Lower Manhattan Renters in Limbo as Apartments Stay Shut
Shana Loomis likes living on lower Manhattan’s West Street because of her “reasonable” rent, rooftop views of the Statue of Liberty and access to Battery Park for her 75-pound black labrador.
What she doesn’t like is being displaced twice in two years because of a hurricane -- this time, for almost a month. She’s paying 17 percent more rent on a smaller, temporary apartment uptown while her building is closed following superstorm Sandy.
“I kind of saw myself staying here for a long time,” Loomis, 30, said of the one-bedroom unit at the Ocean apartment complex at One West Street that she has rented since April 2011. “Now I’m not so sure.”
As downtown landlords are draining Sandy’s floodwaters and assessing the damage to their networks of underground mechanical systems, displaced renters are evaluating their commitment to the area while living in limbo. As many as 10 percent of lower Manhattan’s apartment units, spanning more than two dozen buildings, are off limits to residents, said Steven Spinola, president of the Real Estate Board of New York, whose estimate is based on informal conversations with property owners. The Department of Buildings won’t release such information.
While properties such as UDR Inc. (UDR)’s 95 Wall Street began welcoming residents back this week with landlord-sponsored barbecue dinners, others, such as 2 Gold Street, concluded that their buildings will be uninhabitable for months. At the Ocean apartment complex, where the entire electric system must be replaced, Moinian Group, the property owner, aims to have residents return by Nov. 27, once a generator is in place to provide power and heat to all floors, said Gabriel Dagan, director of commercial operations for the company.
More than 16,500 Manhattan residents have applied for housing assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, according to Hannah Vick, a FEMA spokeswoman. The $4.64 million in funds the agency has approved for residents can be used to pay for hotels and short-term rental units.
Renters relocating to other parts of the city will find a tightening market with little room for negotiation as rates edge closer to records, said Jonathan Miller, president of appraisal firm Miller Samuel Inc. Manhattan’s apartment vacancy rate was 2 percent in October, down from 2.3 percent the same month a year ago, according to a Nov. 14 report by Miller and brokerage Douglas Elliman Real Estate. The median rent in Manhattan was $3,200, or 2 percent less than the peak of $3,265 in 2006.
“Rents are rising and the market is tight and this doesn’t do anything but maintain this trend, if not make it worse,” Miller said of the post-Sandy relocations.
The average rent in lower Manhattan’s financial district and Battery Park City neighborhoods ranged from $2,395 for a studio to $5,977 for a three-bedroom unit in October, Citi Habitats said in a report last week. Just north of the area are the borough’s most expensive rental neighborhoods of Soho and Tribeca, where studios averaged $2,495 in October, and three bedrooms rented for $9,495.
The population in lower Manhattan more than doubled in 2010 from a decade earlier, with 57,000 people calling the area home, according to the Alliance for Downtown New York, an organization of lower Manhattan-based companies. Residents of Battery Park City and other low-lying downtown areas last year had to contend with evacuations from Hurricane Irene, which caused limited damage to Manhattan.
Renters in the financial district may be more reluctant to return to the area than tenants in trendy neighborhoods also affected by Sandy, such as the West Village or East Village, said Aash Jethra, a sales associate with brokerage Citi Habitats who helped one downtown resident find a new home elsewhere and is working with another.
“It’s one of the easiest neighborhoods to let go of and move onwards from,” Jethra said. “Financial district people are really there for convenience sake, living in Manhattan with amenities for a lower price while accepting the lack of a neighborhood.”
Landlords are girding for an extended shutdown of some buildings. Last week, the group that represents property owners in their labor relations with staff struck a deal with the Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ to enhance benefits to about 1,000 commercial and residential doormen and maintenance staff who are temporarily out of work.
Management will supplement unemployment benefits by $150 weekly through the end of the year, and guarantee health benefits, which normally expire 30 days after leaving a job, said Howard Rothschild, president of the Realty Advisory Board on Labor Relations Inc., which represents the owners of 5,000 apartment and office buildings across New York City.
“It’s very hard right now to determine how many buildings are going to be closed past that point in time,” Rothschild said. “The list expands and contracts almost like a beating heart. Our hope is that it contracts to nothing and completely goes away.”
Unoccupied residential buildings that are on Rothschild’s list include 88 Greenwich Street, a condo residence and club featuring amenities such as a billiards lounge, a 1,000-DVD library and a yoga room, according to Streeteasy.com.
The owner of 2 Gold, TF Cornerstone Inc., is allowing residents to break their leases and offering to pay moving expenses for those who decide to return when the building reopens, scheduled for March 1, said Frank Marino, an outside spokesman for the firm. The company has relocated 60 tenants from the damaged property to other TF Cornerstone apartments.
Elevators backed by generator power became functional three days ago at 2 Gold Street and its sister tower 201 Pearl, which were together were inundated with 5 million gallons (19 million liters) of water from the Oct. 29 storm, Marino said. The pressure from 31 feet (9.5 meters) of liquid crushed the oil tank and destroyed the heating system, electrical switchboards and water pumps, some of which have to be custom-ordered and built.
Two tenants at the property filed a lawsuit yesterday alleging that TF Cornerstone failed to protect the 849-unit apartment complex from flooding during the storm and looting afterward. The residents, Michael Cashwell and David Barker, said in their suit that management didn’t place sandbags at the entrance to the parking garage, and that “numerous” items of personal property have gone missing from tenant apartments since they evacuated.
Marino declined to comment on the lawsuit. He said the apartment building and the garage have their own flood gates, which were closed before the storm.
Emily Berttucci, who moved into a sublease at the 5-year- old 2 Gold building in October, decided she would leave it permanently, even though she misses its walking proximity to the downtown law firm where she works. Berttucci, who rode out Sandy at a friend’s house in New Haven, Connecticut, hired Jethra within a week of the storm, and by Nov. 8 signed a lease on an apartment on East 56th Street and 2nd Avenue. She moved in two days later.
“Four months -- that’s a long time to be in a temporary home,” said Berttucci, 27, who got FEMA assistance to help with relocation.
Berttucci made several trips by stairwell to her 19th floor apartment to remove the basics -- clothes, a mattress, and cookware, all of which smelled like gas, she said. Now that an elevator is working at her old building, she plans on collecting her dresser and bed frame. In a letter to residents three days ago, TF Cornerstone said all residents seeking to move out must schedule an appointed time.
The dislocation and threat of living in a flood zone will have little effect on apartment rents in the area as Manhattan lease demand soars, said Alex Cho, managing director of MNS, a brokerage that handles sales and rentals.
“If you have a lease expiring anywhere between May and October, I think you have a zero shot of trying to negotiate,” he said. “In a rental high rise building, if one tenant goes, they can leave the apartment empty for 30 days so they can find someone with higher value.”
Loomis, a veterinarian who is keeping her dog and two cats at work, is paying $3,750 for a furnished Upper East Side studio while she waits to return to her $3,200 one-bedroom at the Ocean. Her decision on whether to renew her lease at the luxury downtown property in April will depend in part on what the landlord decides to charge on rent.
“I’ll have to do some thinking again, if I really want to stay here,” she said. “Is another 100-year hurricane going to come next year?”
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