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The New York Sun.

A Once-Troubled Housing Complex Seeks Change
March 15, 2007

By Julia Vitullo-Martin

If the name Flatbush Gardens seems slightly familiar, it could be because the Brooklyn complex has been in the news as the "other" development owned by the principals of Clipper Equity, the investment group that offered $1.3 billion for Starrett City. Taken aback by the large price tag for Starrett, and fearing for the development's moderate-income renters, public officials criticized the sellers. But they also denounced the buyers, whose 71 other residential buildings were said to have thousands of violations.

The recent pretty ad for Flatbush Gardens in the New York Times Metro section says nothing about the controversy — or the development's ownership. It merely announces the assets: "Fabulous Newly Renovated Apartments. 24-hour Security and Maintenance. No Fee. Rent-Stabilized. 25 minutes to Lower Manhattan."

The rents do seem excellent: $1,035 a month for a one-bedroom unit, $1,200 for two bedrooms, and $1,375 for three. (The going rate for a two-bedroom apartment in Harlem, for example, is $3,000.) Parking is available for $80 a month.

The map on the listed Web site, flatbushgardens. net, shows that the development takes up four good-size blocks bounded by Newkirk and Nostrand avenues, about halfway between Brooklyn College to the south and Holy Cross Cemetery to the north. Is this an amazing bargain in the heart of Brooklyn, New York's hottest borough? Or should renters be suspicious of an overly good deal?

The answer is probably both. The drawback is that until October 2005 this property, then called Vanderveer Estates, was one of the most disreputable federally financed projects in the country. Handed off among about seven owners during 20 years, Vanderveer became a poster child for federally financed failures in moderate-income housing.

But it may also offer a true bargain, especially for young, resourceful households willing to venture to a transitional neighborhood in exchange for getting on the gravy train of regulated rents. Certainly the owners of Flatbush Gardens aren't shy about using rent regulation as a marketing tool — not something generally done by regulation-averse Manhattan landlords.

The implied promise is that as the immediate neighborhood improves, as it surely will, becoming more like Victorian Flatbush and less like East New York, venturesome tenants will find that their initial risk will be rewarded.

Built in the late 1940s on the old site of the Flatbush Water Works, Flatbush Gardens is neither the worst nor the best of its time — just a routine project, 59 red-brick buildings distributed in a fairly attractive way across 30 acres. It housed working-class families like that of Barbra Streisand, who lived there as an adolescent. A brilliant landscaper could make it beautiful, but no such talent has yet been applied in its 55 years. Instead, it has a stripped, austere look, as if waiting for an attentive new owner.

Leasing manager J.J. Bistricer, son of Clipper Equity principal David Bistricer, said the company has put in close to $8 million in capital improvements into Flatbush Gardens, renovating all 59 elevators, installing security cameras, repairing intercoms, starting the replacement of 18,000 windows, and constructing a community room.

Mr. Bistricer also said the company has hired 70 porters, more than one a building. "My grandfather started the business in 1952, buying undervalued property, fixing it up, and keeping it affordable for working people," he said. "We have an opportunity here to take this property from a very bad place to a very good place."

And it was indeed a very, very bad place. A criminologist and professor of anthropology at John Jay College who produced a report on crime for the Brooklyn district attorney in 2003, Ric Curtis, said Vanderveer residents nicknamed the intersection of Foster and Nostrand avenues "the Front Page" because the drug murders there often ended up on the front pages of local papers. The area to the south they called "the Back Page" because its many murders went unnoticed.

But Mr. Curtis's report also notes that aggressive policing by the Police Department and other enforcement agencies dismantled "entrenched and highly organized drug-distribution organizations" at Vanderveer, making it an NYPD success story.

The security director of Flatbush Gardens, Jesse Gonzalez, a former NYPD detective, said that in 2001, 40% of the crime in the 67th Precinct was attributable to Vanderveer. Last year, crime in Flatbush Gardens was limited to one felonious assault and 20 burglaries.

An open house on a recent sunny Sunday afternoon saw a stream of people coming to the rental office. "We do about 30 to 50 rentals a month," the leasing director, Jesse Temple, said, estimating that the development has about 70 vacancies.

He listed his most recent tenants: a teacher with a salary of $45,000; a political staffer, part of a gay couple, with a $60,000 salary; a "cute couple in retail" hoping to start a family, with a combined income of $45,000; a social worker for the city who makes $52,000, and an intern with a salary of $74,000.

The application requirements reflect both the development's grim past and its aspirations for the future: clean credit, no housing court issues, no bankruptcy history; no criminal history, no exceptions. Income minimums are $35,000 for a one-bedroom, and $60,000 for a three-bedroom. "We want stable working people to move in," Mr. Bistricer said, "people who will pay the rent and take care of the property."

This will surely be welcome news to the mostly owner-occupied surrounding neighborhood.

The manager of Fillmore Real Estate, Josephine Liacas, who has been working in East Flatbush since the late 1970s, said the upgrade of Flatbush Gardens will help the entire neighborhood. "Many people are afraid of projects, but buyers can look over there and say, ‘Okay, they're really taking care of that. We don't have to worry about living here anymore.' This area is loaded with brownstones and nice houses, so we get the overflow from Park Slope," she said.

A three-family, seven-bedroom house on Newkirk Avenue and 35th Street, for example, is priced at $829,000 and will likely sell at $795,000, she said. A two-family detached house on Farragut Road is in contract, listed at $549,000. A one-family house on East 38th Street is under offer at $450,000.

Julia Vitullo-Martin is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

©2007 The New York Sun

 


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