, but it seems like another case of “shooting the messenger.” Eight hundred KV residents have signed a petition opposing the sale to L&M. Maybe that does not represent literally 800 apartments, which would be half of the complex, but it’s a very big chunk of the residents. They signed that petition before this article came out. This article did not sow that concern among them. More to the point, a spokesperson from L&M was asked questions for the article before publication and then allowed to make additional comments after publication that were added into the article. So there was opportunity to clear up any “confusion” that the opponents might allegedly be causing. Admittedly, due to e-mail problems (an unwanted “anti-spam filter” that was screening out wanted e-mails), we did not get a chance to talk to the KVTA prior to the article’s publication, but we will be doing a follow-up article in which they will share their side of the story, as well.
This response seems to be passing the buck a bit on the role of the article in informing people and shaping a narrative. Reading into just this reporting, it seems like one side is saying that L+M signed a legally binding agreement reflecting extensive negotiations with the tenants association, which locks in more secure affordability than would be guaranteed absent a sale. On the other, a group of disaffected tenants have started a petitioning campaign but don’t really seem to have explained why the things L+M and KVTA are saying are wrong. I personally don’t know which side is right because I’m not well connected to KV and don’t know about the laws in place (although I have my priors). But there are objective facts that could be verified to inform readers about what the situation actually is rather than just what each side is saying. Do you feel you have some obligation to inform the reader as to which side is accurate here?
Yes, there is a responsibility. The article is not an encyclopedia entry or months-long federal investigation, though, nor perfect, but coverage of an evolving story with a looming and rapidly approaching sale deadline. It’s an ongoing story, there will be more.
That’s all fair, but it has an impact now. Politicians are reading it and using the narrative it is creating to push an agenda now (https://twitter.com/VittoriaNYC/status/1506807261406109700). The correction always gets less coverage than the initial story. Not saying this necessarily warrants correction, but all the articles I’m reading on this topic seem to be getting a lot of pushback.
I question the validity of these 800-plus signatures. I am a KVTA member and have personally heard from neighbors, as well as from others, that some tenants are confused about what they were signing. One neighbor thought she was signing up for free groceries. Others felt bullied. Others receiving the Project Based Vouchers, which are contingent on the sale, were also told to sign. And given that 70-80% of tenants at KV are Chinese speakers, were interpreters present? Did Concerned Tenants explain how rent increases work, and that Article 4 does not protect against justified rent increases? And that, if the sale does not go through, we are potentially facing a 16-24% rent increase? Tenants can oppose the sale, but they need to be presented with all FACTS instead of the disinformation and fearmongering from the Concerned Tenants Group.
The Knickerbocker Village “recognized” Tenants Association has not been responsive to tenants’ concerns or questions for a long period of time. They took our money for a lawyer, then did not respond to tenants’ queries via email nor did they provide updates. The only thing that got them moving was the creation of a grassroots tenants group. We have the right to put fliers under people’s doors, just as they do once in a blue moon. We do this in our own limited time and according to our abilities, because some of us are seniors but we care about our homes and our community. The fact is we are not allowed to post fliers or signs in the lobbies or elevators, but L&M, HCR and the “recognized” Tenants Association have free rein. We have been told such by management. If you want to see the email telling us exactly that, I will gladly forward it to you. My dears, to date we have 900 signatures on our petition, which is more people than you have ever gotten the attention of. Please stop ignoring us, the tenants, stop talking bad about us and chill your egos out. Maybe that would be a first step toward any progress.
Why is “recognized” in scare quotes? Were they fairly elected or not? They are the body representing tenants.
Because I have freedom of speech, Confused, and I did not vote for them nor did I hire them to represent me.
Amina, they’re a fairly elected body — you may not have voted for them, but they won an election! it’s not direct democracy, it’s representative democracy — and you’re a non-owner in a rental building!
