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June 29, 2009 @ 3:39 pm

Independence Plaza: “If you can’t tell the truth, at least don’t lie.”

That was the wise advice that Bill Moyer’s father gave him when he took the job as Lyndon Johnson’s press secretary. In New York politics, it would represent a giant ethical leap forward.

The Independence Plaza tenant board has been in office for a number of years. There is a contested election. I headed the tenant board from 2000 to 2004 and resigned shortly after we concluded the negotiations with Laurence Gluck.

From time to time people ask my opinion about various landlord-tenant matters. I always say to them “Thankfully I’m out of the loop.” I’ve experienced first-hand how nasty these tenant fights can be and life is short. Tonight a letter written by the challengers was attached to my door.

At the outset, I should say that statements made by some of the current board members have distorted the role that city council member Alan Gerson played in our fight. You can read a small part of what was done in an article entitled “Dealing With Local Politicians: Anybody Have a Wooden Stake?” It spells out the devious tactics he and other politicians employed to mislead the tenants they claimed to represent.

Some of the current board members are supporting Gerson for a third term. This is an issue that transcends our local Independent Plaza fight. It should be clear by now –- as it was to some of us much earlier –- that Gerson, who was one of the members who voted himself another term despite the referenda that established and reaffirmed a two-term limit, represents only himself. But that’s just the slime of New York politics. It’s an outrage that we hope the voters will correct in September.

But those who are challenging the current Independence Plaza board have written a piece in which there are patently false and misleading statements that go to the heart of what occurred in the years 2000-2004 when I was the tenant president. Thus it’s personal. Here is what they wrote. (Perhaps challengers were duped into accepting Harold Donahue’s account. Donahue is the former president whom we ousted.)

LAP Agreement: Larry Gluck called up the TA to set up a negotiation, at which he offered Rent-Stabilized-sized increases. All that were up for negotiation were garage space and the like. Nor was this the model for others. Phipps Plaza and another project on West 95th St, went down before us, and they got the same deal, again, with only the trimmings negotiable. This seemed to be the landlords’ official position. The agreement does not affect Section 8 tenants at all.

During our fight, I sent the board the following memorandum regarding Phipps Plaza:

Memo to the Board re: Phipps Plaza

These Phipps Plaza tenants are people like us. They came up to the microphone between the center aisles of the church to ask questions. Some were very angry. The people on the stage were upset that the tenants weren’t being polite. They were actually taking it personally that they were being thrown out of their homes!

Security guards ringed the auditorium. It’s a tough way to make a buck — helping to kick people out of their homes. And I wouldn’t want to have to tell my kids that’s how I earn my living — but the real villains are the public officials who are allowing it to happen, kicking working people out of their homes to allow a handful of real estate developers — political insiders — to make a bundle. They say it’s the law. Well, we elect those people who make the law. And if we stick together and speak with one voice, they will hear us. They’ll pass a new law.

Phipps Plaza tenants lost their fight. They were forced into a landlord-take-all deal that more than doubled the rents immediately and went up from there. The owners took the complex out of the Mitchell-Lama program, changed its name to “Kips Bay Court” and priced the three-bedroom apartments that had rented sixty days earlier for $1,500 a month to $4,000. Adam Weinstein, president of the ownership entity, told reporters that the tenants got a good deal: “I think I can say with good conscience that the rents we are offering are equivalent to the city’s affordable housing program.” 1

The Opening Negotiation With Laurence (Call me Larry) Gluck

In July 2003, we had our first serious meeting with Gluck. His chief lawyer, Stephen Meister, accompanied him to our lawyers’ office. They sat across the table from the three lawyers on our side and me. Gluck’s opening line oozed confidence: “It’s my football now.” (Dan Doctoroff, the deputy mayor had allowed Harold Cohn to transfer the title to Gluck over our objections.) He made a few bad jokes that Meister laughed at. He was letting us know who was in charge.

“What do you propose?” Gluck asked.

“We want to buy you out. Give us a price,” one of our lawyers responded.
“There is no price, I’m not selling.”

“Independence Plaza doesn’t have sentimental value for you. Surely there is a price at which you would sell,” one of our lawyers replied.

“No, there isn’t. I didn’t buy it to flip it. I’m a long-term investor.”
We had quickly come to the first dead-end.

“O.K., let’s talk about the tenants,” I said. “What do you propose?”

He assured us, as he had previously, that at least enhanced vouchers would protect two-thirds of the tenants, and he would treat the others “fairly.” We knew that he would never agree to a voucher guaranty. The contingent liability would make it difficult, if not impossible for him to get financing. Alan Epstein pressed him:

“If you’re certain that the vouchers will be available to tenants for the duration of their tenancies, “will you guarantee them?”

“No.”

“So,” Epstein said, “You want the tenants to guarantee them.”
No response. We were getting nowhere.

