Controversial Park Slope Shelter Sparks Affordability Debate
Park Slopers might be seeing Mayor Bill de Blasio around his famous YMCA gym more often now that he has dropped out of the 2020 presidential race. Apart from his meme-ish presence in the affluent Brooklyn neighborhood, New York’s champion of affordable housing has made his mark here in other ways. As part of de Blasio’s plan to build 90 shelters across the city, Park Slope will be seeing the completion of two new homeless shelters at 555 and 535 4th Avenue within the next six months.
Costing an estimated $261 million, the shelters will be operated by WIN, formerly Women in Need, which has been contracted by the Department of Homeless Services for this project. WIN houses nearly 10 percent of New York’s homeless families.
The 4th Avenue shelters can house approximately 280 families — primarily single-parent households, with one or two children — and of these units, 29 are to be set aside as permanent affordable housing, according to New York City Councilman Brad Lander’s website.
While residents recognize the tangible challenges of homelessness, questions about the development of these shelters have some neighbors concerned. 4th Avenue Neighbors, an organization that formed in response to the announcement of the shelters, seeks transparency about the process of the development, and primarily, the unusually high cost of the facilities and their operation.
4th Avenue Neighbors member Dan Guido says that there remains an inexplicable gap between the median rent in this part of South Park Slope, and the shelters’ cost per-unit. Even considering WIN’s operations in comparable shelters, such as the one in Brownsville, the Park Slope shelters will cost more than twice as much in total. The per-unit rent, plus operational costs, are estimated to cost about $9,000. Apartments at the Brownsville shelter, in contrast, cost the city about $3,000 a month, including operations. Because of the unusually high cost, 4th Avenue Neighbors is also concerned about whom the money is going to, especially considering that the developers of the 4th Avenue shelters, Slate Property Group and Adam America, have been involved in controversial developments in recent years. In 2016, they purchased Rivington House, formerly an HIV/AIDS nursing home in Lower Manhattan, and turned the property into luxury condominiums despite the community’s push to keep it functioning as a nonprofit.
“It’s gonna be just like having a bad neighbor, except it’s a neighbor that’s 300 times larger than your own building,” says Guido. “These are the worst kind of people that you can subsidize their work with government money.”
Tenant advocate Patrick Johnson, who says he has been evicted three times, claims that the “mom-and-pop” landlord is a myth. “The vast majority [of properties] are owned by a dozen managing companies,” he says. Companies such as Blackstone Group — one of the largest property owners in the city — he says, are “using that money for very nebulous and insidious things outside of housing.”
A marketing associate for Adam America minimized their role in the shelters. “Adam America is a small investor in the development project at 555 4th Avenue,” Peri Eckstein wrote in an email. A representative from Slate argued that private companies can and should play a role in addressing the housing crisis by partnering with the city. This is Slate’s first development project with the Department of Homeless Services.
Despite his opposition to the murky circumstances surrounding the shelter, Guido does support other approaches to housing neighbors in need. “It may be a better strategy overall to build affordable or supportive housing,” he says. “I’d turn the whole building into affordable housing.”
The challenge with affordable housing, though, is its limited availability and highly selective process. Ute Zimmermann, a freelance web developer in nearby Gowanus, is considered low-income. She was selected in the first round of a lottery for low-income housing, but was ultimately rejected because it appeared that she had too many “random small amounts of money” going into her account, due to the nature of her freelance work.
Even though more than half of New Yorkers — 1,173,765, to be exact — are affected by the affordable housing crisis than by homelessness, it seems like the city’s focus is primarily on shelters. They are popping up with increasing frequency. In Park Slope, a new shelter was recently planned to go up on Sackett between 3rd and 4th Avenues.
The importance of shelters in New York City cannot be denied. Bill de Blasio has made it central to his tenure as mayor. His campaign, Turning the Tide on Homelessness, will build 90 new shelters and expand 30 existing ones for the estimated 60,000 homeless persons in the city. But Johnson says that the factors that contribute to homelessness are difficult to treat. “Homeless shelters deal with downstream effects, not upstream causes, he pointed out.
“They can only treat temporary problems. And the planned shelters on 4th Avenue are, in the end, like any other shelter; families are only expected to stay between a year and 18 months. But where will they go when they leave?”