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Community board backs affordable housing rezoning in Sunnyside despite opposition from some current tenants, elected officials

Rendition of Phipps Houses proposed project at Barnett Avenue. (Photo courtesy of Phipps Houses)

Community Board 2 voted in favor of Phipps Houses’ rezoning application for an affordable housing building in Sunnyside, following a heated general meeting where the nonprofit developer’s current property management took center stage on Thursday, Dec. 3.

Phipps Houses is proposing to build a seven-story, mixed-use residential complex with 167 units dedicated to low- and moderate-income households at 50-25 Barnett Ave. 

After ongoing negotiations with Community Board 2’s Land Use committee, Phipps adjusted the income bands for the units from their initial 110 to 90 percent of the Area Median Income (AMI). They also designated 25 units for formerly homeless families at 40 percent of the AMI.

Photo courtesy of Phipps Houses

Frank Wu, a Community Board 2 member, shared a breakdown of how the AMI translates to the district’s income levels.

Photo courtesy of Community Board 2

Phipps plans to include 5,323 square feet for a community facility, residential amenities such as a laundry room, an outdoor recreation terrace and 170 parking spaces (111 of which would be available for public use). They also committed to unionized maintenance with 32BJ SEIU.

Community Board 2 held a public hearing on Nov. 18, where Phipps presented the project, answered questions from the Community Board and heard from some current tenants of their housing — some with good experiences, and others with unfavorable experiences.

Lisa Deller, chair of Community Board 2, said they received written testimony about Phipps as a landlord before the public hearing, with 32 in favor and 46 opposed.

Deller said the large amount of opposed testimony were in regards to unsuitable living conditions at Phipps’ housing complexes, mainly Phipps Garden Apartments, Phipps’ longtime affordable housing complex located at 5101 39th Ave. in Sunnyside — including leaks, mold and insect infestation.

Other concerns included additional traffic with the new school coming to Barnett Avenue, impact on existing local businesses, and possible environmental impact due to an existing pipeline in the vicinity of where the construction site will be.

Before voting on the application, Community Board 2 members subjected Phipps’ representatives to a series of questions and commitments to address the current living conditions at Phipps Garden Apartments.

Michael Wadman, vice president of Phipps Houses, did not agree that the housing complex isn’t “properly maintained.”

“On the overall management of Phipps Gardens Apartments, we do not think we’re mismanaging the property. We know that we have not done everything we could have done, and we know that we have some residents of the building who are very unhappy with us,” said Wadman, in response to a community board member’s question about why tenants feel the property’s management  has declined recently.

Wadman said working within the constraints of a “very limited rent roll” and no government program may be part of the reason.

“I don’t really think it’s true that the property has been declining every year for 10 years. If anything, from what I’ve gathered, is there was a period of decline that was previous to the more recent years, where things have improved a little,” said Wadman. “We’re unhappy that we have people as unhappy as they are, and we are going to try to address those issues.”

He pointed to the $3 million investments they’ve made since 2017 to improve their properties — they own 79 buildings across the city, most of which are concentrated in the Bronx — as well as the new Improvement Plan they created in response to the board’s calls for better maintenance and tenant communication at their existing properties.

The Improvement Plan includes increasing communication with Phipps Garden Apartments’ tenants association; addressing building maintenance issues (including hiring a new porter to make it a five-member porter staff once again, focusing on trash management and recycling); expanding extermination (including identifying root problems for persistent infestation); conducting a third-party annual tenant satisfaction survey; and annual apartment inspections.

Several community board members found Wadman’s apparent dismissal of the concerns from current tenants troubling, particularly due to their neighbors’ comments about Phipps’ reputation as a landlord.

Following Community Board 2’s public hearing, Van Bramer arranged a walk through of Phipps Garden Apartments. Several members of Community Board 2 also attended.

“This morning I arranged a walkthrough of the Phipps Garden Apartments with tenant leaders & reps from Phipps and CB2 to discuss resident concerns and the need for immediate action to address them,” Van Bramer wrote in a tweet. “Phipps must do better by its tenants here.”

State Senator Michael Gianaris joined another tour of the Phipps Garden Apartments that week, and called on Phipps to better maintain them. He also said the approval of the Barnett Avenue application “would be troubling without greater confidence that maintenance would be handled better.”

Assemblyman Brian Barnwell attended Thursday’s Community Board meeting after coming out against Phipps’ application the previous week.

“I do NOT support the #Phipps Houses’ rezoning due to various reasons. We should not reward bad developers who continuously fail to maintain the current properties they already have with new property,” Barnwell wrote in a tweet. “They are also using an #AMI formula that doesn’t create true affordable housing.”

Phipps Houses declined QNS’ request for comment in response to the elected officials’ comments.

The night before Community Board 2’s meeting, about two dozen Sunnyside residents gathered under the elevated subway tracks at 46th Street to call on the board and Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer to oppose Phipps rezoning application.

Photo credit: Hayes Peter Mauro

Speakers included Gerald Perrin, co-president of Phipps Garden Tenants Association, Phipps Garden tenants, City Council candidates Hailie Kim, Brent O’Leary, Denise Keehan-Smith and Emily Sharpe.

Photo credit: Hayes Peter Mauro
Photo credit: Hayes Peter Mauro

Sharpe, a longtime Sunnyside resident and lawyer, spoke about Phipps’ controversial track record as a landlord.

In the end, the board voted in favor of the application (28-12). They cited the need for affordable housing in Sunnyside as the main reason to move forward with the project.

“Community Board 2, for many, many years, as long as I’ve been on the board, has recognized the urgent need for long-term, safe, sanitary and affordable housing in this district, which, as many people have noted, has been made more urgent by the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Deller. “You can see there are more homeless people under the elevated train on Queens Boulevard, the food pantries are over subscribed, [and] many volunteers in this community are trying to help people who are food insecure.”

Their resolution included Phipps’ Improvement Plan to address ongoing living issues within their current properties in the next three months and for the AMI to decrease even further from 90 percent to 80 percent.

“The circumstances of this rezoning application aren’t perfect,” Deller added, citing tenant concerns and Phipps’ 11th rank on the Worst Evictors list. “But this vote, however, is not a referendum on any of those other issues.”

Deller emphasized that there will be more opportunities to comment on the application during the ULURP process. The application will move to the Queens borough president’s office.

Nick Berkowitz, secretary of Community Board 2, was adamant about Phipps following through with their promises to tenants by the time their application is in its final stages, which will take a few months.

In 2016, Van Bramer shut down Phipps’ application for the project, citing the application’s 10-story building was out of character for the neighborhood and other concerns regarding nearby local businesses at the time.

His stance on their new application isn’t as clear.

Van Bramer told QNS he recognizes Community Board 2’s decision on the updated application and emphasis on the need for affordable housing.

“I respect the thoughtful consideration that CB2 members have given to this proposal,” said Van Bramer. “I know it was not easy for many of them — but they voted their conscience. The vote in favor of the project was decisive as was the board’s desire to see even deeper affordability — which I support. Board members also heard the concerns of existing tenants and fought hard for an action plan that, if enacted, will improve maintenance and address these very real issues. Making sure that Phipps follows through with their action plan to help tenants at the existing Phipps buildings will be key as the project winds its way to the City Council for a final vote early next year.”

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