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Starrett City rallies against uncertain future - Sale of neighborhood housing complex could force many out of their homes

Tenants at Brooklyn’s massive Starrett City housing complex are nervous, and perhaps with good reason. Their homes are up for sale, and no one can say for sure what impact this may have on their future. Many worry that rents could soar under a new landlord, burdening thousands of working-class New Yorkers — a fear dismissed by the property’s existing owners. Nonetheless, tenants’ groups say they are preparing for a fight, and they have secured more than a few influential allies. Built in 1974, Starrett City is the country’s largest government subsidized apartment complex. The 46-tower development near East New York includes almost 5,900 apartments and is home to about 12,000 low- and middle-income residents. While renamed Spring Creek Towers in 2002, the community remains commonly known by its original moniker. The sprawling, 140-acre site has grown to include a shopping center, schools, parks and churches. Brick housing towers – some boasting views of Jamaica Bay – are surrounded by rolling green lawns. The community is economically and racially diverse, and it is widely accepted as a New York success story. Most residents are pleased to call Starrett City home. They say it’s safe, attractive and affordable, and that’s how they want it to stay. Experts speculate Starrett City could soon sell for more than $1 billion, making it one of the biggest real estate deals in New York history. But it is what may happen after the sale that has locals on edge. Starrett City was built under the state’s Mitchell-Lama program by a limited-profit housing corporation that received lucrative government subsidies. Tenants — and many politicians — fear a new owner could opt out of the Mitchell-Lama program, and switch to a money-hungry for-profit company. “If the rent goes up, I’m in trouble,” said Marie Purnell, president of the Starrett Tenants’ Association and resident for three decades. Purnell, 76, said she is also concerned new owners could roll back services like security and building maintenance. “The bottom line in all of this is money,” Purnell said. Our survey of residents along busy Pennsylvania Avenue revealed widespread community concern and confusion. “If rents go up, we’ll be forced to move,” said Mlak Jolanta, 56, who has resided at Starrett City since 1985. “It’s not fair.” Larry Nottingham, 72, worries his $700 per month rent may increase. “I just hope nothing changes, and everyone gets together and does the right thing.” “A lot of people are concerned,” said mother-of-three Marisol Padilla, 39. More than 1,000 tenants voiced those concerns at a rally on Saturday, backed by an impressive lineup of political heavyweights. Assembling inside the Christian Cultural Center on Flatlands Avenue, energized tenants chanted, “Our community is not for sale!” Borough President Marty Markowitz, Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Councilmember Charles Barron called on city and state officials to block any prospective owner who intends to convert the Starrett City into market-rate apartments. Governor Eliot Spitzer has also pledged his support, citing “serious concerns” over the future of this large stock of affordable housing. Spitzer brings considerable political leverage. The state holds Starrett’s $234 million interest-free mortgage, and could therefore potentially block a new owner. “The Governor has signaled his willingness to work with bidders who share our belief in long-term affordability,” said Spitzer spokesperson Christine Anderson. Another weapon political allies may invoke is that any development of the vacant land at Starrett City would require city and state approval. The ownership group, Starrett City Associates, is chaired by financier Disque Dean. New York real estate mogul Donald Trump is one of several investors. Martin McLaughlin, a spokesperson for Starrett City Associates, maintains community fears are unwarranted. “We believe that this development will remain as an affordable subsidized complex, with over 90 percent of residents qualified for rent subsidies,” McLaughlin said, stressing that subsidized rents would remain proportional to residents’ incomes. McLaughlin declined Monday afternoon to reveal how many bids were submitted, and said because of government approval processes, it could be months before a sale is finalized. “This is not another Stuyvesant Town,” McLaughlin added, distancing Starrett City from the controversial sale of lower Manhattan’s middle-class housing oasis. Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village recently fetched more than $5 billion, and some tenants at those complexes already face steep rent increases. While Manhattan’s real estate market appears to be squeezing out everyone but the wealthy, some say that trend is repeating itself in parts of Brooklyn. Bertha Lewis, Executive Director of New York ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), believes Starrett City could be consumed by “creeping gentrification” that could price out poorer residents. “It’s prime property, and location is everything,” Lewis said. “The wave is already flowing,” she said, referring to burgeoning real estate prices in nearby East New York. Lewis encouraged all levels of government to use “carrots and sticks” to protect tenants, and suggested an “affordable housing guarantee” be written into the sales agreement. “There is just no protection for these tenants whatsoever,” Lewis said. “It’s frightening.”

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