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Village Artists' Residence Accused of Sitting on Empty Apartments

 The Westbeth Artists' Housing complex, the first federally subsidized artists' colony in the United States, is stockpiling affordable apartments, according to local elected officials and residents.
Westbeth Artists' Housing
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WEST VILLAGE — Composer Chris Berg joined the wait-list for a subsidized studio apartment in a West Village artists' residence 16 years ago, when he was 47 years old.

He doesn't expect to be offered a home at the Westbeth Artists' Housing complex until 2039.

"I'm 63 and I'm still waiting," he said. "My current estimate is age 89."

Though some artists have waited more than a decade for low- and middle-income housing within the 383-unit Westbeth complex, an estimated 20 apartments there are vacant, with some having stood empty for more than two years, according to residents and a letter issued last week by local elected officials.

The "stockpiling" of empty apartments runs counter to the nonprofit's mission to offer affordable housing to artists, said state Sen. Brad Hoylman, one of five politicians who signed a letter dated June 18 to Westbeth's executive director, Steve Neil, asking that vacant units be made available as soon as possible.

"There are units unfilled and that is a travesty, given the shortage of housing in the Village," Hoylman said Monday. "[Westbeth] is the last bastion of real artists' housing."

Neil did not respond to inquiries Monday about the letter signed by Hoylman, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, Assemblywoman Deborah Glick and Rep. Jerrold Nadler.

George Cominskie, president of the resident-elected Westbeth Artists Residents Council, said Neil and the appointed board of directors of the Westbeth Housing Development Fund Corporation have provided residents and those on the wait-list few answers about the reasons for the vacancies and delays.

"There are people on the in-house move list and the list from outside who are dying for these apartments. It makes no sense," he said, attributing the holdup to mismanagement. "The Residents Council urges management to rent all the available apartments as soon as possible."

The apartments of residents who have died sit empty, a Westbeth resident of three decades said, asking that her name be withheld for fear of reprisal from management.

"It's the antithesis of what Westbeth was created to provide," she said.

Resident Roger Braimon, who sits on a committee that evaluates the artistic merits of applicants, said management has said some units sit vacant because the estates of their deceased owners are being settled, or they need repairs. Still, the 45-year-old artist and graphic designer described a lack of transparency.

"It is frustrating to not know why there are so many vacant apartments, and management doesn't seem to think it's our business," he said.

Located on the block bounded by Washington, Bank, West and Bethune streets, Westbeth opened in 1971 as the first federally subsidized artists' colony in the United States. Architect Richard Meier helped convert the 13 former Bell Telephone Laboratories buildings for residential use, and they have been home to photographer Diane Arbus, poet Muriel Rukeyser and actor Vin Diesel, who grew up there. Westbeth was designated a city landmark in October 2011.

The complex transitioned from being regulated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to the city's rent-stabilization program in July 2011, when it paid off its 40-year federal mortgage.

The units in the complex range from 340-square-foot studios to 1,200-square-foot three-bedroom units, according to documents the Westbeth Housing Development Fund Corporation filed with the state in July 2010. The highest rent paid at that time was $1,700, the documents said.

As of last month, Berg — a Kingsbridge, Bronx resident who writes music for dance and theater — was informed he had risen to No. 20 on Westbeth's wait-list, putting him within reach of a new home if the reportedly vacant units were made available.

Enclosed with the notice was a memo asking wait-list members to be patient.

"There was a note on it that said 'Don't call the office,' like 'Don't call us, we'll call you,'" he said.