EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the full text of Charles Moerdler's Point of View piece. An abridged version appeared in the Aug. 3 edition.
The Riverdale Press has performed a public service by focusing attention on some of the concerns and circumstances surrounding the proposed homeless services department shelter on 5731 Broadway in the Kingsbridge community. But there is more.
By way of background, on Jan. 4, 2017, Community Board 8 received notice of an application from a Stagg Group entity seeking 421a tax relief for its market-rate project at 5731 Broadway. Given prior reports of "bait-and-switch" and other conduct, as well as contemporaneous problems with Stagg on other sites in the district, Stagg was invited to the Jan. 31 meeting of CB8's land use committee.
In response to direction questioning, the Stagg Group representative then committed that the premises would be used for market-rate housing and not for a homeless facility or other institutional use. The board, a city agency under applicable law, was assured by the Stagg representative that the problems encountered in other community board areas would not occur here, and that these premises would be "market-rate" housing.
In the ensuing months, those representations would be reiterated by Mark Stagg, Aldolfo Carrion (the Stagg Group's highly political "consultant"), and other Stagg representatives.
On July 14, CB8 was advised (for the very first time) by email from DHS that it intended to use 5731 Broadway as a “shelter.” No details were provided. Days later, CB8 learned that DHS intended to 5731 Broadway for “transitional supportive housing” for 83 families, each including one or more children, and that occupancy would begin in August.
The board is in recess during July and August, but its land use committee is authorized to act for it, and in the name of the board. Land use had scheduled a July 27 meeting, and its agenda was immediately amended to schedule a hearing on 5731 Broadway.
At the meeting, testimony was proffered by Praxis Housing Initiatives, the sponsor of the project, that Adolfo Carrion, Stagg Group’s political “consultant,” had approached Praxis in April with a proposition to use 5731 Broadway as supportive housing, and a formal proposal was presented to DHS, and agreement reached soon thereafter. CB8 was never told by Stagg (or any city representative) of any of these discussions, or even that formal documents had been in circulation for some time, and early execution was contemplated. Despite contrary assurances, neither Stagg nor Carrion attended the July 27 public hearing and meeting.
At that meeting, the land use committee voted to refer the conduct of Stagg, Carrion and their colleagues to the city’s Department of Investigation, and to request a formal inquiry.
Once the board learned of the DHS plans for 5731, board leadership spoke with DHS representatives, including Assistant Commissioner Matt Borden. Additionally, board leadership consulted with Assmblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, Councilman Andrew Cohen, and Sen. Jeffrey Klein, as well as with representatives from U.S. Rep. Adriano Espaillat and Councilman Andrew King, whose Community Board 12 constituents were facing a similar Stagg ploy.
In discussions with DHS, it had represented that 5731 would be populated by 83 qualified and screened homeless families — each with one or more children — whose last known address was in CB8. Thus, the substantive housing issue thus was whether the legitimate concerns of the Kingsbridge neighbors of the site could be harmonized to whatever extent possible with the pressing humane needs of the 83 families, especially their children.
It was evident that there was a pressing need for caring and humane treatment for the 83 homeless families (and children) at issue, and that permanent supportive housing would afford them the stable environment through which they could be reintroduced into the community from which they came, hopefully ending their cycle of homelessness.
Simultaneously, there was an obvious need to address perfectly legitimate concerns and questions expressed by Kingsbridge residents faced with a sudden mass influx of formerly homeless neighbors.
The next issue was how best to focus attention on the housing issues separate from the issue of perceived developed misconduct, since it could only becloud the real issue: How best to address both community concerns and the plight of the 83 families, and more importantly, their children.
And that was precisely the conversation we all pressed (notwithstanding the evident tensions) at the July 27 meeting. Unfortunately, the secretive nature of the process that DSH fashioned made all of this an emergency that precluded wider consultation.
Among the more salient issues that emerged at the meeting, and which merit consideration — but which DHS evidenced it still is unwilling or incapable of addressing — are the following:
Children. DHS has said that there now are at least 83 qualified and screened families ready for occupancy. What DHS has ignored is that many, if not most, of the children will be of school or pre-kindergarten age.
