Bronx Shelter Opponents Finally Get a Hearing -- Because the Shelter's Now Permanent (Updated)

Indignant Bronx residents and business owners who protested and attempted to sue the city over the placement of a homeless shelter in their neighborhood will finally get what they asked for: a hearing. But it won't be on their terms.

The hearing is mandatory, because the Department of Homeless Services now plans to permanently provide transitional housing for homeless families in the brand new Westchester Square building. So the agency will change their emergency, per diem payment arrangement, which required no hearing, into a more enduring deal -- a 52-month, $7,554,584 contract -- which does.

Residents still plan to give DHS an earful at a February 18th City Planning Commission Mayor's Office of Contract Services* hearing on the matter. They remain doubtful that the planning commission would decline the agency's application, since the 38 units at 1564 St. Peter's Avenue have been occupied since late August.

"It's a formality," said Sandi Lusk, one of the plaintiffs in the suit against the DHS.

Nonetheless she plans to head downtown to testify against it. "I want to ask them why are they paying almost $4,000 a month for apartments?"

"Bloomberg is cutting and everyone has to suffer and the subways are filthy and they're closing firehouses, etcetera, etcetera and they're lavishing money on this," she continued. During a series of protests against the shelter last fall, staged in front of one of Mayor Bloomberg's Bronx campaign offices, residents slammed the $90 per diem rate -- or $2,700 a month -- as wasteful. The contract increases the price per apartment to an even steeper $3,800, critics said.

"Somebody's getting rich off this," fumed John Bonizio, a plaintiff in the suit and the head of the Westchester Square Merchants' Association, which is funding the continuing legal battle. "I just know it's not the taxpayers."

DHS's move is not unexpected. In a September letter to then New York City Comptroller William C. Thompson, its commissioner, Robert V. Hess, said the agency intended to secure a contract for the site as it had done with over 1,000 other per diem units across the city.

Under the new payment configuration, the agency proposes to pay Basic Housing, Inc. -- a nonprofit organization that Thompson had criticized for poor accounting procedures in an earlier audit -- to run the family shelter.

In the per diem financial set-up, DHS sent checks to the building's landlord, who subsequently paid Bronx-based Basic Housing, Inc. $6 per unit to administer social services.

If approved, the organization's contract with the city would commence less than two weeks after the hearing on March 1.

Despite the agency's latest move, Robert M. Swetnick, a lawyer for the Bronx plaintiffs, said he would still re-argue their case against the agency on February 17. A judge earlier defenestrated their suit, saying that DHS was not required to hold a hearing since they had no written lease.

"The City could try to allege that it's moot," Swetnick said. "We don't think so."

* Update, February 10: This meeting is located at the City Planning Commission offices, but is being held by the Mayor's Office of Contract Services. Runnin' Scared regrets the error.


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