Lantern Group, a non-profit affordable housing developer, purchased a single room occupancy complex – two buildings with a shared foundation at 330-332 West 51st Street, one of only four SRO complexes that remain in the neighborhood – last January. Bob Kalin, a professional tenant organizer at the non-profit Housing Conservation Coordinators, a Hell’s Kitchen affordable housing advocacy group founded in 1972, estimates that the average unit in a Hell’s Kitchen’s SRO, a single room with a shared bathroom, rents for about $400-500 per month.
But Lantern purchased the property with the intention of renovating it, and in the nearly two years since, tenants have become increasingly apprehensive about what that renovation will mean for them.
Back in September, more than two-dozen tenants of the West Side rooming house crowded into an overflowing community room for a meeting of Community Board 4’s Health, Housing & Human Services, to demand more information about the future of their building. “There is a very high level of anxiety in the building,” said Kalin, who has worked in the building for over 25 years.
The New York City Department of Housing Preservation & Development provided Lantern with money to purchase and redevelop the complex in accordance with the 2009 Western Rail Yard Points of Agreement between the Bloomberg Administration and the City Council, which promised to preserve 150 single-room occupancy units in Hell’s Kitchen. In return, the council approved a rezoning ordinance that allowed for a luxury, mixed-use redevelopment project spearheaded by Related Companies and Goldman Sachs on Eleventh and Twelfth avenues, between West 30th and 33rd streets.
Under the plan, Lantern agreed to use city funds to purchase and renovate the building, and then to operate it as affordable housing for at least 35 years, at which time it would have the option of buying out the city. Lantern has not begun the work, though tenants report receiving relocation notices last year for a planned renovation that never materialized.
The SRO complex, on West 51st Street between Eighth and Ninth avenues, was built in the 1880s, and was last renovated in the 1960s. “Without a doubt, it’s the most physically run down building I work in,” said Kalin. Tenants complain of a crumbling façade, exterior doors that don’t properly lock, and floors that buckle.
Luis Cepeda, a 71-year-old retiree living on Social Security, has lived in the building for 31 years, two years in his current unit. “I’m on Lantern’s side,” Cepeda said, “The building has to go. I lived on the first floor for 29 years. The whole ceiling [of that apartment] collapsed. This building is not safe.”
Cepeda praises Lantern for painting walls, securing floors and installing mailboxes – and yet he is worried that Lantern won’t make good on its promises to relocate tenants during the construction and return them to their renovated units after construction. “We need a lawyer. We need something in writing,” he said. Cepeda fears he will be forced to leave without written relocation guarantees. “All they are doing is just talking.”
The company’s intention to reduce the number of units worries several tenants. Lantern, which now hopes to begin renovation of the 142-unit complex next summer, presented plans to the committee that reduced the total number of units from 142 to 113, though 120 rooms are currently rented. Renovation would require emptying and renovating the 330 side, leaving tenants on the 332 side in their homes. The group would then empty and renovate the 332 side.
Lantern plans to relocate 42 tenants from the 330 side during the first phase of construction, 22 to the 332 side and 20 to another SRO building the organization owns on West 94th Street. They expect around 20 tenants to move out before construction given the “transient nature of the population,” said Rafal Markwat, the development associate at Lantern in charge of planning the redevelopment of the building.
The approximately two-dozen tenants who attended the committee meeting demanded that Lantern begin relocation negotiations now. “We haven’t started relocation negotiations because everything is still being drafted,” Markwat said. “We don’t have anything solid yet.”
At one point in the three-hour, often tense September meeting, Kalin challenged the Lantern representatives. “You guys are still renting vacancies,” he said. “How is this renovation ever going to happen?” Lantern officials denied the claim, but a woman then rose and said, “I just moved in two weeks ago.”
“This doesn’t give the board comfort that there will be enough vacancies,” remarked Joe Restuccia, co-chair of the committee. The committee also expressed concerns about other aspects of the plan, at one point seeming surprised by Lantern’s proposal to permanently give the basement space of the renovated building to The American Youth Table Tennis Organization.
Kalin called the tone of the committee “unusually aggressive” after the meeting. “[Lantern’s] product is a good one, but they want it done their way. They are trying to take shortcuts. The committee is not going to let that happen,” he said.
Lantern was supposed to be back in front of the committee on October 25 to address relocation plans and committee concerns, but the committee announced at that meeting that Lantern had scrapped its renovation plans and had gone back to the drawing board to satisfy board requests. Cepeda was not surprised, “The [community board] and Lantern are just talking.” He continued, “This [renovation] will never happen. This has been going on for over two years.” But under the agreement between Lantern and the city, Lantern must renovate the complex to maintain ownership.
Cepeda has lived in Hell’s Kitchen since the early 1970s, long enough to remember the neighborhood before gentrification. ‘This is an expensive area now. These two buildings don’t really belong in this area the way they are now,” Cepeda continued. “[The buildings] are devaluing other people’s property. This whole thing is about money.”
“Where am I going to go? I can’t pay one, two, three thousand dollars in rent. My rent is very low here because I have lived here so long and I am a senior citizen,” he said.
Kalin argues that Lantern doesn’t fully understand the difficulty of negotiating relocation agreements in this building. “They want to treat it like a building without people,” he said, “This building has a number of people with mental health issues. This is a particular population that needs to be treated gently and respectfully.”
“When public funds are used, tenants are protected,” Markwat responded. “There are specific laws and regulations that require us to keep them in place.”
Barbara Davis, co-chair of the community board committee, announced at the October meeting that the board’s review of Lantern’s new plans had been temporarily tabled and not rescheduled, seeming to cast doubt on Lantern’s current construction timetable.