The Battle of Starrett Cityby Nicholas Jahr
photos by Lauren Lancaster
The news came with a knock on the door just before 6 a.m. One of Max Abelson’s neighbors was out in the hall. Had he heard? It was all over the news. Starrett City was on the block.
Months later, Max and his brother Alan—“They call us the Brothers,” Alan tells me—are still upset they didn’t get the score straight from Starrett’s owners. What hurt most, Max says repeatedly, is that the announcement that Starrett was to be sold came on December 1, right at the start of the holiday season.
Once he gets talking, Max’s patter is high-pitched and rapid, with the old tones of Jewish Brooklyn: “I used to work in the Bronx in Co-op City, and it’s no comparison to this place,” he says. “Starrett is kept nice. And what I like about this community—it’s an integrated community…we’re family. We know each other all these years. That’s why when they came along with this, we all got upset, because our roots are here.”
The Brothers’ apartment is packed with the clutter of their 30 years at Starrett: pillows and plush toys line the couch, plaques from the Lion’s Club, Cancer Care, and Temple Emmanuel tile the walls. Max is not someone who bowls alone. Alan is on the local community board, and when I arrive he’s hard at work in the kitchen preparing pickled herring and kefilte fish for the upcoming Passover holidays, which they share with their non-Jewish neighbors. “This is like the old neighborhoods,” Alan says. “You’re brought up there; you don’t think where you would go.” Which begs the question, and Max’s answer is almost plaintive: “We have no idea. We’re invested in Starrett. This is our home.”
Take the L train out past Halsey Street where the last remaining white faces disembark, just short of the end of the line to East 105th, and you’re still a brief bus ride away from Starrett City. You can’t get much further from the hotspots of the City’s superheated rental market, but all the same, the Brothers and their neighbors live on the latest front in the City’s real estate wars. In early February, a group of investors called Clipper Equity agreed to buy the Starrett complex from its current owners, Starrett City Associates, for a staggering $1.3 billion, making it one of the most expensive real estate deals in the City’s history.
Starrett’s 46 apartment towers, and the 5,881 apartments they enclose, sit on a 140-acre isthmus.
To the west, the protected waters of Fresh Creek rest like a moat between Starrett and Canarsie, the tall rustling stalks of the cordgrass still clinging to the last traces of the marsh that preceded the development. Another field erupts to the east, and looking across it in the early evening you can see the lights coming up at Gateway Mall. To the south, cars perpetually migrate across the Belt and jet airliners cruise over Jamaica Bay on the approach to JFK.
In the interior, the towers rotate around gently landscaped greenspace, modest hills and play gear, sound dissipating in the open space and producing a sense of quiet—sometimes desolate, sometimes calm. If not for the scale, the complex would feel suburban. It’s hard to ignore the feeling that it’s a city unto itself. Starrett even has its own power plant; when the city went dark, the lights at Starrett stayed on.
So Starrett is something of an oasis, and not just geographically or spatially. Home to 12,000 people according to the current owners—although in the past estimates have ranged as high as 20,000—nearly 90% of the tenants receive some form of subsidy. It’s the largest subsidized housing complex in the country. But given the size of Clipper’s bid advocates agree that, in the words of Amy Chan of Tenants & Neighbors, “there’s no way you can restrict the rents and be able to pay off the debt.”
Starrett was constructed under the Mitchell-Lama program, under which developers received a reduced interest mortgage and tax abatements to build subsidized housing. The profit a developer could wring from Mitchell-Lama housing was capped at 6%. But this contract came with an escape hatch: developers could pay off the mortgage and opt out of the program after 40 years. When developers still failed to bite, the opt-out period was cut in half. Given the scale of its bid, Clipper would have no choice but to opt out of Mitchell-Lama, along with a web of other subsidies that keep the complex affordable.
