Excellent article and it's right on the money. The same polititians that scream and shout about lack of available housing, bow to the community activists that want to limit the height of new buildings that makes housing less affordable.
How to House the Middle Class
BY ALEXANDER GARVIN
August 22, 2006
Everybody is talking about the major crunch in middle class housing — even after a decade long housing boom of historic proportions, in which 69% of households own their own home. The reason is quite simple: it is becoming financially and politically infeasible to build middle class housing in the two places most likely to absorb new construction — suburban greenfields and existing urban and suburban neighborhoods. In both cases, government policy is responsible.
In greenfields, new housing construction has been tagged as "sprawl." Local citizens oppose it on the grounds that it is ugly, increases traffic, burdens local schools and infrastructure, and destroys attractive open space. Opposition efforts typically result in complicated regulations, expensive permits, interminable approval processes, and various efforts to buy and preserve open space. The result is inflated prices for suburban homes that would otherwise have been easily affordable to most Americans.
In built-up urban neighborhoods, residents oppose replacing familiar buildings with new higher-density housing as out-of-scale development in neighborhoods already experiencing overcrowded schools, congested streets, and a lack of parking. Some of this opposition is now uniting under the ludicrous term, "vertical sprawl." Residents demand zoning that protects "neighborhood character." The result is to reduce opportunities for development to the point that the price of housing in urban neighborhoods escalates.
With highways reaching capacity, developable land running out, and denser development becoming a political problem, it is growing harder and harder to build new housing for the middle class. Consequently, most development today is either single-family houses on small, expensive lots, or massive projects that must carry the costs of enormous fees, approvals, and various exactions demanded by local governments. Both cost too much for any but the rich.
There is plenty of blame to go round — residents who oppose change in their neighborhoods of any sort, mediocre developers whose poor products fuel local outrage — but in the end, the failure must rest squarely on the shoulders of local governments. Governments across the country have failed to fulfill their mission of providing the infrastructure and the public realm framework for new development. In many places, the only government contribution to the public realm of development is a highway. The rest — sewers, roads, and open space — is expected to come from the developers. As a result, infrastructures are soon strained to capacity, the public realm is hideous, and citizens — is it any surprise? — cry out for an end to development.
Some governments have attempted to compensate on the cheap by exacting concessions from developers to build parks, schools, and other public facilities. The result is that development becomes still more expensive (an expense inevitably passed through to home buyers), the facilities are minimal, and development pressure shapes the public realm and infrastructure, rather than vice versa.
It is time to set things right and start planning for growth once again. Governments must zone for the higher densities that make middle-class housing possible, and simultaneously they must make the investments necessary to shape that growth. In cities, that means investing in transit to defray added traffic. It means paying for schools and sewers and hospitals prior to development. And above all, it means investing in an attractive public realm framework that will provide open space for old citizens and new, and that will lure better development.
In suburbs, governments must lay out the parks, roads, water and sewer lines needed to shape a meaningful public realm that can knit together new development before vacant land is purchased for development. Governments must invest in the infrastructure of schools and other public facilities to support new residents.
How does one pay for these improvements? The simple answer is that these are not expenditures but investments, and the dividend they yield comes in the form of increased tax revenue from developed property, which can pay the debt service on the bonds issued to cover the costs of these initial public investments.
These public improvements not only encourage development, they make development politically acceptable. Most citizens who oppose growth do so because they are so displeased with the growth that they see. But growth with adequate infrastructure and an attractive, usable public realm is a very different thing. In Atlanta, my firm proposed just such a set of public realm improvements in the form of the Beltline Emerald Necklace, a 23-mile trail and light rail loop connecting over 2000 acres of new parkland. Thanks to the active support of Mayor Shirley Franklin, within one year the city approved the financing to implement the recommendations and has already acquired a property that will become the city's largest public park. The Beltline gained the widespread support of Atlantans because it offered growth with a high quality of life — growth that will make a better city.
Even with rising land prices, it is still possible to build decent, affordable housing at market rates, without government subsidies. In both cities and suburbs, developers can produce low- and mid-rise, stick-built multi-family houses and apartment buildings at a relatively low cost. These may not be the suburban dream of a house with a yard, but they could be good housing for working people, without costing taxpayers a cent. If set in a well-funded, well-designed public realm, the housing can also be very attractive.
This will not solve all our country's problems of housing. It will not for example, provide housing for people of very low income — that is only financially possible with government housing subsidies. It will, however, produce housing for the middle- and working-classes — housing that is no longer being produced at anything like the quantities that are necessary to maintain high rates of home ownership.
Cities are evolving organisms by their nature. The future does not lie in trying to stop that growth, nor in a false dichotomy between city and suburb — both are different parts of the same organism. The promise of a brighter future lies in government investment in the public realm to shape that change. Only then can we create a future that everyone can afford.
Mr. Garvin is a professor of urban planning and management at Yale University and the president and CEO of Alex Garvin & Associates, Inc.
Excellent article and it's right on the money. The same polititians that scream and shout about lack of available housing, bow to the community activists that want to limit the height of new buildings that makes housing less affordable.
Garvin has a good mind. He should be running the City's planning.
Like the guys above said, this is an excellent article. So excellent that I emailed it to my hometown's anti-sprawl/development orginization (www.kngg.org/) in the hopes that they'll post it on their site. They tend to be a bit NIMBY-ish, so I'm hoping this will ultimately lead them in the right direction.
It’s Alex Garvin’s Town; You’ll Never Live In It
By: Matthew Schuerman
Alex Garvin has been Dan Doctoroff’s favorite urban planner for about seven years now, ever since the deputy mayor came across Mr. Garvin’s book, The American City: What Works, What Doesn’t, in a Barnes & Noble.
His brand of urbanism with a free-market conscience appealed to Mr. Doctoroff, who was then just another investment manager with an Olympic dream. The two got together and worked out a way to bring the games to New York.
First it was NYC2012. Now it’s NYC2025.
With the Olympic bid by the wayside, Mr. Garvin has been working on a report on housing and infrastructure investments for the Strategic Land Use Plan, a nearly covert effort by the Bloomberg administration on what should be done to accommodate the nine million New Yorkers of the future (up from 8.1 million today). It is believed to be just one of a handful of reports that various consultants are preparing for the strategic plan, and was secret until Aug. 16, when Aaron Naparstek, a writer, posted it on StreetsBlog, a transportation Web site. Mr. Naparstek, whose own book, Honku: The Zen Antidote to Road Rage, may at one time or another may also have been found in Barnes & Noble, said that he had obtained the finished report in June from “a City Hall insider.”
Some of the ideas included in the report were mentioned in an Aug. 21 Observer article on the strategic plan, but the 87-page document delves into copious detail. The introduction cites “opportunities to build between 160,000 and 325,000 housing units, with virtually no residential displacement, and to dramatically improve city’s public realm through strategic capital investment.” Chief among them is a platform over Sunnyside Yards, the 166-acre commuter and passenger train yard in Queens, which would, when built out over three phases, provide space for up to 35,300 apartments. A more controversial idea that The Observer said is under consideration--congestion pricing, or charging cars for entering lower Manhattan and midtown weekdays--is not mentioned in the report.
