CROWN HEIGHTS — Federally-subsidized tenants at a Crown Heights high rise are fighting a plan to force them to move into smaller units, enlisting help from elected officials who are trying to convince the city to let them stay where they are.
Tenants receiving enhanced Section 8 housing subsidies at Tivoli Towers, a 300-unit building on Crown Street and Franklin Avenue, began receiving letters from the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development at the beginning of the year warning them that they were “over-housed” — or living in apartments that were considered too large for their needs under a new set of guidelines released last year. The letters gave the tenants 30 days to appeal the order, or prepare to move.
The letters, which have also been sent to tenants in similar situations across the city, sparked outrage from residents as well as elected officials who began attempting to intervene with HPD on their behalf.
“There’s no compassion,” said Alice Mitchell, the tenant association president at Tivoli. “It’s about dollars and cents and it’s really, really sad.”
Mitchell has been helping her neighbors appeal the letters over the last few months. For the many seniors living in the building, that means getting testimony from a physician saying they are too frail or ill to move. According to HPD, 316 of these medically-necessary appeals have been approved so far this year.
Among the tenants who she's been helping is an 87-year-old woman who's inhabited a two-bedroom apartment for 40 years — and is fighting an HPD order to move to a one-bedroom.
“She says ‘You know, I’m gonna just have a stroke,’” Mitchell said. “I said ‘Be calm, I’m going to see how I can help you.’”
Tivoli Towers has been locked in a battle over keeping housing rates affordable for years, after the state-subsidized Mitchell-Lama facility was purchased by a developer looking to convert it to market-rate units, according to reports. As a result of the building's sale and conversion to market rates in 2010, tenants were granted an enhanced Section 8 voucher to cover the increased rental costs.
Tenants who are not successful in their appeal to HPD and who refuse to move have been told they will lose the enhanced portion of their Section 8 benefits and the accompanying additional rental funds that go with it, and will receive standard Section 8 benefits, advocates said.
HPD officials blame the need for the change on $35 million in deficits they said were sparked by the federal budget sequester. Though some of those funds have been restored, a spokesman for HPD said it is not enough to reach pre-sequester levels. He said the agency made a decision to deal with the funding cuts that allowed all those who have a voucher for housing to keep it, as opposed to cutting vouchers completely.
Rita Popper, president of the Knickerbocker Plaza Tenants’ Association and co-founder of the Housing Alliance Against Downsizing — a coalition created to fight the HPD’s new policy — said the agency's stance is unacceptable.
“The question is, does HPD have the right to use people as if they’re chess pieces?” Popper asked, adding that the department “has not thought [of] the problems and costs associated with moving,” especially for the elderly.
“What do they do with their furniture?" she said, adding that for those forced to downsize from a one-bedroom to a studio, "Who will come every evening after dinner and open their sofa bed?”
City Councilwoman Laurie Cumbo, who represents the area, signed a letter along with Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and several other elected officials last week to HPD Commissioner Vicki Been to urge her to stop the “downsizing” process, which they describe as “disastrous.”
The letter said many residents, elderly or otherwise, are not in a position to "compile all the necessary papers to file their appeals," and that if they're forced to relocate, to pack up a life’s worth of possessions in such short windows of time without any assistance or clear guidance from HPD, is not only wrong but also callous.
“The downsizing of Tivoli Towers is an unfortunate situation that I am vehemently against," Cumbo wrote, "particularly for the seniors whom I feel should not be displaced from the only homes they have known for the past several decades."