“There are problems associated with the vouchers,” I said, “things like so-called over housed tenants, like tenants being denied a voucher because their apartment isn’t up to federal voucher standards, like having to self-enforce landlord violations of the program, and so forth.” 2 We talked about these things for a while. But it was just talk. Gluck was feeling things out; he wasn’t about to agree to anything. “Look,” he said, “I don’t blame you for fighting this. I would do the same.”

“That’s very generous of you,” I replied. He nodded. He had taken the remark seriously, as though I were complimenting him on his generosity of spirit. But one of our lawyers laughed out loud. We decided to take a break.

Alan Epstein later told me that during the break, as he and Gluck were standing over adjoining urinals, Gluck said to him, “Your client hates me.” Epstein mumbled something that suggested that he wasn’t sure I hated him, only that I was very angry. Lawyers are good at splitting hairs.

When the meeting resumed, Gluck said, “You and I are just alike, you’re trying to make as much money as you can — presumably, he meant I was trying to keep my rent as low as possible — and I’m trying to be fair and make money, too.”

“We aren’t alike. You’re terrorizing 3,500 people. I’m not.” He didn’t respond.

“What about the non-voucher tenants, what do you propose to do about them?” I asked. “Assuming there is no rent stabilization for Independence Plaza, they are completely unprotected.”

“What do you propose?” Meister interjected. This is a standard negotiating ploy: The first person who puts the number on the table loses. Even my 12-year-old son understood the tactic. When he told me he would need an allowance for the summer, I asked him how much he needed. He replied, “I don’t know, Dad; what do you have in mind?” My son became a lawyer.

“It isn’t my place to propose anything. You’ve got the property, and you say you’re going to exit Mitchell-Lama but you’re going to be fair. What do you mean by fair? I need to take an offer back to the board and the tenants.”

Gluck turned to Meister and said, “He’s right. I will make an offer in a month or so.”

“This doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game,” I said. “We can both come out of this with what we want. I want a deal, not a lawsuit.”

“I’ll be leaving in a couple of weeks for Amsterdam. I won’t be back until September,” I told him. But I’ll be in constant touch with the lawyers by e-mail. So, can we expect an offer by, say, September? Or, if it’s ready sooner, you can get it to the lawyers, and they can get it to me.” He agreed. We had accomplished all that could be accomplished for the time being. When I rose to leave, he said, “ I’d like to go to Amsterdam myself,” implying that he was a hip guy who would enjoy the legalized marijuana on offer at the Amsterdam coffee shops. “What’s your address? I’ll ship you a package.” Meister guffawed. The meeting ended.

We never received Gluck’s offer. He simply refused to negotiate. His best strategy was to stall us and exit Mitchell-Lama quietly. Tripling rents or evicting elderly people living on fixed incomes is never good press.

A Rally at City Hall in Which We Discover Christine Quinn’s True Allegiance

On July 23, shortly after that meeting, we led a rally at City Hall to support the City Council bill. Hundreds of tenants came out. They stood on the steps of City Hall with banners demanding that politicians “Save our Homes.” They displayed photographs of Independence Plaza kids who had been evacuated on September 11: “Victims of Ground Zero.

A group of City Council members stood alongside Miller. He spoke first. When he handed the microphone to Christine Quinn, one of the bill’s co-sponsors, she passed it to me without saying anything. I hadn’t ever seen a politician pass up an opportunity to hold forth in front of the press and a large crowd of constituents, especially not on a bill that she was sponsoring. I wondered about it. Later I learned that she was not the enthusiastic supporter that she had made herself out to be. Quinn, as was her predecessor Miller, and his predecessor Peter Vallone, has close ties to the real estate industry. She didn’t want to alienate the developers, landlords, the mayor, or the Queens county leader who engineered her speakership. I hope the reader will excuse the slight vulgarity, but in lingua franca of New York politics, she had to prove that she’s as regular as ex-lax. She did. Now you can see her leading tenant demonstrations against herself!! There is no limit to the duplicity of some of these “representatives.”

When I began to speak about windfall profits for landlords who had risked nothing, had built their developments with public funds, and were now preparing to privatize them and evict the low-and moderate-income tenants for whom the developments were built, and so on — by now it was a campaign stump speech, one that I strongly felt, but a stump speech nonetheless — Miller, standing behind me, whispered, “We don’t want to demonize the landlords.” I toned down the rhetoric.

We didn’t get to a negotiating table with Laurence Gluck until November 2003, and we only got there then because he was forced to negotiate. It’s a story I’ll pick up in future installments.

(TO BE CONTINUED)

– Neil Fabricant

[1]Neighborhood Report: Kips Bay; Tenants Battle for Low Rents, and a Diverse Building, Michael Gwertzman, New York Times, August 1, 2004.
[2]Under federal rules some voucher-eligible tenants are deemed “over housed.” For example, a widow who lives alone in a two-bedroom apartment, her children having moved away, must downsize. If a smaller apartment in the same development isn’t available, she can stay for a year. Then she must leave and find a one-bedroom in another development whose owner will accept the voucher. For Independence Plaza tenants that probably would mean moving to a run-down development in a dangerous neighborhood or leaving the city.

Photo Credit: everystreetinmanhattan

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