“If housing production does not accelerate to match the growing population, housing prices will climb still higher,” the report states. “Such an expensive housing market will make it difficult for New York to attract the world’s top companies and employees, to retain an economically and culturally diverse population, and to continue expanding opportunities for every New Yorker.”
Of course, Mr. Garvin could have put his pen down right there. How much of an overpopulation problem would we have if no one wanted to live here?
But it becomes clear that Mr. Garvin wants the city to grow: increasing housing, he writes, “absorbs the city’s growth,” while improving the “public realm … helps ensure that growth occurs in the first place.”
And so, while the first part of the report is about creating housing, the report is illustrated with charming photos of tree-lined streets in Paris, bicycle lanes in Vienna and trolleys in Minneapolis, giving the impression that Mr. Garvin actually believes that just a little more urban planning will make New York City a civilized place to live!
“Alex is one of the pros in the business, and he’s raised a lot of interesting ideas about development potential,” said Robert Yaro, the president of the Regional Plan Association, a nonprofit planning group. “It’s particularly useful if it’s going to be a catalyst for public discussion, and I think that’s the key, that it needs to be seen as a beginning for dialog.”
It is unclear just what Mayor Bloomberg thinks of the report and how much of it will end up in his final plan, but outside consultants typically submit numerous drafts, get feedback, and shape their final versions to make them more or less acceptable to their clients. Mr. Garvin, a Yale professor as well as head of his own planning firm in New York, referred questions about the report to the Mayor’s office, which refused to comment. Mr. Doctoroff, reached separately, said he was tied up in meetings, but previously he has promised that the public would have a chance to provide input during the creation of the plan.
The idea of building platforms is nothing new for New York: Park Avenue was created over the New York Central rails; the Bloomberg administration is trying to build a deck on the West Side; and developer Bruce Ratner is proposing to cover Long Island Rail Road tracks in Brooklyn. Developers have likewise eyed the Sunnyside Yards for a long time, but no one has jumped.
“We’ve been looking at these sorts of opportunities, but as a private developer, it is very hard to figure out how to get involved,” said Jon McMillan, the planning director for Rockrose Development Corp., which is developing part of Queens West nearby. “There are several layers of ownership: the city, the M.T.A., and there’s even a private owner that has an option on part of it. Opportunities like this really have to be competitively bid.”
The trick to making it work economically is to figure out how many apartments developers are allowed to build on top of the platform in order to pay for the cost of the platform. At some point, Mr. McMillan said, “you turn the dial” and find the density that is at once acceptable to the community and also profitable for developers.
“If it’s not there already, it is almost there,” he said.
Another experienced developer in the outer boroughs, though, doubted it could be done without government subsidizing the cost of the platform.
“The concept is an excellent concept, the concept of building housing wherever it may be built,” he told The Observer. “The problem is that the infrastructure costs of a site like that are so enormous.”
Mr. Garvin estimates that maybe R8 zoning (roughly eight- to 10-story buildings, depending on its footprint) and definitely R9 zoning (roughly 12- to 18-story buildings) would be sufficient to make the platform worthwhile, but he does not spell out the specifics.
“Sunnyside Yards probably has more potential than any area in New York,” said Councilman Eric Gioia, who represents the area. “Platforming would give us an opportunity to build schools, homes that the middle class can afford, and create a vibrant new neighborhood.”
The idea of building over the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway in Cobble Hill appears to be more controversial, however. The local congresswoman, Representative Nydia Velázquez, recently secured more than $300,000 to study how to cover the expressway, which runs in a ditch along the neighborhood’s western edge. But community members are leaning in favor of cantilevering a broad sidewalk over either side of the ditch, narrowing the gap but leaving a slit through which car exhaust could escape.
“I don’t understand how putting housing over the highway will still let the highway breathe,” said Murray Adams, president of the Cobble Hill Association. “What that does is put all of the burden on either end of the platform instead of dissipating fumes throughout.”
Mr. Garvin’s ideas may run into other difficulties as well: He recommends rezoning 21 blocks of Sunset Park for housing while the Bloomberg administration set them aside earlier this year as part of an “Industrial Business Zone,” a designation meant to keep manufacturing companies from getting pushed out of New York City because of rising real-estate prices. “For housing to be built in these areas, the city must make a policy decision--as recommended by this report--that each site holds greater benefit to the city as a residential or mixed-use community than under its current uses,” the Garvin report states.
Other ideas are innocuous by comparison, and Mr. Garvin argues that they are relatively cheap. Planting trees along streets, for example, can be accomplished for the bargain-basement price of $650,000 a mile. (Keeping them alive is another issue.)
Mr. Garvin also suggests closing more major streets on Sundays as now is the practice in Central and Prospect Parks, and “pedestrian reclamations,” which means getting rid of parked cars along one side of the street, and broadening the sidewalk to create a sort of mall, with trees and benches along the side. In general, cars, especially parked cars, do not come off very well.
copyright © 2005 the new york observer, L.P.
The housing problem beyond New York ...
The Housing Crisis Goes Suburban
By Michael Grunwald
Sunday, August 27, 2006
In the past five years, housing prices in Fairfax County have grown 12 times as fast as household incomes. Today, the county's median family would have to spend 54 percent of its income to afford the county's median home; in 2000, the figure was 26 percent. The situation is so dire that Fairfax recently began offering housing subsidies to families earning $90,000 a year; soon, that figure may go as high as $110,000 a year.
Seventy years after President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared that the Depression had left one-third of the American people "ill-housed, ill-clothed and ill-nourished," Americans are well-clothed and increasingly overnourished.
But the scarcity of affordable housing is a deepening national crisis, and not just for inner-city families on welfare. The problem has climbed the income ladder and moved to the suburbs, where service workers cram their families into overcrowded apartments, college graduates have to crash with their parents, and firefighters, police officers and teachers can't afford to live in the communities they serve.
Homeownership is near an all-time high, but the gap is growing between the Owns and the Own-Nots -- as well as the Owns and the Own-80-Miles-From-Works. One-third of Americans now spend at least 30 percent of their income on housing, the federal definition of an "unaffordable" burden, and half the working poor spend at least 50 percent of their income on rent, a "critical" burden. The real estate boom of the past decade has produced windfalls for Americans who owned before it began, but affordable housing is now a serious problem for more low- and moderate-income Americans than taxes, Social Security or gas prices.
Yet nobody in national politics is doing anything about it -- or even talking about it.
For most of the past 70 years, housing was a bipartisan issue. In recent decades, its association with urban poverty made it more of a Democratic issue. But now it is simply a nonissue. The current crunch falls hardest on renters in Democratic-leaning cities and metropolitan areas, but Democrats have ignored the issue as resolutely as Republicans. Neither Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) nor President Bush even bothered to propose affordable housing plans during the 2004 presidential campaign.
"Even 10 years ago, that would have been unimaginable," says Ron Utt of the conservative Heritage Foundation. "But now the problems are so much worse, and nobody cares. . . . I find myself on panels where I'm the token conservative, and I'm the one asking: Doesn't anyone care about affordable housing?"
