Nov. 25, 2020 By Christian Murray
A proposal for a seven-story affordable housing complex in Sunnyside is one step closer to getting the approval of Community Board 2.
The Land Use committee for Community Board 2 voted in favor of Phipps Houses’ rezoning application Tuesday, as the non-profit developer seeks to construct a seven story, 167-unit building at 50-25 Barnett Ave.
The vote is significant since the opinion of the Land Use committee typically holds sway over the full board vote—scheduled for Dec. 3.
The committee, by an 8 to 1 margin, voted in favor of the project less than a week after Phipps presented its plan at a public hearing and came under heavy fire.
The developer was criticized at the hearing by tenants who live at the existing Phipps Garden Apartments complex at 51-01 39th Ave. Several tenants argued that the complex was poorly managed and had fallen into disrepair, and that Phipps should not be permitted to build and manage another property in the district.
Other attendees at last week’s hearing wanted Phipps to lower the income eligibility requirements for the affordable units. All 167 units are to be classified as affordable.
The plan presented by Phipps to the committee Tuesday was tweaked in response to the hearing.
The income levels for the affordable units were adjusted, with the top income band reduced from 110 percent of the Area Median Income to 100 percent.
Phipps also presented an “improvement plan’ to upgrade its existing Phipps Garden Apartments complex as a means to address its critics.
The improvement plan includes hiring an additional porter within 30 days. The porter would be tasked with managing the trash and cleaning common areas.
Phipps pledged that within 60 days it would make sure that its tree pruning schedule is on track and that it would expand its pest control/extermination services.
Within 90 days, Phipps said it would clean out dry wells and investigate what’s needed to address drainage problems.
Phipps also said that it would adopt a landscaping plan within six months and would paint the lobbies and hallways.
Committee members asked Phipps why it took them so long to put a plan together, since many of the complaints at the 472-unit complex have been known for years.
“We have been talking about this since 2016. Is there a reason why nothing has been done?” asked Lisa Deller, chair of Community Board 2, at the committee meeting.
Sarah Ellmore, director of planning for Phipps Houses, told the committee that the organization had done significant work since 2016, noting that $3 million had been spent on improvements and repairs since 2017.
But some committee members had doubts whether the improvement plan presented last night went far enough. They questioned whether Phipps was a worthy manager given all of the complaints.
Nicholas Berkowitz, a committee member, suggested that a third party oversee the building should the plans be approved—given Phipps’ current record with residents.
Michael Wadman, vice president for Phipps, dismissed the concept of a third-party manager but said the developer was willing to have a third party consultant to advise on issues.
However, some committee members– while acknowledging the ongoing issues–argued that Phipps was not the slumlord some people suggested.
Stephen Cooper, a long-time Sunnyside Gardens resident and committee member, said it is wrong to characterize Phipps as a poor landlord. He said that he has lived in the area for 50 years and has known many tenants who have lived at the complex without complaint.
He said the committee should focus on the merits of the 167-unit project, as opposed to the existing 80-year-old complex.
Deller said that the Barnett Avenue project has many positive attributes and the affordable housing on offer should not be overlooked.
“This community board has been advocating for affordable housing for a long time and if it not here—then where—and if it is not now—when,” Deller said.
The committee voted to approve the plan, under the condition that Phipps meets monthly with existing Phipps Garden Apartments tenants; adheres to its improvement plan; conducts inspections of the units; and gets a third-party company to conduct a survey that provides meaningful feedback.