Research by the Citizens Housing and Planning Council suggests that the vast majority of Starrett’s tenants earn less than 80% of the City’s median income. Such folks make up 42% of all renters in the city, and the Furman Center has documented that between ’02 and ’05, the City lost 200,000 units—a significant chunk of the 3 million total that were affordable to them. As if this wasn’t grim enough, more than 50% of low-income, unsubsidized renters (who are almost half of all renters) are paying more than 50% of their incomes in rent, a crippling burden.
Starrett’s tenants were not going to join their ranks without a fight.
It’s 7:30 on a warm Wednesday evening between cold slaps in mid-March, and the Starrett Tenants Association (STA) has packed around 100 people into the complex’s senior center for a meeting. The mood is determined. Marie Purnell, the STA’s President, has endured “the worst back ache I have ever had” to chair the meeting that night. “We got worries on top of worries, but we are going to take it one step at a time… we are going to hang in there. We are Long. Term Tenants.”
When the news that Starrett was up for sale broke in December, organizing groups ACORN and Tenants & Neighbors hit the ground running. By the third week of January, ACORN organizers had gathered more than 300 tenants for a meeting, followed a week later by a meeting with local elected officials to commit them to saving Starrett. Next, ACORN hit a half-dozen potential buyers in one day.
“We were nice at first,” lead organizer Harold Miller tells me. “We faxed letters out to them a couplea days before to say that, ‘We want to meet with you, call us back on Wednesday.’ … No one called us back on Wednesday. So we went out there anyway.” Those who refused to answer their bells found rallies on their doorsteps.
Then, on February 3, ACORN held a 1,000 person rally at the Christian Cultural Center, a massive church just outside Starrett. The theme was, “We Shall Not Be Moved.” When the Clipper Equity deal was announced a few days later, ACORN was still there, rallying its troops in Clipper’s lobby. When Congressman Ed Towns brought HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson to town eight days later, ACORN turned out 300 people in the middle of a Friday afternoon to greet him. The local Dems flocked to the tenants’ cause, with Councilman Charles Barron leading the charge and Senator Chuck Schumer using his authority as Chair of the Subcommittee on Housing, Transportation and Community Development to sway Secretary Jackson. All this pressure paid off: on March 2, in a move advocates and organizers agree was unprecedented, HUD exercised its authority to block the sale.
“So, y’know, folks are able to breathe a little sigh of relief,” Harold tells me, but “people are digging in for the long haul.”
“I intend to die in 16Z in C3,” Marie Purnell announces.
While advocates are excited HUD cited affordability as part of the ground on which it blocked Clipper’s bid, setting a standard other Mitchell-Lama tenants can hold the agency to, most suspect that HUD will allow the deal to go forward. Secretary Jackson told the press, “The door is not open. The door is actually closed,” but the letter HUD issued to Clipper’s lawyers seems to leave it ajar: “At this time, I am denying your request,” the letter states (emphasis added), and then lays out relatively stringent conditions required in order “for HUD to consider Clipper Equity’s request.” Among these is an accounting for the nearly 9,000 violations David Bistricer, one of Clipper’s principals, has racked up at another housing complex he owns, Flatbush Gardens (Bistricer claims the violations predated his purchase of the complex around 18 months ago).
Clipper promptly lawyered up, hiring lobbyists Suri Kaiser (who has also worked for Congressman Towns, and is the wife of a former Giuliani operative), Brad Card (brother of President Bush’s former chief of staff), and high-powered law firm Nixon Peabody. The lender behind Clipper’s bid is rumored to be JPMorgan Chase, and a call to a spokesperson for the bank garnered an adamant “no comment.”
“We can’t stop the sale,” Jerry Killebrew says. “I mean, capitalism is what is; somebody own it, they want to sell it, we can’t stop it.” Jerry is the STA’s new public relations and membership chair. He’s now retired from years spent selling insurance at Prudential. “If I bought this complex at an average $220,000 an apartment, I expect to make a return on my investment. And I don’t expect to get it overnight, but I don’t expect to wait 50 years either. It’s a little common sense. Like I said, we’re not the attorneys. We’re not the developers. But we have hundreds of years of experience in diverse businesses… We’re not stupid.”