America used to care a lot about affordable housing. Roosevelt signed housing legislation in 1934 and 1937, providing mortgages, government apartments and construction jobs for workers down on their luck. In 1949, Congress set an official goal of "a decent home and a suitable living environment for every American family," and in 1974, President Richard M. Nixon began offering subsidized rent vouchers to millions of low-income tenants in private housing. For half a century, most housing debates in Washington revolved around how much to expand federal assistance.
But for the past two decades, the public face of public housing has been decrepit projects such as Chicago's Robert Taylor Homes and Cabrini-Green.
And the only new federal housing initiative has been HOPE VI, a Clinton administration program that has demolished 80,000 units of the worst public housing and built mixed-income developments in their place. The program has eliminated most of the high-rise hellholes that gave public housing a bad name, including Robert Taylor and Cabrini-Green, and has revived some urban neighborhoods. But it has razed more subsidized apartments than it has replaced.
Overall, the number of households receiving federal aid has flatlined since the early 1990s, despite an expanding population and a ballooning budget. Congress has rejected most of President Bush's proposed cuts, but there has been virtually no discussion of increases; affordable-housing advocates spend most of their time fighting to preserve the status quo.
And it's a tough status quo. Today, for every one of the 4.5 million low-income families that receive federal housing assistance, there are three eligible families without it. Fairfax County has 12,000 families on a waiting list for 4,000 assisted apartments. "It's golden when you get one -- nobody wants to give it up," says Conrad Egan, chairman of the Fairfax housing authority. It sounds odd, but the victims of today's housing crisis are not people living in "the projects," but people who aren't even that lucky.
Some liberals dream of extending subsidies to all eligible low-income families, but that $100 billion-a-year solution was unrealistic even before the budget deficit ballooned again. So even some housing advocates now support time limits on most federal rent aid. The time limits included in welfare reform 10 years ago were controversial, but studies suggest they've helped motivate recipients to get off the dole. And unlike welfare, housing aid is not a federal entitlement, so taking it away from one family after a few years would provide a break for an equally deserving family.
"It's a no-brainer," says David Smith, an affordable-housing advocate in Boston. "You can't sustain the internal contradiction of no limits."
Smith and many local housing officials also think that the strict income limits for most federal housing aid serve as employment disincentives, while concentrating poor children in projects without working role models. Rents are usually set at 30 percent of income, so the lowest-income families pay virtually nothing, and as Smith points out, "it's economic suicide for them to get a job." But the vast gap between the number of low-income families eligible for subsidies and the number served suggests that tinkering with the current system would not come close to solving the crisis. And the problems extend well beyond low-income families, which is why communities such as Fairfax now assist middle-class renters.
The root of the problem is the striking mismatch between the demand for and the supply of affordable housing -- or, more accurately, affordable housing near jobs. Fifteen million families now spend at least half their income on housing, according to Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies; many skimp on health care, child care and food to do so.
Others reduce their rents by overcrowding, which studies link to higher crime rates, poorer academic performance and poorer health; Los Angeles alone has 620,000 homes with more than one person per room.
Other workers are enduring increasingly long commutes from less expensive communities, a phenomenon known as "driving to qualify." In the past five years, 88,000 Fairfax County families have moved elsewhere in the region, according to a George Mason University study; when Fairfax housing officials gave me a tour recently, they told me many of their employees now drive a full hour from Warrenton in Fauquier County. The media officer interjected that she drives nearly two hours each way from Winchester in Frederick County. The driver said he lives in Winchester, too.
This creates all kinds of lousy outcomes -- children who don't get to see their parents, workers who can't make ends meet when gas prices soar, exurban sprawl, roads clogged with long-distance commuters emitting greenhouse gases. "I don't think we're creating strong communities by forcing people into their cars four hours a day," says Cathy Hudgins, chairwoman of the housing committee for the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.
Affordable housing also helps make communities competitive; it's not clear how Fairfax can keep creating jobs if workers can't afford to live there.
Moderate-income families aren't able to buy Lamborghinis or Armani, but they can buy cars and clothes. So while it's obvious why they can't afford McMansions, it's not so obvious why they can't afford decent housing. They demand it. Shouldn't the market supply it?
The answer is yes. But in many communities, local regulations have stifled multifamily housing and even modest single-family housing. Minimum lot requirements, minimum parking requirements, density restrictions and other controls go well beyond the traditional mission of the building code and end up artificially reducing the development of safe, affordable housing.
The unfashionable but accurate term for these restrictions is "snob zoning." Suburbanites use them to boost property values by keeping out riffraff -- even the riffraff who teach their kids, police their streets and extinguish their fires. Urbanites are susceptible to the same NIMBY impulses, often couched as opposition to "traffic congestion" or "overdevelopment" or protection of the neighborhood's "character." It's easy to support affordable housing in someone else's neighborhood. But when developers propose high-density projects, neighborhoods object.
Fairfax recently bucked that trend when it approved a developer's proposal to tear down 65 single-family houses across the street from the Vienna Metro station and replace them with 2,248 high-rise apartments. The project will increase the supply of job-accessible housing and take commuters out of their cars; the county is even forcing the developer to set aside a small percentage of moderate-income units in exchange for an exemption from its anti-density rules. But the Fairfax supervisors rejected a similar mega-project down the street, bowing to opponents worried about traffic congestion, property values and "the element" the high-rises might attract.
Still, Fairfax County illustrates how the creative solutions to the current crisis are emerging locally. It was one of 130 communities to adopt "inclusionary zoning," requiring developers to reserve a percentage of affordable units. It is one of more than 300 communities with affordable-housing trust funds; Fairfax voters approved a "Penny for Housing" initiative that will divert one cent of property taxes to subsidized projects. The Fairfax housing authority is also at the cutting edge of "workforce housing," offering 20 single-room apartments for day laborers in its own offices, while building and buying several dozen townhouses to rent to nurses, police officers, firefighters, teachers and bus drivers.
But these local projects address only a tiny fraction of the demand. For example, Los Angeles is considering a bond issue that would create 1,000 units of affordable housing -- small comfort to those 620,000 families in overcrowded apartments. Economist Christopher Thornberg notes that California's private market added 120,000 urban rental units in 1987; in the first half of 2006, the total was just 232. The main obstacle, Thornberg concludes, is "the intransigence of local zoning boards."
In other words, the best thing local officials can do to promote affordable housing is to get out of the way -- stop requiring one-acre lots and two-car garages, and stop blocking low-income and high-density projects.
Washington politicians, on the other hand, have the federal budget at their disposal. But Congress hasn't supported new construction since the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit of 1986, which creates nearly 100,000 units of affordable housing a year, enough to replace half the units that are torn down or converted to market rents. Bush proposed a home-ownership tax credit during his 2000 and 2004 campaigns, but it turned out to be the rare tax cut he didn't pursue. A bill pending in Congress would divert a percentage of profits from federally chartered institutions such as Fannie Mae to a national affordable-housing trust fund, but it seems stalled. The only affordability ideas with any traction at the national level are not really housing ideas; for example, one way to make housing more affordable to workers would be to raise their incomes -- through higher minimum wages, lower payroll taxes or an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit.
