Residents Brace as an East Harlem Complex Leaves an Affordable Housing Program

For years, the Lakeview Apartments complex, on Fifth Avenue and 107th Street, has offered tenants covetable views of Central Park, easy subway access and other benefits of being steps from Museum Mile. It has also provided something else: As one of the apartment buildings in the city’s rent-controlled Mitchell-Lama program, it is a source of affordable housing in Manhattan’s fevered rental market.

But those provisions are threatened. The owners of Lakeview plan to withdraw the complex from the Mitchell-Lama program and pursue a voucher agreement that would protect a majority of current residents but fail to preserve the long-term affordability of the apartments.

Although a spokeswoman for the complex owner, LIHC Investment Group, said in a statement that it would work to ensure that Lakeview apartments remained affordable, it is unclear how long residents who do not qualify for vouchers will be able to stay in their homes.

For Jo Ann Lawson, 68, a resident of 25 years and president of the Lakeview Tenants Association, this is the primary concern.

“I don’t know where the Mitchell-Lama program goes from here,” Ms. Lawson said. “We’re just trying to preserve our homes.”

Investors were commissioned to build properties like Lakeview that offered an economic compromise: Renters pay no more than a specified percentage of their income, and the government subsidizes the difference up to market value.

However, the agreements had an expiration date, and after 20 to 40 years, developers can withdraw from the program. While units built before 1974 qualify for rent-stabilization protection, the future of the affordable homes remains uncertain.

On a recent Sunday, Ms. Lawson stood in the complex’s courtyard with her neighbors Angela Donadelle, Bessie Galbreath and Mohammad Islam, talking about the changes that had occurred and pondering those to come.

From left, Angela Donadelle, 57, Bessie Galbreath, 69, and Jo Ann Lawson, 68 outside their apartment. Alexandra Moreo/ NYT Institute

Statewide, about 160 apartment buildings remain in the Mitchell-Lama program out of the 269 — containing more than 100,000 units — that were constructed under it.

Built in 1974, Lakeview’s apartments are spread over two 24-story beige brick buildings that overlook the Untermyer Fountain and Harlem Meer. Tenants say the complex is barely recognizable when compared with its freshly built veneer from the mid-1970s.

“This was a gorgeous, gorgeous place,” said Ms. Galbreath, 69, who moved to Lakeview in 1976. “Our lobbies was always clean, spotless. The landscaping was fantastic.”

A spokeswoman for LIHC Investment Group said that since gaining principal ownership of the property last year, the company had spent more than $5 million on repairs, but that $15 million more was needed.

“Sometimes my wife brings the girls back from school and they have to go somewhere else to stay until the elevator is fixed,” said Mr. Islam, 42, a father of three who lives on the 13th floor.

“We acted as a community,” said Ms. Donadelle, 57, who has lived at Lakeview since she was 17. “The blackout of ’77 happened, and people actually came together. I remember — and I live on the 23rd floor — how we walked up and down the stairs to get people water throughout the building when we had no lights. There was a sense of community I don’t see anymore.”

The longtime neighbours talked a bit more, walking through the building, reminiscing for two hours before ending up at Mr. Islam’s apartment. Before the group separated, Ms. Lawson was asked about the legacy of her efforts to keep the building in the Mitchell-Lama program.

“The future,” she said, “is really out of our hands now.”