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Mayor's Revisions to Deed Restriction Process 'Not Enough,' Community Says

 Councilwoman Chin and other elected officials had previously demanded the city compensate the Lower East Side for the loss of Rivington House.
Councilwoman Chin and other elected officials had previously demanded the city compensate the Lower East Side for the loss of Rivington House.
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DNAinfo/Allegra Hobbs

LOWER EAST SIDE — Mayor Bill de Blasio has introduced a bevy of revisions to the city’s process of handling modifications to deed restrictions in an attempt to address concerns arising from the sale of Rivington House, along with pledging money to the Lower East Side community as compensation for the loss.

But community members, who have demanded nothing less than the return of the property, say the changes are not enough.

The mayor’s office on July 8 unleashed a hefty list of proposed policy changes aimed at increasing transparency, oversight and community involvement when it comes to dealing with properties saddled with deed restrictions in the future. 

Additionally, the mayor ruled that the $16 million collected by the city for lifting the deed restriction on former nursing home Rivington House that ensured its use as a nonprofit health care facility — a transaction that allowed the building to be sold to a residential development for a condo conversion — will be put towards creating “affordable senior housing” in the Lower East Side.

The city will also “explore” the creation of more nursing home beds in the community, according to the mayor’s office. 

But community members, who recently banded together to form a coalition demanding the return of the building to their neighborhood, still are not satisfied, said a member of the newly formed Neighbors to Save Rivington House. 

“For me, it is very clear that it’s not enough, and it’s not what we were talking about,” said Melissa Aase, executive director of the University Settlement, an organization providing social services to low-income families, elderly and youth. “We’re going to keep trying to fight for the building to come back to the community.”

The group has launched a petition demanding the city re-implement the deed restriction that was lifted and “return Rivington House to the people of the Lower East Side,” which had gathered more than 1,500 signatures as of Wednesday.

The group is joined by Community Board 3 in issuing the demand. The board in April passed what then-Chairwoman Gigi Li called its “laser-focused resolution” demanding the return of the building, stating the board is “adamant that the sale of the deed restriction be reversed and the complete deed restriction for Rivington House to be reinstated.” The board’s position has not swayed, according to district manager Susan Stetzer.

“The CB did not ask for money to mitigate the loss of Rivington House nursing home beds,” said Stetzer in an email.

The mayor’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment regarding the community’s demand, and did not respond to repeated requests for clarification on how the $16 million will be allocated within the community. 

The proposed policy changes are in response to widespread outrage following the February sale of Rivington House — for decades a nonprofit health care facility for HIV/AIDS patients — to residential developer Slate Property Group, which now plans on putting condos in the building.

A handful of city, state and federal watchdogs are probing the transactions, questioning whether the city’s process for removing deed restrictions is stringent enough.

Comptroller Scott Stringer has demanded transparency from the city, saying the public has “a right to know how these deed restrictions are being managed and whether taxpayers and our communities are being protected.” The investigation is ongoing, said a rep for the comptroller, along with investigations from the attorney general's office and the city's own Department of Investigation. 

The mayor's proposed changes — slated to be put into action in the coming months — require the city use “legally binding language” while modifying deed restrictions that would prevent the property from being used for an alternate purpose. 

The legislation would also change the way deed restriction modifications are financially compensated — while under the current law, owners are charged 25 percent of the property’s market value for a modification — as was the case with Rivington House — these requests will now be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

Greater transparency and oversight will also be instated under the policy changes — the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, the agency tasked with overseeing deed restriction modifications, will now present any request for a deed modification to a committee made up of a handful of city representatives.

Additionally, the city will work out a new process for notifying the community and gathering feedback while considering a request for a deed restriction modification — while previously the local community board was not notified or involved in the public hearing process, the city going forward would work in partnership with the boards to ensure community engagement.

Elected officials have offered tepid support of the revisions following the mayor's announcement, with Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer calling the policy changes a "step in the right direction," noting "the Rivington House's value to the community far exceeded $16 million" and that there is much work to be done to create needed nursing home beds in the community.

Councilwoman Margaret Chin, while congratulating the mayor on the revisions, said she will continue to fight alongside the community for the return of the property.

"While I will continue to explore every option to take back Rivington House, I thank Mayor de Blasio for taking these important first steps to make this community whole again," Chin said in a statement.

According to Aase, the Neighbors to Save Rivington House coalition is expected to release a statement reaffirming its position in the near future.