There is one clear solution to the affordable-housing crisis: a real estate crash. It's the one housing issue that attracts media attention -- because it would hurt the Owns. But while an easing of prices could be devastating for lower-income Owns with risky mortgages, it probably wouldn't bring home ownership within reach for many Own-Nots. Prices have too far to fall; in 2000, two-thirds of the home sales in Fairfax were for $250,000 or less, but last year, fewer than one-twentieth were. And even a modest price slump could trigger a construction slowdown that would make shortages of affordable housing for moderate-income families even worse.
Eventually, politicians may rediscover housing -- not as an urban poverty issue, but as a middle-class quality-of-life issue, like gas prices or health care. Homeownership is often described as the American dream, but these days many workers would settle for a decent rental that won't bankrupt their families.
Michael Grunwald is a Washington Post staff writer.
© 2006 The Washington Post Company
As Landlord Grows, So Does Criticism
By TIMOTHY WILLIAMS
September 3, 2006
Not long ago, Joel Weiner was a small player in New York City’s residential real estate industry. The properties he owned were neither extensive, nor impressive.
But during the past two years, Mr. Weiner, 57, and his firm, the Pinnacle Group, have spent more than $1 billion on hundreds of apartment buildings and quietly become one of the biggest property owners in neighborhoods from Brooklyn to the Bronx.
But Pinnacle has had problems as it expanded: It is the subject of criminal investigations by the Manhattan district attorney and the state attorney general’s office; it has been denounced by Representative Charles B. Rangel and other politicians; and it has been the subject of angry community meetings and rallies and petitions signed by thousands of people who object to its business practices.
Last week, the attorney general’s office subpoenaed Pinnacle documents, including rent registration forms, as part of its investigation, Pinnacle officials said.
Marilynn K. Yee/The New York Timesa group to oppose Pinnacle. Pinnacle Group has become one of
Tenants at a building at 706 Riverside Drive who have formed
the biggest property owners in neighborhoods
from Brooklyn to the Bronx.
The antipathy generated by Mr. Weiner and Pinnacle is the city’s latest entry in the time-honored landlord-versus-tenant struggle, between those who want to keep their rents down and those who want to raise them. But this one is being played out with perhaps greater passion because of a tight housing market and the breakneck speed of gentrification in recent years, which has seemed to transform many formerly undesirable neighborhoods overnight.
Critics accuse Pinnacle of buying buildings and firing superintendents within weeks. Questions have also been raised about whether the company has violated the city’s rent-stabilization laws by sometimes raising rents higher than is legally allowed, through such measures as passing along the cost of questionable renovation expenses. In one case, the cost of installing five toilets was passed on to a tenant in a two-bathroom apartment.
The critics also say the company has been engaging in harassment to force people out of their apartments. Tenants describe being put through a Kafkaesque tangle of eviction notices slipped under doors at night, and of legal challenges made to their right to live in longtime apartments.
In some buildings, one-quarter to one-half of the tenants have received so-called dispossess notices — typically the start of the eviction process — within a few months of Pinnacle’s purchase of the property. The company’s practices, its critics say, are a case study in the gentrification of some of the last working-class neighborhoods in Manhattan.
“We’ve been living here since it was the drug capital of the world, now we are sitting on a commodity,’’ said Rafael Gomez, 48, who lives in a Pinnacle building in Washington Heights, adding that people ask how “do we end up in such a beautiful neighborhood when we are poor people?”
Mr. Weiner denied criminal wrongdoing and said his goal was to be recognized as a model landlord. He has acknowledged raising some rents, but said the increases were necessary so he could provide safe, quality housing. His lawyers maintain that any errors Pinnacle may have made in seeking to evict tenants or in overcharging on rent have been the result of honest mistakes. The company rightly says costs of improving apartments can be legally passed on to tenants.
Mr. Weiner has not disputed that his company has sent out 5,000 dispossess notices to tenants in its approximately 21,000 apartments in the past 29 months. That, say adversaries, is itself cause for alarm.
“When you are trying to evict one out of four tenants, that is what lawyers call prima facie evidence,” Congressman Rangel said. “It is something that screams out for a criminal or civil or legal remedy.”
Mr. Weiner agreed to be interviewed, but did not want his photograph taken because, his lawyers said, he wanted to protect his privacy and because he had received a death threat on the Internet.
Mr. Weiner, who was born in Brooklyn and lives on Long Island, said his objective was to simply get tenants to pay their rents. And he makes no apologies for Pinnacle’s aggressiveness in moving to evict those late on rent or otherwise not legally entitled to live in his buildings.
“When you are in the trenches and you try to turn around a building, it’s not easy,” he said. He has hired a team of prominent lawyers, including former City Councilman Kenneth K. Fisher and Benjamin Brafman, a defense attorney whose clients have included Michael Jackson.
Mr. Weiner describes himself as a hands-on owner who visits his properties frequently and is a stickler for cleanliness, order and the removal of building code violations.
Although much of the criticism about him has focused on gentrification, Mr. Weiner said his recent purchases of buildings in neighborhoods like Washington Heights, Harlem, Inwood and the South Bronx would not necessarily lead to wealthier tenants moving in and displacing current residents.
“I don’t want to call it gentrification,” he said. “I want to call it meeting community needs.”
He said he typically raises rents after he buys a building in order to pay for the major improvements he must make because previous landlords have neglected many of the properties. Pinnacle legally passes those costs on to tenants in higher rent bills. “This is a very tough business,” he said. “I have a passion for doing it, and doing it right.”
In December 1997, Pinnacle owned 267 apartments in the city, and Mr. Weiner, though wealthy, was unknown, even to many of his competitors. But by May of this year, after an infusion of cash from the Praedium Group, a real estate fund that specializes in investing in inner cities, Pinnacle’s holdings had jumped to 21,642 apartments.
From May 2004 to May of this year alone, the number of Pinnacle-owned apartments had tripled, with most of the recent purchases concentrated in Upper Manhattan and the Bronx. Among its acquisitions — for $500 million — was the 2,900 apartment portfolio of Baruch Singer, who had become one of Harlem’s most notorious landlords because of the number of code violations and fines his buildings incurred.
Marilynn K. Yee/The New York Times
The Dunbar Apartments in Harlem, one of the properties owned by the Pinnacle Group.
Kim Powell, who in November 2005 helped start an anti-Pinnacle group called Brush — Buyers and Renters United to Save Harlem — said the group’s primary problem with Pinnacle was how it treats renters. “They have shown an absolute disregard for tenants,” Ms. Powell said.
The Pinnacle model has been to purchase what it refers to as distressed properties — typically apartment buildings that have numerous code violations, are in poor repair, and house many tenants who are behind on rent. The tenants in the 104 Singer buildings, for example, were in arrears for a total of $4.3 million, according to Pinnacle.
The company cleans up the building, often starting at the basement. It scrubs graffiti, installs exterior lighting, cameras and new front doors, and works on code violations. The rent-stabilization laws allow some or all of the cost of that work to be passed on to tenants in the form of higher rents.
Vacant units often get complete makeovers, including new kitchens.
Landlords can also increase rents on vacant apartments by as much as 20 percent under state rent regulations. As a result, rents paid by incoming tenants are often significantly higher than what previous renters of the same apartment had paid.
Tenant advocates say Pinnacle is intent on raising rents to the $2,000-a-month threshold, which would remove the units that are vacant from rent-stabilization protection.
