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Op-Ed by Christine Gorman and Aleta LaFargue.
Christine Gorman is president of the West 55th Street Block Association. Aleta LaFargue is president of the Manhattan Plaza Tenants Association. They are also both members of the Hell’s Kitchen Neighborhood Coalition, which came together during the pandemic to address health and public safety issues in the community.
Residents of Hell’s Kitchen have been fed a bunch of fake news lately about the long-term struggle for affordable housing in our area. A handful of mudslingers are tossing around a few big lies in an outrageous, behind-the-scenes attempt to give a politically connected non-profit organization a free building and a yearly million-dollar city contract under the otherwise laudable guise of developing more low-income housing.
Our elected officials know better but they have so far been afraid to publicly support the community that they are supposed to represent and that has strived for 15 years for a better result.
This may all come to a head at a City Council hearing at 10am on Tuesday, June 14. Here are the facts:
Hell’s Kitchen has long been a predominantly working-class neighborhood, which has prided itself on the number of teachers, artists, nurses, building staff, social workers, sanitation workers, bartenders, police officers and firefighters who live here and help make New York City livable. Its civic leaders have labored for decades to ensure that our vibrant community has a full range of low- and middle-income housing to balance all the market-rate buildings that continue to crop up all over our city.
When developers wanted to build luxury apartments over the railyards located on the far west side of Hell’s Kitchen, they had no desire to include low- or moderate-income housing amongst their shiny towers. But a broad-based coalition of citizens, government officials and Community Board 4 (CB4) came together to create a better, more inclusive plan. The so-called Western Rail Yards (WRY) agreement was signed by the City and its partners on December 10, 2009. It committed the city in writing to build or restore 1,032 units of low-income housing (including supportive housing) and 386 moderate-to-middle income housing units especially designed for families.
For complicated financial and regulatory reasons, it made more sense to build the moderate-income housing on property that the city owns. (The DEP site on 10th Avenue between W48/49th Streets and MTA site on the corner of 9th Avenue and W54th Street are the last large city properties available in our area for redevelopment.) In addition, because financing rules so clearly disfavor moderate-income housing, another $40 million was committed to help build these units.
Official tracking reports show that CB4 actually went above and beyond the number of low-income and supportive housing units called for in the WRY agreement. From 2018 to 2021, it has initiated or supported an additional 112 supportive housing units (including 23 units for LGBT homeless and seniors) as well as an additional 353 units of low-income housing for folks with an Area Median Income (AMI) of 60% or below.
However, not one unit of the moderate- and middle-income housing has so far been built as part of the WRY agreement. This despite the fact that a growing number of families are leaving our area because they can no longer afford their rent.
No matter. The community’s hard-won agreement was ignored and the proposal that the City’s Housing and Preservation Department (HPD) accepted contained only low- or very low-income housing at both sites — with nothing set aside for moderate-to-middle income families.
These changes came as a shock to the community. None of them were negotiated in an open or transparent manner — as the original WRY agreement had been.
Members of CB4 and other Hell’s Kitchen residents pushed back when the new arrangements for the DEP and MTA sites were belatedly made public. We approached our City Council member at the time, Corey Johnson, only to learn he favored the changes. This despite the fact that he knew about the Rail Yards agreement because he actually served as chair of CB4 before running for election to City Council. Many of us in the community have since come to believe that he supported the switch because he had set his sights on running for mayor and wanted to be seen as a champion for low-income housing.
CB4 has since made some progress in broadening the income bands at the DEP site. The major sticking point, however, continues to be the MTA site — with the proposed construction of a building called The Lirio.
Not only is the community not getting the moderate-to-middle income housing it was promised, there are serious concerns about the non-profit organization chosen to run the low-income and supportive housing site at West 54th and 9th Avenue. Better known for its thrift stores, Housing Works has never managed a supportive housing facility of the size that it intends to run at West 54th and 9th Avenue. In fact, most social services research to date suggests we need to create smaller — not larger — buildings with fewer residents who need supportive housing in order to deliver the best care in a setting that integrates well with the neighborhood.
Housing Works has also implied in public hearings that Hell’s Kitchen residents with HIV will benefit the most from the housing and services they will provide at West 54th and 9th Avenue. In fact, public questioning at CB4 meetings has revealed that their contract with HPD stipulates that they must take residents from all five boroughs, there is only a “preference” not a guarantee for HIV-positive applicants and there is no set-aside at all for residents of the neighborhood. In other words, chances are most Hell’s Kitchen residents with HIV who are in need of supportive care will be frozen out.
Because our neighborhood has had the gumption to ask the City to honor its promises, we have gotten trolled in social media for being somehow anti-gay or anti-HIV. Nonsense. CB4 is pro-supportive housing that is well-sited and run by well-qualified organizations that have a proven track record to get the job done that our taxpayer dollars are funding — and has the track record to prove it. We have 23 homeless shelters and social service facilities in our area for a total of 973 beds AND we have 24 supportive housing developments (60% for people who had previously suffered from homelessness) for another 2,043 supportive-housing beds.
Ultimately, our newly elected City Council Member, Erik Bottcher, who is Corey Johnson’s former staff director, will decide what happens at the MTA site as well as the DEP site. The City Council is holding public hearings on the matter tomorrow (Tuesday June 14), but it usually follows the wishes of the Council member whose district is affected.
We don’t envy Mr Bottcher’s situation. However, failing to uphold the City’s written promise, to create 386 units for individuals and families in the moderate to middle income bands threatens to eviscerate his relationship with Hell’s Kitchen community for the foreseeable future. We all know there are much larger real estate development proposals coming at us for the Port Authority and Penn Station, which will make it even tougher for the community’s voice to be heard. Indeed, Mr Johnson is now working as a lobbyist for the real-estate developer behind the Penn Station project, according to Politico.
If the City won’t keep its word to Hell’s Kitchen on moderate-income housing at the MTA and DEP sites, we aren’t going to trust anything it says about future deals.
And that is a fact.