Quite properly, their welfare should be of prime concern, yet no meaningful mention of that was stated in the DHS presentation. Given the disruptive lives thrust upon such children by the mere fact of homelessness and its tragic attendant privations, educators have long recognized that they frequently reflect disruptive behavior in the educational environment, particularly when they continue to be exposed to a transitory environment that shifts them from place to place, shool to school.
Most agree that both the affected homeless children and their classmates would be far better served by a sense of residential permanence and stability. Yet, DHS — both before and at the July 27 meeting — stubbornly refused to make that commitment, or even to open-mindedly consider it. DHS instead hides behind the claim that a turnstile approach is mandated by its desire for momentary efficiencies and needs — needs resulting from the administration's own three-plus year failure to properly plan.
The educational welfare of the children of the 83 families and their classmates demand more.
Permanent supportive housing vs. turnstile housing. Permanent supportive housing, first broached in the Lindsay administration, goes a long way toward addressing homelessness. Particularly where, as here, the deisgnated site is one built for permanent residential living.
Conversely, transitory supportive housing does not. It only serves to temporarily gloss over a managerial problem by providing turnstile shelter, here one day, and elsewhere the next. And in the process, it advances blight, for there is little incentive to maintain a transitory waystation at an appropriate level.
Importantly, the permanent approach aids the formerly homeless to have a stake in, and become part of, the community, and thereby simultaneously advances individual stability and that of the community.
Not once did the DHS representatives deviate from their mantra that their managerial needs elevated the turnstile over stability.
Honesty and integrity. As former board chair Robert Fanuzzi aptly observed, it is a sine qua non of moral and effective leadership to abjure unprincipled behavior, including dissembling to a city agency, which a community board is by law.
Yet, faced with the uncontroverted evidence that a developer and his politically connected "consultant" had repeatedly dissembled to CB8 in connection with obtaining a benefit, both Mayor de Blasio's representative and DHS did not miss a beat. They were unconcerned and determined to plow ahead and "deliver."
Dissembling is not an alien concept to DHS. After all, DHS admittedly lied to CB8 with respect to its continued deplorable occupancy of the Van Cortlandt Motel. To reward questionable conduct encourages more of the same and taints the reputation of public officialdom.
Had DHS had the foresight and willingness to open-mindedly consult with either the elected officials or the community board, or even the affected community at the outset, a more rational and moral outcome might well have been possible.
The testimony of DHS belied is bureacratic mantra. At the July 27 land use meeting, a united community pressed DHS that, if it is committed to supportive housing at 5731 Broadway, it should be used for permanent supportive housing for the 83 homeless families.
This humane approach was supported by elected officials, but was lost on DHS. It was committed to turnstile housing now because DHS has failed for more than three years to plan or implement a sound homeless program properly, and is committed to continuing a patchwork approach to a serious problem.
But the DHS thinking is demonstrably flawed. DHS represented that there are at least 83 famlies with children from the Community Board 8 area who need permanent supportive housing now. They do not need to be shifted from one waystation to another.
There is the ability today to fill that immediate desperate need for those 83 families in their former neighborhoods. DHS' inability to recognize the obvious and humane speaks volumes.
While the foregoing touches upon some of the more pressing open issues, there are others: What are the DHS processes employed from intake, to screening, to transitional and then permanent housing? What are standards that govern DHS vetting of tis developer-spsonr partners, and to what extent are they politically influenced?
Why does DHS persist in excluding participatory communites and their elected officials while maintaining a policy of concealment? And what are the metrics of site selection, and what influenced those determinations here?
According to the testimony of the DHS representatives, there is no contract, written agreement or other obligation in place requiring it to proceed with this turnstile project, and none can exist prior to future notice and public hearing. Thus, change to permanency is possible.
Additionally, because DHS appears unable to properly initiate a humane homeless solution, a fertile opportunity is provided for a so-called not-for-profit (whose president, according to the attorney general’s records, reaps a salary in the hundreds of thousands of dollars), and for a developer to reap a real estate tax-sheltered, secure windfall at taxpayer expense. That merits review.
In the final analysis, the buck stops with Mayor Bill de Blasio. He alone can, at this stage, restore public confidence and ensure a humane result both for the Kingsbridge community, and the 83 families and their children.
The author is a member of Community Board 8, and is chair of the board’s land use committee.