Elderly rent-controlled tenants at London Terrace Towers face big hikes or worse

A long-running legal battle at London Terrace Towers has more than two dozen elderly rent-controlled tenants facing steep rent hikes - or worse - at one of Chelsea's best-known addresses.

The owner of the elegant 1930 co-op, which runs from W. 23rd to W. 24th Sts. between Ninth and 10th Aves., has petitioned the state's Division of Housing & Community Renewal for the right to push through a "hardship" rent increase that critics say could sock old-timers with 200% rent hikes.

London Terrace Associates contends the rent bumps are a must to ensure that the company makes enough to cover expenses and turn an 8.5% profit, as required by state law.

But the 27 golden-aged, rent-controlled tenants - whose ranks include a pair of 99-year-olds and who pay $974 to $1,731 a month - contend the rent hikes would force them out of their longtime homes.

"They've made I don't know how many tens of millions of dollars on selling apartments and now they have a hardship?" scoffed Bob Brown, 77, who has lived at London Terrace for 41 years. "We feel very beleaguered - it's very unfair."

A spokesman for the state agency, which was directed by a Manhattan Supreme Court judge to issue a decision on the case by mid-February, declined comment. And a lawyer for London Terrace Associates, as well as managers for the complex, did not return calls.

In the meantime, the more than two dozen elderly residents have rounded up support from several local politicians while bracing for either possible evictions or rent hikes, along with increases dating back to 1996.

And they're not quite like those rent-control tenants typically vilified for their sweet New York real estate deals, according to their lawyer.

"If you're a young guy working on Wall Street who's paying $1,000 for a $3,000 apartment, I can see people not being sympathetic," said David Hershey-Webb, a lawyer for the tenants. "But they already pay a 7.5% increase by law and that's enough, because they can barely pay the rents they pay."

London Terrace Towers, whose celebrity tenants have included photographer Annie Leibovitz and Blondie frontwoman Debbie Harry, went co-op in 1987, when just 15% of its 715 units were snapped up by homeowners.

Now, fewer than 100 of the units remain rentals, said Linda Bergnes, secretary for the Four Corner Tenants Association of London Terrace Towers.

"It's amazing that you can make millions and millions of dollars selling off these apartments, yet still claim a hardship," she said.

The case has been kicking around since the mid-1990s, exposing rent-controlled tenants to the possibility of being hit with retroactive rent hikes in the posh Chelsea complex.

"Even with the collapse of the real estate bubble, that neighborhood is still very hot real estate," said Assemblyman Richard Gottfried (D-Manhattan). "But I don't think that justifies jacking up rents."

Brown, who pays $1,400 for a studio apartment, said he was told he had a nonevict clause when London Terrace went co-op.

"I just know most of us will not be able to pay those increases if this so-called hardship goes through," he said. "We'll have to pay the price for it, and that's what galls us."

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