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Aging Hoarders Add $40M to Penn South Renovation Costs, Officials Say

By Mathew Katz | October 28, 2013 6:49am | Updated on October 28, 2013 12:18pm
  The co-op hired dozens of new staff to deal with hoarders who did not want to move their belongings during the renovation.
Penn South HVAC Project
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CHELSEA — Hoarders with overflowing apartments in Penn South have caused an additional $40 million to be tacked on to the Chelsea complex's $100 million price tag for a massive renovation — after staffers had to bring in a "hoarding consultant," social worker and special helpers to help clear out the mess — DNAinfo New York has learned.

The huge affordable housing co-op, which has 2,820 occupied units, has been upgrading its aging heating and cooling systems for the past two years, and needs to gain entry to each apartment in order to tear down walls and replace the pipes, management told DNAinfo.

But dozens of hoarders — long-term, often elderly residents who have piled their belongings from floor to ceiling and wall to wall — have delayed the work by a year and set Penn South back an extra $40 million for a social worker, movers and rising construction costs, management said.

"We had a much bigger problem than we could ever have imagined, specifically because of the hoarders," said Brendan Keany, the co-op's general manager.

While some residents have cooperated with the management's request to clean out their apartments since the work started in early 2012, others have been adamant about keeping their things — and in those cases, the co-op has started eviction proceedings against them through the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development in the hopes of changing their minds.

"We're not trying to evict them," Keany said. "But you can't start a proceeding without a threat."

According to HPD, Penn South started 26 such nuisance cases because of hoarding connected to the renovation, but only one resulted in a certificate of eviction.

One of the tenants threatened with eviction is Bruce Goldman, a rabbi who was a chaplain at Columbia University in the 1960s, who has defended himself at hearings several times since the spring.

"They're out to make the rabbi homeless," Goldman said. "If you were in Germany in 1938 and they did that, you'd call them fascists, Nazis."

Penn South staff said Goldman's apartment has gotten so bad that bags and boxes are even stacked on his balcony. Goldman denied charges of hoarding, but declined to allow a reporter into his apartment.

After realizing the extent of the hoarding problem, Penn South hired 31 new staffers at an additional cost of $8 million to help elderly residents move their possessions — or throw some of them away. The Penn South Program for Seniors also hired a full-time social worker dedicated to what Keany called "the hoarding issue." The social worker has reached out to about 180 suspected hoarders so far. 

"If somebody came into your home and said you don't need that armchair, you have another chair, you'd feel upset about that — they don't feel that they're doing anything wrong," said Nancy Spannbauer, the senior center's program director.

Spannbauer added that the center has a "de-cluttering" self-help group that meets every other week.

"They recognize they have a problem," she said. "It's been quite successful."

In addition, the co-op brought in professor Catherine Ayers, a hoarding specialist from the University of California, San Diego to lecture staff about how to handle hoarders in the complex, where nearly half of residents are 60 or older.

"We realized we grossly overestimated the ability of our elderly cooperators," Keany said. "We have a significant number of hoarders and a great number of our senior population that are not in shape to move anything."

Keany said he realized hoarding was getting out of control when staff helped an elderly man clear out boxes from his apartment, only to see him retrieve them from the dumpster later that night.

Even without the hoarders, the task of removing asbestos and replacing all the heating and cooling pipes in the 51-year-old, 15-tower complex was daunting — especially since each of the 2,820 apartments is occupied, which means crews have to work around residents, the co-op's management said. The old pipes had begun to leak, leaving apartments destroyed and elevators broken.

The project was initially budgeted at about $100 million and was expected to last three years. The hoarders increased the project's total cost to just over $140 million and stretched the timeline to four years, according to the co-op's latest annual report.

"We knew it would be big, but it's become so much bigger than we ever could have predicted," said Morris Benjamin, president of the co-op's board of directors.

The extra year has added to construction costs. Contracting prices were lower when the co-op was budgeting for the project in 2009 and 2010, in the midst of the financial crisis, but they have since gone up.

The co-op also switched contractors after the first three buildings, saying they were "dissatisfied" with their original contractor, RC Dolner. They brought in F.W. Sims Mechanical Services to complete the installation in the remaining 12 buildings at a higher price, though management said the switch did not affect the timeline.

"The original budget for the mechanical phase was about $4.5 million per building," wrote the co-op's treasurer, Walter Mankoff, in Penn South's annual report. "The first three buildings were done at a cost of $5 million per building and the remaining 12 will average about $6.5 million per building."

The co-op will now need to borrow the extra $40 million and figure out a way to repay it.

Most likely, Mankoff said, the complex will need to increase carrying charges — a monthly fee paid by residents — by about 10 percent. 

In a building where some tenants pay as little as $350 a month for a studio apartment, that will add up to roughly an extra $30 to $50 a month. Many low-income seniors will be eligible for city subsidies to take care of that cost, according to Keany.

"Nobody in the community is going to find it a tremendous hardship," he said. "Never has anyone been evicted for non-payment of rent because they couldn't afford to pay it — that's not who we are."

Keany said managers of other buildings with aging infrastructure and elderly tenants have reached out to him, hoping Penn South could be a model for their much-needed renovations.

"We're blazing a new trail here," he said. "Because of the hoarding, things had to evolve."