Mitchell-drama! Clinton Hill co-op at war over whether to cash in

Mitchell-drama! Clinton Hill co-op at war over whether to cash in
Community News Group / Lauren Gill

It is a housing tower divided!

Residents of a Clinton Hill Mitchell-Lama co-op are at war over whether to leave the below-market-rate housing program and cash-in on their real-estate or to forgo the windfall so others can benefit from the dirt-cheap digs — and the two sides faced off alongside local pols at a heated rally on Wednesday morning.

“Should living in Clinton Hill only be an option for the rich? Should Clinton Hill only be an option for the powerful?” said Public Advocate and Clinton Hill resident Letitia James, to which the crowd yelled “No!” “If that’s the case then why not be concerned about the next generation as opposed to your own pocketbooks?”

Denizens of the 326-unit St. James Tower at St. James Place and Lafayette Avenue will vote Thursday on whether to take the next steps to leave the program, which was created in the 1950s and ’60s to encourage middle-income New Yorkers to stay in the city.

Under Mitchell-Lama, co-op shares are fixed at a bargain five-figure sum, but if two-thirds of the building votes to privatize they will be able to sell their units at market rate.

A day before the vote, both sides squared off in a nearby playground, waving placards and trading barbs.

The “stay” side’s ranks included Councilwoman Laurie Cumbo (D–Clinton Hill) and Assemblyman Walter Mosley (D–Fort Greene), and James, who told residents that leaving will make their maintenance bills skyrocket and “erode the character” of a community she characterized as the borough’s “last bastion of integrity and diversity.”

The “leave” voters fired back that it is their legal right to opt out, and that elected officials should stay out of it.

Stay out: Lawrence Whiteside argued that politicans shouldn’t be getting involved.
Community News Group / Lauren Gill

“It’s inappropriate for them to be involved, said Lawrence Whiteside. “The law itself makes provisions for us to go private, otherwise they would prevent us if they could.”

Whiteside moved into St. James Tower in 1965 and says a real-estate appraiser told him he can now get $800,000 for his two-bedroom unit on the open market.

But supporters of staying in program said they had a moral obligation to offer future Brooklynites the same opportunity to score cheap housing that they were afforded.

“Why do we not want to leave the same opportunities that were available us to someone else?” said Marlene Steele, whose 100-year-old mother Mae Thomas is a resident.

Whiteside and another resident accused politicians of trying to interfere in their decision in the past — they say James was pushing them to take a $250,000 loan for facade work a few years ago, but only on the condition that the building stay in the program for another 15 years, which they felt was “collusion” with the Office of Housing Preservation and Development to thwart privatization.

James’s office did not return a request for comment by press time.

The vote marks the second time in just over a year that members of a Kings County co-op has faced a high-profile decision over whether to make a small fortune off property they paid peanuts for.

In January last year, residents of a former Mitchell-Lama building in Brooklyn Heights voted against selling off a portion of their land to a developer. They each stood to gain hundreds of thousands of dollars, but the 40-story tower it wanted to build would’ve blocked neighbors’ views.

Tower play: Residents of St. James Towers will vote on whether to take the next steps to leave the Mitchell-Lama program.
Community News Group / Lauren Gill

Reach reporter Lauren Gill at lgill@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260–2511. Follow her on Twitter @laurenk_gill