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"The [nonprofit] providers are the best equipped, the most sensitive to the needs of homeless New Yorkers," said Lauri Cole, the director of ASPHA/Tier 2 Coalition, an organization representing 58 nonprofit shelter operators. "They are the ones you would turn to first."
But interest in sustaining the push for more affordable housing and the creation of additional nonprofit shelters waned during the Giuliani and Pataki administrations. And now, under pressure of a decades-old court order that compels it to provide shelter for needy families, the city is once again scrambling to enlist private landlords motivated solely by profit.
Neighbors of the new shelter on Clermont Avenue, fearful of the old welfare-hotel-style conditions, met with city officials to ask if an experienced nonprofit organization could at least be brought in to manage the hotel. They said they were told that wasn't possible. "We are working aggressively to understand and address the issues raised by the community," said Jim Anderson, a spokesman for the homeless agency.
The neighbors had good reason for concern about operations at the new site. This February, the building's contractor, Moshe Junger, was sentenced to four months in prison for ignoring unsafe conditions that caused the death of one of his employees in a building collapse at another site in nearby Williamsburg.
The owner's architect, Henry Radusky, also ran afoul of authorities after he was found to have "repeatedly failed to follow the building code and the zoning resolution in his filings," according to the city's buildings department. Radusky has voluntarily surrendered his right to self-certify plans, officials said. The building plans for the Clermont Avenue project themselves reveal a tangle of often contradictory assertions. In order to meet minimum requirements of 400 square feet per apartment, the owner asked that city inspectors include the exterior and interior walls in their computations. Then, in an effort to avoid a requirement for secondary emergency exits, such as fire escapes, for the units, the owners asked that the square footage calculations be reduced. The owners also never filed an application to create a transient hotel, which buildings department officials said would be an improper use for the area, which is zoned for residential dwellings.
The hotel itself is to be managed by David Somerstein, of Somerstein Associates in Flushing, Queens. Somerstein operates more than a dozen separate for-profit homeless shelter sites in the Bronx, Manhattan, and Brooklyn. He did not respond to calls to his office.
Neighbors said they were not opposed to having the homeless as neighbors. "We wouldn't have any problem if they made this into permanent housing for the homeless," said Schwartzberg whose husband, Howard, teaches at several nonprofit homeless shelters. "But as a hotel, there could be as many as 200 strangers on this block every month, coming and going."
The first families are expected to arrive sometime this month, according to workers at the building. But the owners have already started earning revenue from the site. A large mesh banner advertising the new Eddie Murphy movie, I Spy, has been hung over the top four floors, covering the rear windows. The banner hangs neatly against the wall because there are no fire escapes to get in the way.