Phipps Houses’ Barnett Avenue affordable housing project moves forward despite opposition

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

Phipps Houses’ controversial Barnett Avenue affordable housing project is moving forward after the City Council unanimously approved its rezoning on Thursday, March 25.

Phipps Houses, a nonprofit developer, sought approval to rezone 50-25 Barnett Ave., which is currently a parking lot, for a seven-story, 167-unit, mixed-use residential complex dedicated to low- and moderate-income households.

Developers first introduced an application for the location four years ago, which soon withdrew after receiving opposition from Sunnyside residents and Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer for reasons including unaffordability, building height and concerns with maintenance at the Phipps Garden Apartments.

Phipps reintroduced an application for the location last year with some adjustments and has since received the approval of Community Board 2, Queens Borough President Donovan Richards and Councilman Van Bramer.

Community Board 2 approved the rezoning with the condition that Phipps Houses management work with Phipps Garden Apartments’ Tenant Association to create a plan to address the maintenance issues tenants have reported for years (with support of the condition from Richards and Van Bramer).

Yet many community members and tenants at Phipps Garden Apartments vehemently opposed the new application, citing Phipps’ questionable maintenance and evictions track record, possible displacement of local businesses as well as skepticism of the new development’s affordability, among other concerns.

On Thursday, Van Bramer said the “100 percent affordable” project vastly improved from the one he rejected four years ago, in his City Council speech. He cited the project’s many units at 40 percent area median income (AMI), a maximum of 80 percent AMI for other units, units set aside for homeless families, building heights now contextualized with the neighborhood and 32BJ SEIU testifying in favor of the project for good jobs and wages.

“While some have used disingenuous arguments against this project, I will not deny homeless families and low-wage workers a home by allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good,” Van Bramer said. “We who proclaim ourselves progressive say we want to build truly affordable housing, and when we get the chance to do so we should — particularly in expensive neighborhoods like Sunnyside. We who say we are progressive say we want to house the homeless, and when we get the chance to do so, we must. Everyone must be welcomed in the Sunnyside/Woodside area that I am lucky enough to call home. And with this vote we have a chance to say that emphatically. And those of us who are progressive and say we’re for the Green New Deal, should want to replace a surface parking lot with affordable housing, and not allow NIMBY arguments to stop truly affordable housing to be built on this site.”

The council voted to approve the project 49-0. Now it’s in the mayor’s office for review.

On Saturday, March 27, a rally against the project’s approval was attended by more than 60 Sunnyside residents, including four City Council candidates running for Van Bramer’s seat and Phipps Garden Apartments Tenant Association Co-President Gerald Perin, according to the Queens Post. Organizers said they’ll call on the mayor to block the rezoning.

Prior to the City Council’s vote on the project, Queens Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez released a statement calling on management at Phipps Garden Apartments to address the outstanding maintenance issues reported by residential and commercial tenants after their deadline of March 1 expired.

“Phipps Houses made a commitment to the community that they would promptly address the maintenance issues at Gardens Apartments,” Ocasio-Cortez stated. “Their failure to do so is upsetting and they have an obligation to the community to follow through on the required action plan set by [Community Board 2].”

A spokesperson for Ocasio-Cortez clarified that Ocasio-Cortez does not oppose Phipps’ new rezoning, but is supporting advocacy groups by holding Phipps accountable for needed repairs.

Van Bramer told the Queens Post he agrees with Phipps Houses obligation to tenants, but that it didn’t change his position on the Barnett Avenue rezoning.

In response, Phipps Houses President and CEO Adam Weinstien said they’ve developed a plan with the tenant association and are on track to meeting the repairs.

“Phipps Houses developed a plan with the tenant association, and not only do we remain committed to that plan, we are ahead of schedule in fulfilling its agreed-upon 30-, 60- and 90-day milestones. We have been keeping tenant leadership and all elected officials apprised of progress. We would welcome updating the congresswoman if she is interested,” Weinstein said. “As the largest nonprofit affordable housing and social services provider in New York, Phipps takes our relationship with our residents very seriously, and we look forward to completing our work at Phipps Garden Apartments, as well as breaking ground on 167 new affordable apartments across the street.”

Dorothy Cavallo, longtime resident of Phipps Garden Apartments and co-president of the tenant association, told QNS that management is “gradually” getting to the plans.

Cavallo, who’s lived in the complex for more than 50 years, said that due to the property being “neglected” for many years, it will take time to address issues like recycling and trash build up, water leaks, cockroach and rodent infestation, tree pruning and concrete eroding, among others.

“There’s been a lot of deterioration through the years,” Cavallo said. “A quick fix isn’t going to take care of it.”

Cavallo said one of their immediate concerns is a lack of adequate staffing to maintain the large complex, as she said they have been short of at least two porters for months. When reviewing the current plans, she said they don’t seem to be on track for having a full staff within their 60-day plan, although they hired one porter who started in January.

Cavallo said that while they’re having monthly meetings with management since November, they are still concerned about “loosey goosey oversight.”

She added that they remain concerned about the Barnett Avenue rezoning not only because of the disruption a new development will cause, but also because of their experience with Phipps as a landlord.

“We’re in favor of affordable housing, we know the issues, but when we have a landlord who cannot keep up or maintain what was the jewel of Phipps properties … it’s hard to see,” Cavallo said.