Most of a $5 million fund that the Union Theological Seminary created to support affordable housing in Morningside Heights — in response to a community outcry after it sold off air rights to a luxury high-rise project for $125 million —is likely to actually be used for the benefit of the university’s own students, members of the local community board say.
The seminary, which came under fire from Morningside Heights residents, elected officials and its own students and staff in 2015 when it announced it would sell off its air rights to pay for campus renovation, eventually agreed to pledge the $5 million to support affordable housing in the community. The agreement came after pressure from local elected officials and the Morningside Heights Community Coalition.
But after a long period of negotiations, the seminary’s final offer to the coalition only includes $1 million towards tenant protection and legal services, including $300,000 to a community trust that will have the coalition on its advisory panel. Of the remaining $4 million, $2 million will be set aside for the seminary’s students to do internships in the community and another $2 million for lunch series, public lectures and administrative costs, according to Barry Weinberg, a member of the Morningside Heights Community Coalition and of Community Board 9’s Housing/Land Use and Zoning Committee.
“It’s ridiculous to have $5 million dollars and you spend one full quarter of it on administrative costs and another $1 million on sandwiches,” April Tyler, co-chair of the land use committee, said at a committee meeting last month.
Laura Friedman, president of the community coalition, said the deal on the $5 million is still being finalized.
But she said that should the deal be made, it would be “groundbreaking” because the seminary isn’t obligated to pledge funds in exchange for selling the air rights. “They’re in no need for a variance from the city or a special permit of any kind,” said Friedman, “They can do this as a ‘right.’”
Weinberg remains unconvinced and is vehemently opposed to the arrangement. “Personally, I think it’s a crap deal and UTS [the seminary] is giving itself $4 million,” he said.
Benjamin Perry, a spokesman for the seminary, said that they hope to close the deal shortly. He did not comment further.
Students and staff criticized the seminary, which is nearly two centuries old and whose website heralds its focus on social justice and equality, for accelerating gentrification through the luxury project on the seminary’s quad at Broadway and West 121st Street. As of 2016, 46 percent of low-income households in Morningside Heights and Hamilton Heights are severely rent-burdened, according to a report by NYU’s Furman Center.
Other city seminaries like the General Theological Seminary and the Jewish Theological Seminary have also sold their air rights to real estate developers. Union is the first to be making a community benefits deal. “They felt it was their moral obligation to do it, and they’re right,” said Friedman.