Jerry moved into Starrett in ’75, and he was one of the first tenants in his building. “I knew it was East New York, but they called it Spring Creek,” he says. It’s Saint Patty’s day, and Jerry, by all appearances African-American, is wearing a green polo shirt, his thick forearms crossed in front of him and resting on his stomach, emphasizing his reflective bent. “Anybody who wanted to live in a rainbow area would’ve enjoyed living here,” he muses. We’re sitting in the Starrett senior center, where the signs on the bulletin board are written in English and Russian. The complex’s diversity is one of the qualities Jerry cherishes about Starrett, and something he wants the STA to promote.
One of the last ‘super-projects’ of the Robert Moses era, Starrett’s integration emerged almost accidentally, as a result of the racism its diverse make-up refutes. Starrett’s origins can be traced back to the drawing tables of French architects Auguste Perret and Le Corbusier, who had a vision of ‘the tower in the park’: a model of development which would solve the problems of urban slums by building soaring towers surrounded by green space. Moses set about bulldozing that vision into reality as the standard for development in NYC.
The development that was to become Starrett City was initially a private enterprise, but when that foundered in the late ’60s, the United Housing Foundation (UHF) was urged by government officials to take over the site. The UHF had been formed by New York’s major unions to construct housing for their members, and had just erected the Bronx’s Co-op City. But increased housing costs caused the UHF to choke as well, and so in ’71 the state government turned to the Starrett Housing Corporation (SHC) to finish the job. Both the developer and the complex took their names from Colonel William Starrett (1877—1932), who’d supervised construction of around 200 buildings, “transforming New York’s skyline.” Now SHC was going to transform East New York.
What enticed SHC to take over the gargantuan project was a change in the tax law, which allowed them to form a partnership in which they could sell interest. So instead of a co-op in which the residents would own their apartments, SHC instead planned for rentals. But the thought of more than 5,000 new apartments for rent—and the black tenants who would fill them—set off a panic in nearby white neighborhoods, particularly in Canarsie. Robert Rosenberg, the SHC official who oversaw the development, recalled a March ’72 public meeting to gain approval for the rental scheme as “nearly a riot.” At that meeting, a local rabbi made the white community’s vision of the complex clear: “Spring Creek is one of the few oases left in East New York. It is right now an integrated community and very rapidly turning into a ghetto… In order for this community to survive, we must have this development.”
Effectively, the white community demanded an ‘integrated’ development in which whites were a majority. And so a quiet bargain was struck: Starrett City would be 70% white, 30% minority.
Sure enough, a majority of the early applicants were black, and Rosenberg began to worry. White tenants had to be aggressively recruited. Some incentives were relatively subtle: the ‘loops’ which served as Starrett’s streets were named after towns in upstate New York; dishwashers were added to apartments. But Rosenberg’s most innovative solution was to build Starrett from the south, beginning construction closer to the bay, offering waterfront property, with acres of open space to the north and Canarsie just across the creek. Ultimately, Rosenberg went even further, implementing what became known as a ‘managed waiting list,’ which was essentially two separate lists: one for white applicants, and one for minorities. When ‘rented up’ by late ’78, the complex boasted a tenant mix that was 65% White, 21% Black, 9% Hispanic, and 5% Asian. Rosenberg had beaten the odds: Starrett had not only grounded white flight, it had become a rare realization of the integrated tower in the park.
Starrett’s proportions have since slowly inverted: it’s now 32% White, 41% Black, 19% Hispanic, and 4% Asian.
Three decades ago Marie Purnell was living with her 16-year-old son in Cypress Hills when a friend’s son was shot by the cops. She and her son decided it was time to go. Starrett was a safe haven.
Today, Marie uses a walker and wears a small gold peace sign on a chain around her neck. Despite the pain in her knees, she’s still taking care of her mother at a nursing home 20 blocks away from Starrett and leading the STA. In September, management “told us we had nothing to worry about, not a thing to worry about,” she says.
