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TriBeCa Tenants Rally for Rent-Stabilization After Court Ruling

City Councilwoman Margaret Chin vowed to support the tenants at Independence Plaza May 3, 2012.
City Councilwoman Margaret Chin vowed to support the tenants at Independence Plaza May 3, 2012.
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DNAinfo/Julie Shapiro

TRIBECA — Tenants at Independence Plaza North (IPN) — a complex marketed as luxury digs that was once largely affordable housing — vowed Thursday to continue fighting for their apartments to become rent-stabilized, despite a recent court ruling against them.

The residents, many of whom have lived there since the '70s, have been locked in a legal battle with their landlord, Laurence Gluck, for seven years over whether their 1,331-unit TriBeCa complex should be rent-stabilized because of tax breaks Gluck received.

While the state's Supreme Court sided with the tenants in a widely celebrated August 2010 decision, the court's Appellate Division reversed the ruling on April 3, allowing Gluck to raise the rents as much as he likes.

"I was dismayed,"  Jean Hartman, 62, who has lived at Independence Plaza for half her life, said of the ruling. "But you have to wipe away your tears and live to fight again. We aren't going to give up now."

Hartman was one of about 100 Independence Plaza tenants who rallied with local elected officials outside the complex Thursday morning. The tenants and officials vowed to appeal the ruling and take the case to the state's highest court.

"This court decision is wrong," City Councilwoman Margaret Chin shouted to cheers from the crowd. "We are going to continue to fight, and we are going to win."

The tenants argue that they deserve rent protections because Gluck received a J-51 tax break, which is given to landlords who make improvements to their building in exchange for providing rent-stabilization.

Gluck canceled the $7,550-a-year tax break in 2006 and repaid it going back to 2004, when he first received it — so, he argued, he does not owe the tenants anything.

But Borough President Scott Stringer questioned whether Gluck could back out of his obligation to provide rent-stabilized apartments just because he repaid the tax break.

"We cannot allow the people who created this neighborhood to be pushed out, pushed aside, because the developer wants to change the terms of the deal," Stringer said.

"You can't move the goalposts in the middle of the game. You can't change the rules."

A lawyer for the building, Stephen B. Meister said that the court made the right decision.

"The Appellate Division correctly held that IPN became ineligible for J-51 benefits upon exiting the Mitchell Lama program, and therefore never became rent stabilized," he said. "Because HPD repealed the regulation IPN relied upon, the decision will have no impact on any buildings that exit the Mitchell Lama program in the future, so there is no reason for the Court of Appeals to review the Appellate Division’s unanimous decision."

Many longtime Independence Plaza residents recalled moving to the neighborhood in the 1970s, when they had to trek up to Chinatown to do their grocery shopping and take their children to school.

Those early tenants fought for new schools and parks, helping to build the TriBeCa that has become so popular today. But many said they feel like victims of the neighborhood's success, and they worry they won't be able to stay for much longer.

Susan Hill, 66, who has lived in Independence Plaza for 35 years and recently retired, said she would only be able to last a couple more years if her rent started increasing dramatically.

"I was initially angry, and then I was hurt," she said of the recent court ruling. "People are not doing the right thing. How can they sleep at night?"

Some tenants at Independence Plaza are currently under a program that is similar to rent-stabilization, some receive federal Section 8 vouchers to help them pay their rent and some are market-rate. All would benefit from rent-stabilization, said Seth Miller, the tenants' lawyer.

The complex originally had Mitchell-Lama housing protections, but Gluck stripped them when he took it over in 2004. One-bedroom apartments in the building run from $3,450 to $4,100-a-month and two-bedroom units can go for $5,750 a month.

The next step in the case is for Miller to request permission to take the case to the state's top court, the Court of Appeals. If that court declines to hear the case, then the recent decision in favor of Gluck will stand.  

Other officials who spoke in support of the tenants Thursday included U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, State Sen. Daniel Squadron, State Sen. Tom Duane and Community Board 1 Chairwoman Julie Menin.

A state appeals court ruled in 2009 that property owners of Stuyvesant Town had illegally raised rents because of receiving J-51 tax breaks.