The law would then allow a landlord to rent those apartments for whatever the market will bear.
“That’s their business plan,” said Ken Rosenfeld, director of legal services for the nonprofit Northern Manhattan Improvement Corporation. “They’re testing the waters, they’re pushing the envelope.”
Mr. Weiner however, said that few of his apartments had reached the $2,000 level, and that he usually charges tenants less than the legally allowed rent because the current market cannot support higher rents. The city allows an occupied rent-stabilized apartment to be deregulated after its rent hits $2,000, but only if the tenants’ household income is at least $175,000 for two years in a row.
The Manhattan district attorney’s office and the state attorney general’s office have sought Pinnacle work invoices, eviction records, responses to tenant complaints and other documents to try to determine whether there is a pattern of fraud, whether the costs of renovations were exaggerated and false billings were submitted, officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing. Some of the accusations against Pinnacle, as well as some details of the investigations, have been reported by The Daily News.
Mr. Weiner said he was cooperating with the inquiries and has pledged to change Pinnacle’s business methods if either office requests it. The company has also hired two community outreach workers with the goal of forming a community advisory panel that would help guide Pinnacle operations.
Further, the company said it was willing to turn over the files of the 1,256 cases it is currently litigating against tenants to elected officials so they can be examined. Finally, it has agreed not to seek to evict elderly tenants without first contacting the city Department of Aging.
“I am looking every day to improve the operation,” Mr. Weiner said.
Many tenants however, say they have had unsettling encounters with Pinnacle and its lawyers.
Karen Flannagan, 53, said that even after she had presented Pinnacle documents that established her residency rights to her Harlem apartment after her mother died, the company slipped an eviction notice under her door and took her to court. Her mother had been the leaseholder and the family had lived in the apartment along with Ms. Flannagan’s teenage daughter for several years.
“Here I am trying to grieve, and I am having to worry about me and my daughter being thrown out,” she said.
After two years and 10 appearances in housing court, Pinnacle abruptly dropped the case a few years ago, she said. Pinnacle lawyers, however, said recently that Ms. Flannagan’s original documents had not been sufficient, though in a statement this week the company said it regretted any inconvenience it had caused her.
Marjorie Charron, 56, and her husband, Ted Charron, 59, moved into a Pinnacle building in Harlem in 2001, paying $1,900 a month for a two-bedroom apartment. They were told by Pinnacle that by law, the company could have charged as much as $2,500.
When the couple realized that other tenants were paying far less, they found out that Pinnacle had claimed to have performed $20,000 worth of remodeling work on the apartment before they moved in, which gave the landlord the right to raise the rent by a corresponding amount.
When they examined Pinnacle’s invoices for the work done on the apartment, however, they found that the company had included charges for 160 light bulbs, 75 pounds of grout, 130 gallons of paint, a $198 nail gun and a $424 drain cleaning device. They also found that some items listed as installed were not there, including oak flooring and a pedestal sink.
Other costs included maintenance work such as painting walls and sanding floors, the costs of which are not permitted to be passed on to a tenant by a landlord.
Five years later, the couple was awarded $10,000 in rent credits from Pinnacle, although they say the company owes them at least $15,000 more.
Pinnacle lawyers acknowledged having made mistakes in the Charron case, but continue to legally challenge some of the couples’ claims.
“The average person can’t do this, so by default, Pinnacle wins almost every time,” Ms. Charron said. In a statement this week, Pinnacle said the items had been “inadvertently misallocated” and apologized.
In another case, Erica Martinez, who lives in a Pinnacle building in Washington Heights, received a $1,317.83 rent credit from Pinnacle after the State Department of Housing and Community Renewal ruled that she had been overcharged. In addition, the agency ordered Pinnacle to pay her triple the amount of the overcharge — or a total of nearly $4,000 — because the overcharge had been deemed “willful.”
Pinnacle lawyers said the company had made mistakes in the Martinez case, but had not done so purposely.
In another case, Pinnacle has attempted to pass on charges to tenants for the $21,700 cost of new front doors in one of its buildings in Harlem, even though they were replaced several years earlier. The state eventually quashed the attempt and the tenants’ rents were not increased.
“Pinnacle, if by the second or third overcharge they had said, ‘Something’s wrong, lets make it right,’ I would have given them credit, but they never have,” said Hazel Miura, a tenant organizer in the Bronx.
Another Pinnacle tenant, Mark Gordon, was charged through his rent for the cost of five toilets for his apartment in 2001, even though he had only two bathrooms. Pinnacle’s invoices also included the cost of replacing electrical wiring that appeared not to have been replaced and a double billing for the installation of kitchen cabinets.
Mr. Gordon said three years and $10,000 in legal fees later, Pinnacle resolved the case by agreeing to lower his rent. While at the time, Pinnacle did not admit making any errors, the company recently acknowledged making a mistake.
But Pinnacle’s lawyers said that in only about 50 cases had the company been found to have overcharged tenants and that only about 6 percent of its units were currently under litigation. Pinnacle says that most of the tenants it has moved to evict have failed to pay rent for at least two months.
Mr. Weiner said he instructed his employees to work out cases with tenants amicably, and that he only used the courts as a final resort. His lawyers say that despite handing out thousands of dispossess notices, no more than 351 people have actually been evicted since 2004.
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company
September 25, 2006
A National Housing Innovator Leads City’s Effort for the Poor
By JANNY SCOTT
Shaun Donovan, left, commissioner of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, and Ron Moelis, a developer, visiting a construction site in Brooklyn.
On a sweltering morning in August, Shaun Donovan, the commissioner of the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development, left his office in Lower Manhattan and headed for an abandoned landfill in Brooklyn. He was on his way to an unusual groundbreaking for a vast new development — a village within the city — in what had once been one of the most desolate neighborhoods in New York.
The planned project — 2,200 new homes, streets, stores and a school in East New York — was the product of an intricate collaboration between a major real estate developer, lenders, church groups and the Bloomberg administration. Its scope was a marker of how far New York had come since the 1980’s and 90’s, when city administrations found themselves as the default landlords for thousands of buildings taken in tax foreclosure.
The business of generating working-class housing had changed, too. It had become a complex exercise in creative financing, an arcane science at which Mr. Donovan excels. New York City was becoming a leader in finding new ways to produce lower-priced housing. But, with the city’s population growing and land values rising, there is something Sisyphean about Mr. Donovan’s job.
“We know that you, who have built back this community, could be squeezed out,” he told the residents who had gathered for the groundbreaking that morning, taking refuge from the suffocating heat in St. Paul Community Baptist Church. “We want to be sure that the renaissance of this community is not something that happens to you, but something that happens for you.”
Mr. Donovan, 40, holds the unenviable job of trying to fulfill Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s multibillion-dollar promise to create or preserve 165,000 units of low- and moderate-income housing by 2013. He took on the assignment, in 2004, at an inauspicious moment: Land values were climbing, construction costs rising, the inventory of city-owned property drying up, landlords opting out of state and federal programs that had kept rents low.
Two and a half years later, Mr. Donovan is seen nationally as a pioneer in finding new ways to create and preserve low-cost housing. Paradoxically, he has tried to do it by capitalizing on the strength of the real estate market itself.
