In front of the RNA building on 96th Street between Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues. Photo: Alexis Gelber
In 1967, the Riverside Neighborhood Assembly House opened on the West Side of Manhattan on 96th Street between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues. It was one of the first, if not the first, of the Mitchell-Lama buildings in Manhattan. The idea was to make sure that common folks who could not afford the high rentals could remain in the neighborhoods of New York. I recently heard that the average rental of a one bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan runs $3,400 a month. That’s a lot of money. People I know in the RNA House are paying about $600 a month for a one bedroom. To this day, the Mitchell-Lama program has some pretty strict rules. In order to get one of these apartments, you have to be on the waiting list and meet certain criteria. You have to fit between certain economic guidelines and because there aren’t enough apartments to go around, you may have to wait on the list for years to buy shares in a cooperative building. Like other co-ops, you don’t own your apartment. Rather, you own shares in the building but you get to use the apartment. If you are allowed to buy into the building, the rule is that when you leave, you have to surrender your shares at the price you originally paid in plus a prorated share of the amortization while you were there.
You may wonder why I am writing about the RNA House, now an incredible fifty years old. It is so important to me because it was my mother who thought up and gave birth to the place, just as she gave birth to my brother and me. My mom, Shirley Chartock (later reverting to her given name of Sarah), was the school community coordinator on the West Side of Manhattan. She thought up the Riverside Neighborhood Assembly (after whom the building is named) whose job it was to bring the people and the schools together and she sponsored an awful lot of conferences and theater parties to make it all happen. She worked incredibly hard at it and then she taught in the evenings at Hunter College in the education department. She founded the Fire Island Youth Group and ran that for many summers.
My mother was at the forefront of those folks who believed that there should be a place, an integrated place, where people could live when so many were being forced out of their neighborhoods. When the Mitchell-Lama program originated, thanks to Mayor Robert Wagner and a cadre of assistants (Warren Moscow and Robert Moses among them), my mom saw an opportunity for the Riverside Neighborhood Assembly to sponsor a first. I seem to remember Bob Wagner laying it all out in our living room. That’s why I’m not happy about the latest development in the long history of the RNA House — they are trying to mess with my mom’s legacy.
All these years later, there is a move to change the Mitchell-Lama co-ops so that the apartments people could actually afford would be privatized. That means some of the people who are the cooperators want to own their apartments and sell them at current market prices and, of course, make out like bandits. The whole idea of affordable housing was to make real middle class, integrated housing a reality. After twenty years in the program, the law allows the cooperators to vote on whether to privatize. In most cases, people have been true to the mission but in others, they have been understandably greedy. Soon the RNA House will have to decide. My mom, whose name is not up there on the plaque even though it was her project from start to finish, will be rolling in her grave if the cooperators fighting the privatization should lose. Then a good idea would have gone sour. Too bad.
Alan Chartock is professor emeritus at the State University of New York, publisher of the Legislative Gazette and president and CEO of the WAMC Northeast Public Radio Network. From an article in the troyrecord.com.