Op-ed: Homelessness and ‘Build it Bigger’ Bill (again)

Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Mayor Bill de Blasio.
REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

Homelessness. Is it a never-ending problem? Or, is it a problem because it’s kept ever-perpetuating? Work on it — not solve it — modify how you are doing it, work on it some more, re-modify what you are doing, work on it some more. Then, go back to the beginning and repeat all of the steps — but never solve the problem!

Bill de Blasio became mayor seven years ago. For the first three-plus years he did nothing special to solve homelessness. In 2017, the last year of his first term as mayor, he commenced his Turn the Tide program. This gave him something to campaign about: He would “solve” homelessness if re-elected. He got re-elected. He didn’t solve homelessness! What did he do? See my first paragraph.

Now, in the final year of his final term, he wants to close 360 homeless “cluster sites” citywide and end the use of commercial hotel facilities for the homeless. What’s the big new “solution”? Open 90 “mega traditional shelters” citywide and expand about 30 existing shelters (i.e. make them mega-sized). For all of us non-math majors, his solution is to go from 360-plus small sites to 120 mega sites. Solution? Again, see first paragraph!

In our area, he wants to open a site at 100 Neptune Ave. It is referred to as being in Brighton Beach. Technically correct. However, across the street, northward, is Sheepshead Bay; and across the street, southeasterly, is Manhattan Beach. The site is at a multi-street crossroads. Also, while the site is physically located in Community District 13, the other two areas are in Community District 15. This would make this a joint Interest matter as it is on the border of two community districts. The mayor’s Department of Homeless Services tried to ignore this. Sorry guys, you got caught!

Let us now consider this new proposed site and its “appropriateness.” The building itself is two-stories high and, in total, about 30,000-square-feet in size. While now empty, it had been, for many years, an auto repair shop. The likelihood of toxic materials being there, and having to be remediated is great. This is not a cheap procedure and itself could cause toxic materials to bleed into adjacent properties. All this exists before the cost of construction to try to convert a commercial building into a residential building.

Did I mention that the site also happens to be in Flood Zone 1? That means if you spill a container of coffee outside of the building, the building has to be evacuated due to flooding! During Superstorm Sandy, the Bel Air apartment building located across the street from the site on East 12th Street had over 7 feet of water in the building. Federal guidelines recommend any buildings being constructed or reconstructed allow about 3 feet additional height for possible flooding.

This would mean that the first 10 feet of the height of the building, or the entire ground floor, would have to have no living space for homeless individuals. How then can 170 people be considered for occupancy in this location? Does the city plan to ignore these guidelines? After all, if there is a flood, are you simply considering that it’s “only homeless people” that can drown?

Sorry Mr. Mayor, your responsibility is to do all that is needed to protect them. Your Administration chose a site that would require both remediation and, primarily, extremely limited use of the entire ground floor, while seeking to pay a lease amount for the entire building. What a gross misuse of our tax dollars!

Another thing, Mr. Mayor: You may have heard that we are in the midst of a pandemic (not to even mention annual flu season). Before you think everything will be over before the end of 2021, let me give you a reality check – it won’t! The Center for Disease Control of the Federal Government recommends that there be no large gatherings of people and you want to open mega shelters!? Is this another solution that you have to homelessness? Put them all in one place, let a deadly virus breakout, and let them die? Are you that cruel? Are you that crazy? Or, are you simply criminally insane?

Then there is also the additional expense of installing air filtration systems in the building as well as partitions between beds. Is it your goal to spend all of the city’s limited monies on your foolish non-solutions?

Our city is in a financial dilemma due to the COVID-19 pandemic. There is talk of service cutbacks and job losses for police officers, firefighters, EMTs, sanitation workers, teachers, etc. and, at this time, you want to go on a nonsensical, unneeded, spending spree?

homeless shelter
A new men’s homeless shelter is set to open at 100 Neptune Ave. in Brighton Beach, sparking controversy.Google Maps

You are using the homeless for political ends. You are warehousing them like they are packages in an Amazon warehouse. At this moment, we need the least expensive solutions that would maximize keeping them safe and secure. Among those solutions are hotels and motels. Rather than take the homeless out of them, they should be utilized as they provide low density shelter. Monies paid to these facilities also serve to keep them open and their staffs employed. Both of these conditions will bring tax money into the city’s coffers!

You Mr. Mayor, are looking to substitute health and safety for the homeless, continuing jobs for employed people, and retaining businesses to remain in business, for instead, placing the health and safety of the homeless in jeopardy, having working people lose their jobs, and forcing businesses to close!

Multiple solutions must be applied to solve homelessness. The homeless are not a homogenous population. One group should be individuals or families that have simply lost their income, need a subsidy to pay their bills, and a new job, or job training for a new career, in order to avoid homelessness. This group should be able to avoid becoming homeless with proper financial assistance for them to remain in permanent housing or be moved to new permanent housing if they lost their residence due to fire, flood, etc.

A second group should be those who have substance abuse problems (drugs, alcohol, etc.). These people need intense programs to attempt to rid them of these problems. This requires that they be housed apart from other homeless populations, are given the support services needed to help them, and that they are not housed in residential areas while being treated. Afterwards, they, too, can be transitioned into permanent housing.

Similarly, a third group should be those requiring psychiatric care if their conditions are evaluated and found that they are prone to violence. They must be treated and housed in non-residential areas where psychiatric services can be fully available to them. Only when deemed safe of violent tendencies, should these individuals be transitioned into more permanent housing. By separating this second and third group from housing in residential communities, while these people are undergoing necessary and appropriate treatment, we can avoid conflict and negative reaction against the homeless.

Furthermore, more permanent and affordable housing must be made available using innovative approaches, such as the conversion of City-owned properties that are unused or residential property that can be acquired by the City for the failure of the property owner to pay required taxes. Also, the building of cost-effective homes, such as done by a company called Icon (concrete homes built using a 3D printer in 24 hours per home). This company has already built homes in Austin, Texas, is contracted to build low cost housing in Mexico, and has contracts with the Defense Department to construct barracks for our military. 

Realistically, none of this can be done right now, during a time of crisis. But it must be done early on by the next city administration. In the meantime, in order to stop the carnage that is being caused by Mayor de Blasio as he leaves office, I call upon our City Comptroller Scott Stringer to issue a directive for a citywide moratorium on all city projects that may require ancillary expenses beyond simple construction and, even in those cases, to have the administration prove that the project must go forward immediately and that there is no cheaper way, nor less costly location, for the projects. This moratorium should be effective immediately and apply to any direct payments or indirect payments (reimbursement) made by the city.

In addition, this moratorium should also apply to any payments made to vendors or contractors that have any violations that are 30 or more days old. Vendors or contractors, such as CORE Services, selected for 100 Neptune Ave., who have hundreds of outstanding violations, should be permanently removed from doing business with the city. In addition to this moratorium issued by the comptroller, the City Council should pass identically purposed legislation.

Let our elected officials support the taxpayers and those in need of help and protection.

Hon. Maurice H. Kolodin represents the BAHA (Bel Air, Hollywood, and Arcadia) Tenants, three apartment buildings with 450 apartments in total, which are located across the street and down the block from 100 Neptune Ave. He is also President of Shorefront Partnership Alliance and Chairperson Emeritus of Community Board 15.