“I would never believe that the private sector, left to its own devices, is the best possible solution,” Mr. Donovan said recently. “I’m in government because of the role of government in setting rules and working in partnership with the private sector. On the other hand, there’s no way you could ever get to a scale that can really affect the housing problems in this country without working with the market.”
“There are lots of folks more skeptical of the market and working with the market than we are,” he added. “There are groups that would argue that we should only work with nonprofits. I believe we should work with both. Because at some fundamental level, I believe in competition. I believe that by having a broader pool available, having for-profits in the mix, we may get a lower price or be able to manage it more efficiently.”
He is credited with helping win over the administration to the idea of inclusionary zoning, under which developers agree to set aside a part of their projects for lower-income people in return for being allowed to build at greater density. The administration’s embrace of that idea helped win public support for the rezoning of several large, formerly industrial areas expected to produce 8,500 new low-cost units during the next 10 years.
Mr. Donovan was the force behind the creation of the $200 million New York Acquisition Fund, an unusual collaboration between the city, seven major foundations and financial institutions. The fund, to help small local developers and nonprofit groups compete for land in the private market, is expected to serve as a catalyst for the production and preservation of 30,000 low-cost apartments during the next decade.
Mr. Donovan has also worked unusually close with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees 800 HUD-assisted apartment buildings in the city, some of which have slid into foreclosure.
HUD policy is to sell such properties to the highest bidder, but Mr. Donovan, who worked at HUD during the Clinton administration, has found ways of steering them instead into local nonprofit, and sometimes tenant, hands.
“Shaun is one of the best and the brightest thinkers on housing issues in the country,” said William C. Apgar, a senior scholar at the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard and a former assistant secretary at HUD who was Mr. Donovan’s boss for a part of his tenure. “He has the capacity to see the possibilities, to throw away all the old models, to not get stuck in rules that really are more flexible than your imagination allows them to be.”
The city, under the program, has started 47,000 housing units.
Michael Bodaken, executive director of the National Housing Trust, a nonprofit based in Washington, said: “I use the New York fund they created as an example all the time to urge other cities to create this acquisition-like fund with foundation money, city money, bank money. I don’t know of any other city leveraging its own funds and foundation funds with bank money to try to save existing housing. It’s path-breaking.”
Not everyone agrees with the focus of housing policy under Mayor Bloomberg. Howard Husock, a vice president of the Manhattan Institute and the author of “America’s Trillion Dollar Housing Mistake: The Failure of American Housing Policy” (Ivan R. Dee, 2003), would like to see the administration also focus on “freeing up” the market by phasing out the rent regulation system and reusing public housing sites.
Michael McKee, treasurer of the Tenants Political Action Committee, wants the administration to do the opposite — to work to strengthen rent regulations in order to stop the attrition of low-cost apartments. Though he called Mr. Donovan “the best housing commissioner the city has had since I became an organizer 36 years ago,” he said the administration should be working to take control of the rent laws from the state.
Others like Brad Lander, director of the Pratt Center for Community Development, also said that the Bloomberg administration could do more to slow the loss of low-cost units. “I don’t think you can really solve New York City’s affordability crisis only with new production and money and land,” Mr. Lander said. “Keeping existing units affordable, both subsidized ones and regulated ones, is critical. That’s not part of the Bloomberg administration’s housing vision; they haven’t advocated against rent regulations but they are decidedly cold to efforts to strengthen them.”
But even those who differ with the administration’s approach describe Mr. Donovan as unusually qualified, — with master’s degrees in architecture and public administration from Harvard, and who, by age 38, had been acting commissioner of the Federal Housing Administration, had run the affordable housing program at Prudential and had written case studies for the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
Mr. Donovan — described as a “malignant optimist” by his sister, Justine Donovan, who is a psychiatrist — became interested in urban policy, poverty and design at a young age.
Raised in Manhattan, Mr. Donovan said he was “a math and science person” who ran track, built model cars and contemplated car design as a career. He got hooked on housing as a graduate student at the Kennedy School, he said, and emerged as what he calls a public sector junkie.
Mr. Donovan’s agency, described as the largest municipal developer of affordable housing in the country, has a $1 billion budget and 2,700 employees, from rumpled bureaucrats to Blackberry-brandishing up-and-comers. There is a new emphasis these days on strategic planning and on being customer friendly at a time when the market leaves developers lucrative alternatives to working with the city.
To spend a day trailing Mr. Donovan is to venture into a mind-boggling landscape of tax credits, operating deficits, cross subsidizations, income bands, soft costs, 202 refinancings, conforming loans. Mr. Husock, who lectures at the Kennedy School, said he sees Mr. Donovan as master of an art that developed in the wake of the federal government’s withdrawal from building low-income housing.
“You had a generation of students who were trained in how to cobble together deals — where the city puts in the land, they get a soft second mortgage from the state, they use low-income housing tax credits,” he said. “That’s the milieu Shaun Donovan came of age in. He’s really good at that stuff. If you are a specialist in housing policy at the graduate level today, it’s all about creative financing.”
For the East New York project, called the Nehemiah Spring Creek Houses at Gateway Estates, the Related Companies, the most active developer in the city, bought city-owned land to build a 625,000-square-foot retail center. The city will use money from that sale to help pay for streets, sidewalks and sewers. Financing for the first phase of home building will come from a loan from the Community Preservation Corporation, a major lender, and from the church organizations. The city is subsidizing the cost of the single-family homes.
“This is something you would never have had the opportunity to do 20 years ago,” Mr. Donovan said before the groundbreaking ceremony in August. “This is one of the signal shifts in our strategy — how you think of ways to harness the marketplace and channel that to keep housing affordable.” But, he added, “You’re always trying to work within the bounds of what the market is going to do. It’s clearly a huge challenge: Can you keep up?”
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company
This article is posted somewhere else on the forum.... I just don't know where...
10 sites targeted for homes
S. Bronx low-income units
BY BILL EGBERT
DAILY NEWS STAFF WRITER
Some of the last city-owned land in the Bronx will soon become affordable housing.
Ten locations in the South Bronx will be turned over to developers, the city Housing Preservation and Development Department said.
The 163rd Street Improvement Council and its co-developer, the architectural firm of Wormser and Associates, were among 25 development teams tapped to build new homes on 236 city-owned lots in Brooklyn and the Bronx.
"We're looking forward to building quality housing on these sites for the neighborhoods we serve," said Biarni Burke, acting president and CEO of the 163rd Street Improvement Council.
The 10 Bronx lots are in three clusters - in East Tremont, Melrose and Morrisania - and will hold a total of 39 affordable condominium units.
Under the Housing Preservation and Development Department's New Foundations program, developers buy the city-owned land and build one- to four-family homes or condos affordable for moderate- and middle-income families who agree to occupy the purchased home. At least one unit in the home must remain owner-occupied for 15 years.
The vacant lots are distressed real estate the city seized from landlords for nonpayment of property taxes.
From its peak in the 1980s when the city owned more than 100,000 units of housing and more than 5,000 vacant lots, the city now owns just over 2,000 units currently being redeveloped by Housing Preservation and Development Department programs and 248 developable lots - including the 236 lots in the Bronx and Brooklyn now being parceled out to affordable housing developers.
