Mitchell-Lama Drama

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New legislation to protect residents of city-run Mitchell-Lama apartment buildings was announced with much fanfare on the steps of City Hall on July 22–but not everyone is cheering. Some longtime tenant activists say the law, which applies to only 13,446 of the nearly 120,000 Mitchell-Lama housing units in New York City, threatens to divide the broader movement.

A statewide program started in 1955, Mitchell-Lama offered tax breaks and low-interest loans to developers in exchange for keeping buildings affordable for 20 years. Now these contracts have begun to expire, giving owners the right to opt out of the program–and, in some cases, dramatically raise rents.

The new bill, sponsored by Councilmembers Gale Brewer, Alan Gerson, Christine Quinn and Speaker Gifford Miller, would require owners of city-supervised, post-1973 Mitchell-Lamas to give tenants 18 months' notice before leaving the program, and to pay the city $1,000 per unit in administrative fees. Meanwhile, the city's department of Housing Preservation and Development would make sure owners had fully complied with the terms of their contracts, and would conduct a “community impact study” for each building on how the conversion would affect residents. The owner would have to mitigate any negative consequences by working with the tenants or with HPD.

At face value, the bill looks great, and several tenant associations and community groups have already signed on. But some members of the Mitchell-Lama Task Force, created by Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields in 1999, worry that the bill is too narrowly focused to help most tenants, and could divert attention from more expansive bills pending in Albany, where the fates of most Mitchell-Lamas are controlled. One bill, sponsored by Assemblymember Vito Lopez, would offer landlords another period of tax breaks if they stay in the program. It has already passed both houses and only awaits Gov. George Pataki's signature.

“This is directed at city-owned Mitchell-Lamas, not state-owned ones, and it's geared mostly toward rentals and not co-ops. I think there is a danger in pitting tenants [against each other],” says Louise Sanchez, co-chair of the Mitchell-Lama Residents Coalition.

Others have expressed concerns that the legislation might not stand up to a constitutional challenge. “My prediction is it's going to be beaten down by the courts,” says Bob Woolis, also a coalition co-chair.

Councilmember Brewer, who has 21 Mitchell-Lamas in her district, hopes Woolis is wrong. The legislation, scheduled for hearings in September, isn't a cure-all, she says, but it brings new energy and publicity to a battle she's been fighting for years. “Albany can really fix the problem and they either will or they won't,” she says, “But I don't think this legislation will come in the way.”

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