Affordable Housing Agreement Sours

| 11 May 2015 | 07:40

Collegiate School’s affordable housing deal with the Upper West Side community has evolved from the school building 55 units at Riverside Center to providing $50 million for the creation of affordable housing elsewhere in the district, a shift that some in the community equate with the school being allowed to back out of a long-anticipated promise.

“I do have serious concerns with how Collegiate has absolved themselves of the responsibility to build 55 units at Riverside Center,” said Community Board 7 housing committee chairman Nick Prigo. “We were steamrolled by the timetable that New York City Planning and Collegiate forced us to work under.”

Under the terms of a previous land use deal, 12 percent of all residential building units at Riverside South — a 56-acre apartment complex along the Hudson River between 59th Street and 72nd Street — had to be set aside for affordable housing. Collegiate’s proposal was to fulfill that requirement by building the remaining 55 units of affordable housing at Riverside Center, a residential tower in Riverside South that had not yet been built.

As a backup in the event the affordable housing on Riverside Center couldn’t be found, according to Prigo, Collegiate would purchase 55 market rate units at Riverside South and convert them to affordable housing. The board, said Prigo, agreed to this.

But earlier this year Collegiate informed the board and the city that they were having trouble finding space to build the affordable units, and that it wasn’t financially possible to buy 55 market-rate units at Riverside South and convert them into affordable housing.

Collegiate also said their partner in the land deal to build their school at Riverside South could well back out if an alternative solution — the $50 million for affordable housing somewhere else in the district — wasn’t agreed to by the end of March.

The board’s position was that they had already fought and secured an affordable housing win for the community when the original deal with Collegiate was struck years before, and the purpose of building the housing on Riverside South was to create more economic diversity in more expensive part of the Upper West Side.

The board also wanted time to consider the new deal, and said specific proposals to build the affordable housing at other sites in the district were premature.

Collegiate said there was no time, and that a vote had to occur at the end of March or they’d lose the land for their school at Riverside South and would incur a steep, six-figure penalty if they were forced to remain in their current building on West 78th Street.

City Planning sided with the school, and approved the $50 million plan. The fund would be administered by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development with input on how to use the money to further affordable housing in the district coming from CB7.

As for the board, Prigo said questions over whether Collegiate is legally bound to build the affordable housing at Riverside South have been rendered moot.

“We’re past the point where that really matters as the deal has already been made,” said Prigo. “CB7 is now focused on getting the most affordable housing we can placed as close to the original site as possible.”

The board met recently to discuss options for the affordable housing fund. One of their biggest concerns, said Prigo, is that the affordable housing be located as close as possible to Riverside South, in accordance with the original plan.

The board’s first preference is to buy land at the southwest corner of 100th Street and Amsterdam Avenue at St. Michael’s Church and convert the parcel into affordable housing. Another option is to establish a community land and environmental trust that would facilitate the purchase of distressed properties in the neighborhood to preserve or build affordable housing. The trust would also provide loans to building owners to make energy efficient upgrades, the savings from which would be used to either provide affordable units in those buildings or repay the loans into the fund to facilitate future purchases of distressed properties.

Another option that received traction at CB7’s meeting was to make a contribution to the New York City Housing Authority for the preservation of existing affordable housing at the Amsterdam Houses, which are located near Riverside South at 61st Street and Freedom Place South.

“Each of the proposals have pros and cons. The St. Michael’s plot is a great option for development, it is just located further north in the district then we want,” said Prigo. “Conversely, the Amsterdam Houses option is located close to the original location, it just doesn’t provide new units of affordable housing and is more of an investment in preservation.”

But the board is still entertaining and exploring other ideas, with an eye towards creating economic diversity in that area of the Upper West Side.

“The goal of CB7 is to try and get the housing efficiently placed as close to the original location as possible, so we’re still searching for more options,” said Prigo.