"By developing vacant city-owned land over the past two decades, New York City has successfully revitalized neighborhoods that were once written off and abandoned," said Housing Preservation Commissioner Shaun Donovan.
"Now that the challenge of abandonment has been met and the supply of city-owned land is nearly exhausted," he said, "we are faced with the challenge of affordability."
Donovan pointed to such innovations as inclusionary zoning - requiring developers to include a percentage of affordable units in large residential developments - as a way to keep housing stock affordable.
More than one third of the units in this latest round of developments will be within reach for families with incomes of $56,700 or less. Additional affordable units will be available to families with incomes between $56,700 and $92,170.
These units are part of Mayor Bloomberg's New Housing Marketplace Plan to build and preserve 165,000 affordable homes for 500,000 New Yorkers over 10 years.
Originally published on October 9, 2006
October 11, 2006
New York City Acts to Add Low-Cost Homes
By JANNY SCOTT
The Bloomberg administration plans to recommend that the city’s most popular tax break for housing developers be overhauled as a way of creating a more powerful incentive to build lower-cost housing.
The announcement, scheduled for today, would be the first major change in the program, known as 421-a, in the 35 years since it was conceived.
Under the current program, which was started when the housing market was stagnant, developers of new apartment buildings in most neighborhoods are eligible for a 10- to 15-year exemption from the increase in real estate taxes resulting from the work. Only in a few parts of the city — central Manhattan and Greenpoint-Williamsburg in Brooklyn — are they required in return to include lower-priced units, either on site or nearby.
Under the new proposal, those areas would be expanded to include Lower Manhattan, parts of Harlem, the Dumbo section of Brooklyn, Brooklyn Heights and other parts of the Brooklyn and Queens waterfront. The tax break would be tightened in other ways, too. There would be a strict limit on the size of tax breaks to market-rate units, and the maximum benefit — a 25-year tax break — would go only to projects citywide that include low-priced units.
“The program will steer more developers toward creating affordable housing because of the incentives built into the program,” said Shaun Donovan, commissioner of the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development. “But at the same time, there will also be more taxes paid to the city of New York because of the reforms, and we’re going to take those increased taxes and put them back into affordable housing.”
Mr. Donovan estimated the increased revenue at hundreds of millions of dollars, some percentage of which the administration would try to direct toward construction of thousands of additional units of low- and moderate-income housing.
The 421-a proposal, which the administration hopes will be passed by the City Council before the end of this year, comes at a time of growing concern that high housing costs will drive the middle class out of many neighborhoods. There is strong backing on the Council for revamping the program, including support from Speaker Christine C. Quinn.
The administration’s plan, aimed at increasing the incentives to build lower-cost housing, is expected to pit the interests of real estate developers against those of advocates for low-priced housing.
Steven Spinola, president of the Real Estate Board of New York and a member of the administration-appointed task force that made the recommendations, said he supported several of the proposals but worried about others. If they are approved as proposed, he said, “I think it’s going to have a detrimental impact on housing construction in the city of New York over the next decade.”
But Brad Lander, director of the Pratt Center for Community Development and a task force member, called for an expansion of the area where developers must build lower-priced units in exchange for tax breaks, known as the exclusion zone.
“Unless the exclusion zone is significantly expanded beyond what’s proposed,” he said, “I think this reform will not be anywhere near sufficient. The proposed expansion would still provide extensive tax breaks for million-dollar condos from Harlem to Park Slope, from Forest Hills to Riverdale, with no affordability requirements. It would remain an expensive gentrification subsidy.”
A council member who supports the plan, Bill de Blasio, whose district includes Park Slope in Brooklyn, said, “It’s unbelievable to me that we would take any public money and subsidize developers who are going to develop housing anyway, when that money could go to other efforts to develop affordable housing.”
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who has pledged to create or preserve 165,000 units of low- and moderate-income housing by 2013, appointed the task force in February to rethink the 421-a program, which by some estimates costs the city $300 million a year in lost tax revenues. Many housing experts believe that the current strength of the housing market offers an opportunity to redirect the program, giving it a greater emphasis on the production of badly needed lower-priced housing.
The challenge, administration officials say, is to figure out how to direct the tax benefit toward encouraging lower-priced housing without inadvertently slowing down the development of housing in general.
“We are trying to harness the market,” said Mr. Donovan, another task force member. “But we’re not trying to shackle the market. We need to strike that balance very carefully.”
The task force — made up of city officials, developers, housing advocates, bankers and others — is proposing a half-dozen changes to the program. In addition to the plan to expand the exclusion area, the plan causing the most debate is probably one to eliminate a system under which developers of lower-cost housing can raise equity by selling their tax benefits to market-rate developers in the exclusion area.
The task force concluded that the system of selling those “negotiable certificates” was an inefficient method of steering money toward low-cost housing, because the tax breaks tend to be worth five times what the market-rate developers pay. The group is suggesting that the certificate program be replaced with “a dedicated fund for affordable housing.”
“The task force believes it should be eliminated if the revenue coming to affordable housing currently through the certificate program is replaced — and with an adequate amount of money,” Mr. Donovan said.
But, he added, “If the fund doesn’t get set up as a replacement, the preference of the task force is to keep the certificate program because there needs to be this revenue going to affordable housing.”
Also under the new plan, there would be a limit on the total tax benefit any market-rate apartment could receive, regardless of its value. Currently, a $2 million condominium can receive twice the tax break given to a $1 million condominium next door. To avoid oversubsidizing luxury properties, there would be no increase in benefit after the first $100,000 of assessed valuation, which is roughly equivalent to that of a $1 million condominium.
In addition to those changes, the task force wanted the extended, 25-year tax break — currently given to any development in neighborhoods once thought in need of improvement — to be given only to projects providing some low-cost housing.
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company
Orange: Police Use Pepper Spray on Crowd
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
October 12, 2006
The Orange police said yesterday that they had been forced to use pepper spray to control a large, unruly crowd of people seeking applications for subsidized-housing vouchers.
At least 500 and as many as 1,000 people — some of whom had waited overnight — showed up at the offices of the Orange Housing Authority for one of the 200 available applications. The doors opened at 8 a.m. and the crowd ignored officers’ instructions to stay calm, the police said. One passer-by said he had seen fights break out among the crowd. The federal housing program, known as Section 8, provides subsidies that low-income people can use to rent market-rate housing.
By noon, a sign on the building said that “due to the overwhelming response” to the release of the Section 8 applications, no more were to be distributed yesterday. A telephone call to the authority’s office was not answered.
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company
“How can you live on Fifth Avenue and have wire hangers?”
The Best Revenge (Isn’t It Always)
By DAN SHAW
THERE are many status symbols in the world of prewar East Side apartment buildings, and an elevator that opens onto a private vestibule and a lone front door is one of them. A double-height living room is another.
Carolyne Roehm’s apartment on East 57th Street has both. One would expect Ms. Roehm, 55, who once upon a time reigned as an empress of Park and Seventh Avenues, to live in otherworldly surroundings.
