Unions & Community Unite for Affordable Housing

The Biltmore 47 Project

Volume CI, No. 9September, 2001

Heather Beaudoin

A new initiative to provide affordable housing in the Theatre District is being promoted by a coalition of entertainment industry unions and community organizations. Their focus is the Biltmore 47 Project, a residential tower to be known as the Manhattan Theatre Club. It will be built next to the Biltmore Theatre, at Eighth Avenue and 47th Street, with large public subsidies. The project includes a renovation of the decaying Biltmore Theatre.

New York City Councilmember Christine Quinn brought together the coalition – which includes the New York State AFL-CIO, Local 802, Actors’ Equity and community boards 4 and 5 – to negotiate with the developer of the property over specific community needs.

The coalition has formed a subcommittee, the Biltmore Housing Committee, to address affordable housing concerns. This is a critical issue for the community, where gentrification is rapidly displacing working and low-income families. Local 802 and the other entertainment industry unions are concerned that members who may work in the newly renovated theatre will be unable to afford an apartment in the adjoining residential tower, or in many other New York neighborhoods.

As currently planned, the Biltmore 47 project is to be financed with tax-exempt bonds. This financing requires 20 percent of the apartments to be set aside for low income tenants, while the remaining 80 percent are rented at market rates. The Biltmore Housing Committee is proposing that the residential tower be reconfigured as a 65/15/20 project. This would mean that 65 percent of the units were rented at market rate, 20 percent went to low-income renters, and the remaining 15 percent were allocated to working people of moderate income – the musicians, actors, stagehands and others who work in the theatre industry, as well as residents of the Community Board 4 and 5 areas. One possibility would be to allocate 10 percent of the units to theatre industry professionals and 5 percent to community residents.

Years ago, Manhattan Plaza broke new ground on providing affordable housing for theatre industry workers. That model is being explored in discussions with the developers of how rents might be calculated. For example, a sliding scale might be tied to earnings and limited to no more than 25 percent of income. This could go as high as market rate if the renter’s income improved.

At a June 27 land use hearing on the Biltmore 47 application, testimony was presented on such issues as the height of the tower and the number of apartments it will contain. City Planning Commissioners questioned whether New York City would get a reasonable return on its investment, in return for awarding the developer up to a 44 percent bonus for rehabilitating the Biltmore Theatre. Terms of the theatre’s lease are not known and the developer has stated that the lease will probably not be finalized until land use decisions have been reached.

Local 802 will continue working with Councilmember Quinn and the Biltmore Housing Committee on this effort.