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Marine Terrace residents keep subsidized apts.

The contract has been signed, U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-Astoria) told her. Marine Terrace Associates had...

By Dustin Brown

Early in the morning of April 10, Nydia Martinez’s yearlong quest to save her Astoria apartment ended with a phone call from a congresswoman.

The contract has been signed, U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-Astoria) told her. Marine Terrace Associates had agreed to an unprecedented 10-year extension of its Section 8 contract, guaranteeing affordable housing to Martinez and her neighbors for the next decade.

“I didn’t want to say anything until I saw it on the dotted line,” Martinez said. “I was hysterical, especially for 10 years. It was worth fighting for the whole year.”

Maloney announced the victory April 11 at a news conference on the lawn of the Marine Terrace apartments, a 1,600-unit complex located at the intersection of 21st Street and 21st Avenue.

“It is a great victory for 1,600 tenants living here in Marine Terrace, a great victory for Astoria, and a great victory for maintaining affordable housing,” Maloney said.

Congress enacted the Section 8 program in 1974 as a means of securing long-term affordable housing within private developments. The program allowed landlords to sign 20-year contracts by which low-income tenants would pay a designated portion of their income to rent, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development would subsidize the remainder.

The Section 8 contract covering 444 units at Marine Terrace was scheduled to expire April 30, and building management sent a letter nearly a year ago indicating it did not intend to renew, which would have sent rents soaring to market value starting May 1.

“It’s a scary kind of thing to hear when you’ve been living comfortably in your home for 20 years,” said Michele Bonan, a housing advocate with New York Tenants and Neighbors.

Bonan helped the tenants orchestrate a yearlong grass-roots campaign, which Martinez had already initiated by founding the Marine Terrace Tenants Association shortly after the letter hit her mailbox.

“I guarantee if the tenants didn’t say anything — if hundreds of them didn’t speak up about the fact that they want to keep their affordable housing — it definitely wouldn’t have happened the way that it went," Bonan said.

The Marine Terrace agreement was reached using a 1999 Congressional initiative called “Mark-Up-to-Market,” which enabled HUD to increase the subsidy to match the going market rate for the apartments.

Martinez has lived at Marine Terrace with her son for the past seven years. Like other residents living in Section 8 units, she pays 30 percent of her income to rent.

“They pick up the rest,” she said, referring to HUD.

Bonan stressed that the residents would not have been kicked out had the contract not been signed — many would have qualified for local housing authority vouchers which would cover the additional cost of market-value rents. However, requirements for the voucher programs are different than those for Section 8 project-based housing, and residents who did not qualify would likely be forced out of their apartments, Bonan said.

“We are delighted that we were able to work things out with HUD,” said Jack Libert, chief executive officer of the Real Estate Division of the Benjamin Companies, which owns the apartment complex.

“Our company has always been involved with providing affordable housing and special-needs housing, and we wanted to be able to keep the building in that status” while still meeting their expenses, he said.

Although the apartments could take in slightly higher rents than the rate they set with HUD, Bonan said the contract gives landlords the advantage of stable tenants and secure rent even when the market is doing poorly.

The rents are “lower than what we could’ve gotten as a market-based product, but they’re higher than they were now," Libert said. "That was the compromise."

The Marine Terrace agreement was the longest Section 8 contract extension HUD has signed thus far. Extensions normally do not exceed five years.

“These 20-year long-term contracts have become a thing of the past, and that’s why this 10-year one is so important,” Bonan said. “We need to get back to long-term preservation.”

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.

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