Since she shut down her high-profile fashion house 15 years ago and she and the financier Henry R. Kravis divorced in 1993, she has made teaching others how to live as well as she does her life’s work. She lectures and publishes books about entertaining, flower arranging, gardening and gift wrapping. She sells impeccable housewares and hostess gifts from her Web site, a chic bazaar with the recherché spirit of Henri Bendel’s old Street of Shops.
Although she has lived in two of Manhattan’s legendary buildings — 740 Park Avenue and 1 Sutton Place South — Ms. Roehm says this duplex is by far her favorite. “The light is beautiful at all times of day,” she said.
After a decade at 1 Sutton, where she moved to regroup after her divorce, Ms. Roehm said, she needed a change. When she started looking at apartments, she was horrified by how other wealthy New Yorkers lived. “I couldn’t believe people’s closets,” she said. “How can you live on Fifth Avenue and have wire hangers?”
She had initially refused to consider apartments at this building on East 57th Street because, except for the grand salons, the other rooms are relatively modest. She had looked at Frank and Kathie Lee Gifford’s apartment here many years ago when it was for sale, so she thought she knew the building.
“And then someone I knew in Connecticut insisted that I had to see this apartment because it was so much like Weatherstone,” she said, referring to her beloved 18th-century stone house in Sharon, Conn. “When I first walked into this apartment, it was as if I had a twin brother and he’d lived here,” she said brightly. “There were my pilasters! There was the coffered ceiling just like I have at Weatherstone.”
But Weatherstone, which Ms. Roehm rebuilt after a fire in 1999, does not have arched two-story windows nor does it have her collection of oversize 18th- and 19th-century portraits hung on brown velveteen walls.
“I’ve never been able to hang my ladies before,” she said, surveying the massive paintings of aristocrats by Louise-Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, Sir Joshua Reynolds and Franz Xaver Winterhalter. “I’ve always had to lean them against the wall on the floor. Now they are hanging as they were meant to.”
The women gaze down upon an assortment of mostly 18th-century furniture from England, France, Italy, Russia and Sweden, including a 19th-century neo-Classical piano. “It’s an Erard, which is what Chopin preferred to play on,” Ms. Roehm explained in her melodious voice.
Although this elegant drawing room seems her natural habitat, Ms. Roehm grew up middle class in Missouri. “It was a ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ childhood,” said Ms. Roehm, who was dressed in well-cut trousers and a crisp blouse the color of a blush peony. “You lived in your imagination.”
After graduating from Washington University in St. Louis in 1973, she moved to New York to work in the fashion business. Her first apartment was an un-air-conditioned fourth-floor walk-up on the Upper East Side that she shared with three sorority sisters and dozens of cockroaches. “It was such a dive,” she said. “But I was young, and everything was fun and wonderful.”
She didn’t even bother trying to decorate her next apartment in a banal high-rise because she was too busy. “I was at work all day, and I went on dates at night,” she said. “And then I was lucky enough to meet my first Prince Charming, and I moved in with him.”
Prince Charming No. 1 lived in a small penthouse between Madison and Fifth Avenues. “That was my beginnings in New York real estate,” she said. “He was the perfect first love. He loved music. He taught me about wine. He gave me my first fur coat.”
She married Prince Charming No. 2, and he took her to live in his native Germany, but the relationship did not work out, and she returned to New York and her old job working for Oscar de la Renta, who had become her mentor and protector.
She moved into another undistinguished high-rise, but this time she decorated it. “Oscar had a license with Cannon Mills at the time, and he was able to get me this blue and white sheet fabric for 99 cents a yard, and I draped all the walls in the fabric,” she said, pausing as if it were hard to believe she had ever done such a thing. “It had a look.”
But nothing like the look of the majestic duplex apartment at 740 Park she shared with Prince Charming No. 3, her second husband, Mr. Kravis. The apartment was sumptuously decorated by Denning & Fourcade, whose clients included the philanthropist Jayne Wrightsman and Henry A. Kissinger.
In those days, she was the president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America and gave formal dinners for 18 as a matter of course when she wasn’t at charity galas counting the number of women wearing dresses she had designed.
Now she does most of her entertaining in Connecticut, and her new book, “A Passion for Parties” (Broadway Books), chronicles fetes that include a square dance in her barn and a July 4 picnic by her pond.
Today, she always works from home. The barn has been turned into the warehouse for her Web site. On East 57th Street, she has turned the shoebox-sized maid’s room into her office. “The apartment isn’t really much,” she said, giving a quick tour of the round dining room with a table for four, the paneled library for watching television and the master bedroom suite where the walls, as well as the bed, are covered in an ethereal floral fabric from Cowtan & Tout.
She is not nostalgic for the 16-room apartment at 740 Park, and she has not read Michael Gross’s “740 Park: The Story of the World’s Richest Apartment Building,” which was published last year. “I wasn’t that interested,” she said coolly.
Nor did she ever read “Barbarians at the Gate,” the 1990 best seller (and later HBO movie) about Mr. Kravis’s landmark leveraged buyout of RJR Nabisco. “I didn’t have to,” she said. “I lived it.”
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company
A NEW PLACE TO PARK THE FAMILY -- NOT THE CAR
Over the next few years, residential buildings will replace open spaces at some public housing complexes
By Tanveer Ali
November 6, 2006
Apartment buildings will sprout from parking lots at public housing projects around the city over the next few years, creating up to 600 new affordable housing units on what’s now underutilized land, according to a joint plan by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD).
As part of Mayor Bloomberg’s Housing Marketplace Plan, current residents of Brooklyn’s Linden Houses and Boulevard Homes, Manhattan’s Harborview Terrace, Fulton Houses and Chelsea Elliot Houses, and the Stapleton Houses on Staten Island may all see new construction in parts of their complexes by 2010.
According to HPD spokesperson Neill Coleman, the initiative is part of his department’s broader push to find and create new housing units in the city by collaborating with traditional and non-traditional governmental partners.
“Altogether, these partnerships with city and state agencies are expected to generate over 20,000 units of new affordable housing by 2013,” Coleman said. In addition to NYCHA, HPD’s partners include the Economic Development Corporation, Department of Citywide Administrative Services, Department of Transportation, Health and Hospitals Corporation and Human Resources Administration.
The move to replace parking lots at the Fulton complex in Chelsea was met with open arms, according to Jimmy Pelsey, president of the Fulton Houses Tenants Association.
“We support it wholeheartedly. We endorsed it from the beginning,” Pelsey said. A 16-story, nearly 100-unit building will replace a parking lot on 18th Street, which is now used mostly for storage, he said. Developers will replace lost spots with underground parking.
Pelsey said current Fulton tenants negotiated with the city to get first crack at living in the possible new tower. According to NYCHA documents, a final proposal will be expected from the city agencies and developers in January 2008 with the project ending two years later.
NYCHA reached a similar agreement for its current tenants, setting aside a minimum quota of 30 “eligible NYCHA households” for an opportunity to purchase 160 new townhouses or condominiums for the Linden Houses and Boulevard Houses project. That development has an expected completion date of October 2009.
In September, NYCHA and HPD announced the completion of their first collaborative development at the University Macombs Apartments in the Bronx, rehabilitating former NYCHA land to produce more than 200 apartment units.
Copyright © 2006 City Futures, Inc.