Three people making decisions that affect thousands of people is not democracy. Tenants in each building elect reps (a large percentage of whom have resigned), who then vote for a small number of coordinators or whatever they are called. Their deafness to the tenants’ wishes has made it obvious their expiration date has come and gone.
For the record, the KVTA has ignored many emails from tenants so I am not surprised they did not respond to the reporter.
The petitions and fliers were in Chinese and English and we have Chinese and Spanish speakers who participated in getting signatures. No one was bullied, nor was free food mentioned. Is that the best you can do? Get a grip.
I blame Chris Marte and his ilk for this nonsense. It’s not surprising one of the proponents of this splinter tenant group at KV, Jennifer Chiao (supposedly lifelong KV resident), just so happens to work for Marte. This guy was terrible from the beginning as a rep and now he’s pitting residents against residents all in the name of affordable housing preservation. I see you clearly for what you are, Marte.
Nice. So someone has hired investigators and trolls.
Christina: is it not true that KVTA negotiated for almost a year before informing the tenants of the negotiations? Is it not true that during the negotiations the TA did not have an attorney present until the last few months (if that) and did not have an accountant to review the numbers and expenses that L&M were providing to the TA? How informative was the TA when they held zooms calls where only a maybe 150 tenants attended out of the over the 1500 apartments in KV? I had asked my building rep about the sale and was informed by him that he knew nothing of the negotiations and only the 3 co-chairs knew what was happening! Instead of trying to slight people and argue with this Concerned Tenants group would it not be more beneficial to talk with them and have a uniformed group to decide the future of KV? One last thing rent increases are based on the needs of KV….so to assume 10-16% increases are coming if the sale does not go thru is not true, try explaining to the tenants that KV must first PROVE that a high rent increase is needed and that the TA will have the opportunity to debate the number with the DHCR and negotiate a fair increase. If what you say is true, what are your numbers based on and where did secure the info from?
The KVTA has been communicating with tenants through Zoom meetings, emails and printed material distributed to all apartments. Our counsel from TakeRoot Justice has been with us since 2014, and we hired another attorney in November 2021. I’m not sure who you talked to, but the KVTA has held many meetings where all building reps are invited to attend.
HCR projects an 8-12% rent increase for this year and another 8-12% the following year due to rising costs of things like oil, insurance, and labor. Our attorney advised us that many of his clients in the Mitchell-Lama program are currently facing double-digit rent increases. The KVTA hires an accountant to look over the owner’s budget and to question costs and find mistakes (if any), and then HCR makes a final determination on the rent increase after the BRD hearing. There is no negotiation on a rent increase under the BRD process. KV tenants are lucky that former City Councilmember Margaret Chin and HCR fought for the 50-year tax abatement during the 2019 BRD hearing; otherwise, our rent increase probably would have been the 13+% that owners requested instead of the 6% we received.
Zoom meetings when at least half of the tenants are seniors who are not fluent in computer or don’t even own computers is not adequate participation. One newsletter consisting of exactly one page in God knows how long is not adequate information. We are not a MItchell-Lama, so what is your lawyer even talking about? We paid for him but only heard from him one time, when you announced your approval of a sale that most of us opposed. Where has the accountant been during this whole “information” process of dog-and-pony show, not recorded and not accountable, Q and A sessions? Nowhere. The tenants are being done a great disservice. I did the math on my own rent using L&M’s proposed rent caps over a period of time and the numbers look just as bad as what you projected above.
Hi. Since you did the math, can you let us know based on this 3-year rent freeze and 2.5% maximum per year increase, how many years would it take for your rent to double from what it is today? Thanks.
I guess Alicia Glen’s Besties at L & M haven’t made enough money from the city developing luxury public housing for de Blasio’s farcical affordable housing lottery program and from the 421a breaks they opportunistically took advantage of.
No surprise they weaponized the Zoom hearings to suppress resistance by tenants about their nefarious intentions to plunder real affordable housing buildings.
I think not. Who are you? Like um your name?