Thursday, January 11, 2007

Tenants' second lawsuit calls AY relocation plan inadequate

Thirteen rent-stabilized tenants, who live in two buildings in the proposed Atlantic Yards footprint and have already sued to block the demolition of their buildings, have filed another suit, claiming that the relocation agreements announced by the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) are inadequate and violate state law.

Lawyers for tenants have long argued that the relocation agreements offered by developer Forest City Ratner (FCR) left the tenants vulnerable. The agreements provided for just three years of differential rent--the difference between their current rent and that in their temporary apartment--before the tenants were to be relocated to Atlantic Yards at their old rent. However, that wouldn’t leave enough time for the project to be constructed.

The Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) issued by the ESDC in November indicated a better offer:
The sponsors have also agreed to pay the difference, if any, in rent between the tenant's current rent and the rent for the comparable interim unit until such time as the tenant is relocated into a new unit in the proposed development. This agreement would terminate only if the project were abandoned or the tenant breached its obligations.

However, that still would leave the tenants out in the cold if lawsuits stopped the project or the developer chose not to continue.

No offer made

The new lawsuit, filed in state court on behalf of residents of 624 Pacific Street and 473 Dean Street, alleges that those residents never received an offer, even though, “under section 10(g) of the UDC Act... respondent is required to provide petitioners with relocation into a residential project of ESDC or to provide relocation into equivalent housing in the neighborhood.” (UDC refers to the Urban Development Corporation, the ESDC's parent.)

“As far as petitioners are aware, it does not exist in written form,” states the lawsuit of the offer. (I asked for a copy in December, but ESDC didn't provide it.) “ESDC’s offer of ‘relocation assistance’ is not an offer to relocate or to provide housing, which section 10 (g) requires, and it does not meet the clear and explicit statutory requirement to provide comparable housing, not to provide a real estate broker.” Nor would the tenants get the “additional financial assistance” needed to relocate.

“Without sufficient financial assistance, the relocation plan proposed by ESDC--help from a real estate broker--is not a feasible way to provide comparable housing in the neighborhood" and is unlawful, according to the lawsuit.

Attorney George Locker said that tenants in one of the buildings met with FCR executive Jim Stuckey about two-and-a-half years ago. “It was highly conditional, it included gag orders, and it was never was reduced to writing," Locker said of the offer. "They never took it seriously."

New legal ground

As with the previous lawsuit filed on behalf of these tenants, which charged that the ESDC does not have the right to demolish buildings containing rent-stabilized tenants without going through a slower state process, this lawsuit would break new legal ground, acknowledged Locker.

“It's all new law, because nobody ever raises these questions,” he said. “I have not found a single case that has any discussion of relocation requirements.

(A separate case challenging eminent domain has been filed in federal court, and another case challenging the FEIS is expected in state court, both coordinated by Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn.)

Letter of the law

While one section of the new lawsuit says the ESDC must "provide relocation into equivalent housing into the neighborhoood," another clause quotes the UDC Act directly--which is somewhat more subtle--regarding equivalent apartments "which are or will be provided in the project area or in other areas not generally less desirable."

The UDC Act states:
(g) in the case of all projects, that there is a feasible method for the relocation of families and individuals displaced from the project area into decent, safe and sanitary dwellings, which are or will be provided in the project area or in other areas not generally less desirable in regard to public utilities and public and commercial facilities, at rents or prices within the financial means of such families or individuals, and reasonably accessible to their places of employment. Insofar as is feasible, the corporation shall offer housing accommodations to such families and individuals in residential projects of the corporation.

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