In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, three rent-regulated apartment buildings in Glendale underwent a $5 million tenant-in-place rehabilitation. It’s the first project under the city’s Neighborhood Pillars program, which is meant to help preserve affordable housing, to be completed.
Co-owners Rockabill Development, LLC, a Hoboken-based development and consulting firm specializing in affordable and supportive housing, and Selfhelp Community Services, a nonprofit that operates senior housing complexes across the city and Queens, announced the project’s completion almost two years after they bought the three apartment buildings for nearly $16 million through the New York City Acquisition Fund.
The three, four-story apartment buildings, with 72 units in total, are located at 71-15, 71-21 and 71-27 65th Street.
The co-owners worked with the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), the Housing Development Corporation (HDC), and City Councilman Robert Holden to provide all current residents with rent-stabilized leases, including those who didn’t have one previously.
Prior to the acquisition, residents could face rent hikes by an average of $469 per month due to the mix of unregulated and rent-stabilized units in the buildings, according to Rockabill.
Now, Rockabill and Selfhelp will maintain the existing rental affordability for a minimum of 40 years, as part of an Article XI property tax exemption.
All 72 units, according to a Rockabill spokesperson, are currently occupied.
For new tenants, should a unit become vacant, the income bands may range from $45,500 to $109,200 for families of two, based on the Area Median Income (AMI). Under the terms of the agreement, 11 units are set for individuals and families earning no more than 50 percent AMI; 10 units for those earning no more than 70 percent AMI; 24 units for those earning no more than 85 percent AMI; 18 units for those earning no more than 105 percent AMI; and 8 units for those earning no more than 120 percent AMI.
Thirty percent of the apartments (36 units) will be permanently affordable, and 15 units are set aside for formerly homeless individuals and families.
Holden, who approved the project in 2019, told QNS he’s glad the project is moving forward.
“It represents a common-sense approach to providing affordable housing and fighting homelessness,” Holden said. “People need housing and the safety and dignity that it provides, not dangerous congregate ‘warehouse’ shelters.”
HPD Commissioner Louise Carroll said they’re proud of their partners for completing the project under Neighborhood Pillars.
The program, which Mayor Bill de Blasio launched in 2018, provides low-interest loans and tax exemptions to nonprofits and mission-driven organizations looking to acquire and rehabilitate unregulated or rent stabilized housing for low- to moderate-income households.
“We are thrilled to see the first project completed under Neighborhood Pillars accomplish exactly what it is set out to do — lock-in affordability and security for families and communities,” Carroll said.
Rockabill Founder and Managing Partner Niall J. Murray said the project’s success and their “collective perseverance in the face of exceptional challenges proves that New Yorkers are the most resilient, brave, and committed people there are.”
Selfhelp Realty Group Executive Director Evelyn Wolff said it’s a privilege to be part of the city’s first Neighborhood Pillars program and Selfhelp’s first preservation deal. “Access to safe, affordable, and stable housing is part of any strong and vibrant community, and the ongoing pandemic amplified these needs,” Wolff said.
The project was a few months into an extensive capital improvement campaign, in which developers worked to upgrade existing conditions at the three apartment buildings while tenants stayed in their homes, when the COVID-19 pandemic put a halt on the plans in March.
But ConRock Construction, Rockabill’s construction and contracting firm, was eventually granted essential status to resume work. ConRock Co-President Bill O’Connor said they got through it safely by “leveraging technology to foster collaboration between construction crews, building teams, ownership and tenants.”
They established several measures to complete the project with a “human-centered approach” during the difficult time.
In addition to following city regulations and site safety plans, they also altered construction schedules so as to not disrupt at-home learning for kids, worked in common areas and building exteriors until the city reached Phase 4 of reopening, hired a porter to ensure advanced cleaning protocols, and posted weekly notices with construction schedules and progress updates.
O’Connor’s daughter, home from college due to the pandemic, created a mobile app and daily checklist in order to keep the 10 to 15 trades involved with the project on the same page.
They also hired Massiel Sori Crisostomo, the partner of buildings Super Daniel Tavera, as a tenant liaison. Tavera and Crisostomo, who are both 29 years old and have a 3-year-old daughter, began working at Rockabill in June 2020.
Crisostomo, who lost her job as a dental assistant at the height of the pandemic, was hired to help tenants feel at ease with in-unit upgrades. She also became a go-to project supervisor, ensuring the upgrades were getting done properly.
“In the beginning it was a little bit tough,” Crisostomo said. “But then they saw me and said I was really nice. It was easy for me to connect with them, especially with the young people.”
Crisostomo said that some tenants were “amazed” to see a young couple, both of whom are Dominican, working together to help the buildings’ improvement.
“I told them, ‘If I’m here at home doing nothing, why [shouldn’t I] help him out? If I help him then I can succeed as well,” she said, referring to Tavera. “Now, we’re trying to keep everything in place — the garbage, work orders — so it can run as smoothly as before. But the tenants themselves say the building changed a lot.”
Rehabilitation of the three apartment buildings means outdated cloth wiring has been fully replaced to ensure reliable electricity, new windows were installed to improve energy efficiency, violations were corrected and work to address aging infrastructure like facade repair and roofs are completed.
Another measure developers implemented during the pandemic was establishing a dedicated phone number and answering service operated by Selfhelp to assist tenants with benefits, food deliveries, and in-home case management, as well as facilitate communication with at-risk or senior tenants.
Katie Devine, a principal at Rockabill, told QNS that while the Richmond-Hill based company Wavecrest Management is the property manager for the buildings, they are “unusually involved owners.”
Devine said establishing crucial partnerships, like theirs with Selfhelp, and working with individual families’ needs to improve living conditions is the way affordable housing “can be most successful.”
“The Neighborhood Pillars program is so important in that it’s a program that enabled us to take these units in a neighborhood where the rents are going up, and be able to stabilize those rents and retain the community in those buildings that already existed,” Devine said.