If a sale were to go through, Marie, who raised her son at Starrett, would no longer be entitled to her two bedrooms. She is one of many tenants who would have to accept an ‘enhanced voucher,’ and switch from her current apartment to a smaller one due to the restrictions on the vouchers. “I’m 76 years old. I never dreamed that I’d be packing boxes to move. But of course if that’s what I have to do, that’s what I have to do. Because I do not intend to leave Starrett City.”
Should the current owners opt out of the Mitchell-Lama program, Marie won’t be driven from Starrett. And unsubsidized tenants pay rents near those of subsidized tenants, suggesting there isn’t a huge amount of profit to be reaped in the market. In either case, what it will mean is a logistical nightmare of moving tenants into the ‘right’ size apartments required by the enhanced vouchers, and the slow loss of affordability over time, as tenants leave and take their vouchers with them.
The most politically palatable solution advocates see on the table is to amend the law regulating Mitchell-Lamas so that those built after 1974 will automatically be transferred into rent stabilization when they leave the program. But rent stabilization comes with its own problems, namely ‘high rent vacancy decontrol,’ a provision passed by the Republican state legislature in 1994 setting a $2000 cap on the stabilization law; in other words, once an apartment’s rent exceeds the cap, it’s released from rent stabilization.
“There will always be a tension,” Jon Kest of Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) says. “Landlords, if they see a number, they’ll always try and get to that number. That will be their goal. So they will do whatever it takes to get to that number.” As Amy Chan, Starrett City organizer for Tenants & Neighbors, is quick to point out, rent stabilization is not a preservation method. “Our stance is we want repeal of vacancy decontrol altogether,” she says.
“The real issue,” says Howard Shultz of the Citizens Housing & Planning Council (CHPC), “is if going forward you intend to… have private developers… If you don’t keep the promises you made in the past, people today will have no reason to believe the promises you make today. And thus will possibly not participate.” Nonetheless, CHPC also supports requiring all Mitchell-Lama housing to be placed under rent stabilization to maintain affordability when owners opt out, and recommends lifting the cap on returns to give developers an incentive to stay in (a measure all advocates embrace).
“It’s always funny to me when people now are like, ‘Oh my god, Mitchell-Lama, it was so fabulous,” says Jerilyn Perine, CHPC’s executive director. She points out that it took 20 years before developers embraced the program (insofar as they ever did), and in the end it only yielded roughly 120,000 units of housing in a city of 3 million rental units. Yesterday’s compromises are today’s ideals.
But Brad Lander of the Pratt Center for Community Development argues that, “If you count the loss of subsidized and regulated units [of which Mitchell-Lamas are a subset] in one category, that’s a significant part of the problem.” Over the last 10 years, he estimates the city has lost 50,000 of each.
The chances that the legislative process will move fast enough for Starrett on these fronts—requiring all Mitchell-Lamas to enter rent control upon opting out, or abolishing high rent vacancy decontrol—are slim. And as Amy points out, it’s already too late for several other Mitchell-Lama developments in the City. Since Starrett’s sale was first announced, four other Mitchell-Lamas have opted out of the program: 1000 units gone.
“These are people’s homes,” Amy says. “People view [rentals] as temporary housing, as if people don’t invest their lives in their apartments… Whether you rent or whether you own, for a family it’s still your house, and it’s still your haven.” Across the city, havens such as Starrett are increasingly rare, and are at the mercy of private developers.
Like Jerry says, “We don’t have anything against whoever owns Starrett earning a profit. Because if you’re in business, you want to earn a profit. But we have made Starrett what it is today. You, whoever you is, would not be interested in purchasing Starrett if the tenants didn’t make Starrett. Because you can own it, John Smith can manage it, but if the tenants don’t take care of it and respect it, you don’t have it. So we feel we’re entitled to say something.”