Fort Greene

Unprecedented NYCHA air-rights deal nears completion at Ingersoll Houses

October 10, 2019 Jake Bittle
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A first-of-its-kind deal to sell the air rights at a Fort Greene NYCHA development is nearing completion after months of negotiation.

The deal would transfer nearly 100,000 square feet of building rights from the Ingersoll Houses to a yet-to-be-built private development next door. In exchange, developers would provide nearly $25 million for maintenance at Ingersoll as part of NYCHA’s new long-term strategy to leverage private funds for the repair of its beleaguered housing stock.

The development in question is a mixed-used residential tower on the corner of Tillary Street and Prince Street, slated to be built on what is now a self-storage facility.

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Developers Maddd Equities and Joy Construction originally planned to build two towers of 21 and 23 stories, for a total of 187 units. If the deal with NYCHA goes through, though, the developers will be able to build up to 400 units, of which 25 percent will be affordable at or below 60 percent of the area median income — or around $45,000 for an individual.

The public housing authority voted to proceed with the exchange last month. Jonathan Gouveia, NYCHA’s senior vice president for real estate, said the parties are hoping to close the deal this month.

“This is good for Fort Greene, because we’re increasing the supply of permanently affordable housing, and it’s increasing community space,” said Gouveia. “The proceeds from the sale of the rights will go toward chipping away at the capital needs we have at Ingersoll.”

The city last year released cost estimates for repairs and maintenance at Ingersoll, estimating the development would need $159 million in repair funding over the next five years and $300 million total over the next 10 years. The to-do list for this year alone encompasses almost every part of the project, ranging from $37 million for interior renovations to $5 million for new fencing to more than $2.5 million for light fixtures.

Residents said the buildings’ heating and electric systems were unreliable, benches and sidewalks were broken, and that scaffolding had been standing in front of their entrances for years at a time.

Linda Kaufmann, who has lived at Ingersoll for 28 years, said repairs are more needed now than they’ve ever been.

“My kitchen and bathroom wall are about to collapse because of a leak,” she said. “I asked them when they could fix the leak, and they said they couldn’t fix it until the roof was fixed. I asked them when they’d fix the roof, and they said they didn’t know.”

Virginia Cunningham, who has lived at Ingersoll for more than 50 years, said the scaffolding in front of her building has been up for longer than she can remember. Meanwhile, the overall conditions of the grounds make it hard for her to use her wheelchair.

“Look at that,” she said, pointing to an NYPD car parked on the sidewalk next to a particularly uneven patch of road. “If I parked my car there I’d get it taken, but they can come in and park there and I can’t ride my chair on the street.”

The $25 million NYCHA could get from selling Ingersoll’s air rights won’t come close to addressing the development’s overall needs, but Gouveia said the authority could use the money to prioritize the repairs that residents feel are most necessary.

“It’s a downpayment on Ingersoll, that first $25 million investment, and then we need to talk longer-term about how to do the rest of it,” said Gouveia. “There are other tools in our toolbox, but we’d need to have a longer conversation with residents moving forward.”

Cunningham said she’d heard about the deal, but didn’t know it was nearing completion. Despite its low-impact nature, she worries that Ingersoll could be sold or demolished to make way for future development.

“I don’t like it,” she said. “They say nothing’s going to happen to us. Once they start going and get everyone to say yes, they’ll do whatever they want.”

Kaufmann agreed that the development around the project is concerning.

“We need the money for the repairs, obviously, but look at all those new buildings,” she said, gesturing to nearby development on Myrtle Avenue. “It’s obvious that they don’t want us here.”

The deal is part of a broader strategy that has its origins in NYCHA’s long-standing financial woes. Even before a series of revelations about dangerous lead paint and broken boilers brought NYCHA under the control of a court-ordered federal monitor, the authority faced dire funding shortfalls: Its current five-year capital need exceeds $32 billion, almost the equivalent of the entire annual budget of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Like other housing authorities around the country, NYCHA has sought to raise some of that money through public-private partnerships, leveraging investment from private developers to pay for public housing repairs. These partnerships have included the Rental Assistance Demonstration program, which has transferred projects in the Rockaways and the Bronx to private management, and now a new set of air rights deals called “Transfer to Preserve.”

Ingersoll is the first development to see such a deal, and the authority is pursuing another one at the Fulton Houses in Chelsea. Both sites are under-built relative to zoning and close to hotbeds of real estate development.

Gouveia confirmed the city is in talks with other developers for similar deals, but said it was too early to give specifics.

The city published a legal notice earlier this summer announcing its intention to pursue the deal, which will include the transfer of 90,000 square feet of air rights and 6,000 square feet of property. At the time, the notice drew the ire of elected officials including Assemblymember Walter Mosley and City Council member Laurie Cumbo, who worried that the city intended to clear the deal and expand the development without conducting a separate environmental impact review for the new project. (The developer isn’t legally required to do this after completing an air rights deal.)

Mosley told the Brooklyn Eagle that he was pleased to see more low-income housing in the neighborhood as a result of the deal, but felt that 25 percent of the units at 60 percent AMI was insufficient. He also said he was skeptical about whether the money from the deal would translate to material benefits for Ingersoll tenants.

“If we’re going to create public and private partnerships, they need to benefit the public more than developers, and I’m not convinced that’s what’s happening,” he said. “Time and time again, we’ve seen funding fail to actually benefit tenants. That’s why I’ve repeatedly called for transparency so we can understand what this money is actually going to be used for.”

Jake Bittle is a reporter and researcher who lives in Flatbush. You can find him on Twitter.

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