Four months after they learned that the city had allowed developers to turn a much-needed hospice center into luxury condos, Lower East Side residents are still fighting for answers.
Yesterday, a group of locals, activists, and elected officials under the name of Neighbors to Save Rivington House gathered to demand that the de Blasio administration do everything in its power to reverse the $116 million deal and turn the property back into a nursing home for patients with HIV and AIDS.
“People on the Lower East Side deserve better,” said Miriam Colon, a lifelong Lower East Side resident.
“We should sue everybody who allowed it to happen. We should sue our government, whether it’s the city, state and anybody else that was aware of it,” she said, to vigorous applause. “Who was the lawyer that let that happen? Where was the person overseeing this transaction?”
The facility’s two deed restrictions, which dictated that the building be used as a non-profit health care indefinitely, were quietly lifted by the Allure Group, which bought the property for $28 million in February of 2015. Allure paid $16.1 million to the city’s Department of Citywide Administrative Services to erase the restrictions. Allure sold Rivington House to Slate Property Group for $116 million this past February so that Slate could build luxury condos.
Mayor de Blasio has said that Allure led his administration to believe that they wanted to operate a for-profit health care center, not flip the property to developers, and that no one in his administration knew the scope of the deal until it was too late.
Yet memos sent in July of 2015 to Deputy Mayor Anthony Shorris from DCAS administrators stated that “DCAS is proceeding to remove two use restrictions that were imposed when the Rivington House property was sold by the city in 1992.”
The Comptroller’s Office, the Department of Investigation, the state attorney general, and federal prosecutors are all investigating the deed change.
“If you want to have community which is more than self-interest, you need common space where the most vulnerable and sick can be cared for when their families can’t care for them themselves,” said a man named Michael, whose father lived at Rivington House, and who declined to give his last name because his father’s HIV status was not public.
“That’s why we need Rivington House…It was a monument to compassion, it was a commitment on community that was fought for, and now we’re going to give it up for $16 million. That’s the price of community?”
The Lower East Side has seen steady losses of overnight nursing facilities over the years — Bialystoker Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation in 2011, and the Cabrini Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation in 2012 — as chronicled by the Voice. Mount Sinai, which operates Beth Israel Medical Center, announced in the spring that the hospital would downsize dramatically — from 856 beds to just 70 over the next four years.
“It’s an insult for people of color who advocated for proper care for folks with HIV and AIDS, especially here on the Lower East Side which has long struggled with substance abuse and homelessness and still harbors a vibrant LGBT community,” said James Rodriguez, an organizer at Good Old Lower East Side, a neighborhood housing and preservation organization.
“This is more than just a housing issue, it’s more than just a health issue. It’s also a racial justice issue, and all of these are happening here right now.”
On May 25, the group started a Change.org petition aimed at pressuring Mayor Bill de Blasio to reinstate Rivington House; the petition had collected over 1,300 signatures as of Monday, and the group plans to deliver it to the Mayor’s Office.
A spokesperson from the Mayor’s Office has not yet responded to a question about what specific options the administration has to reverse the deal.
Councilmember Margaret Chin’s office is looking into whether Allure committed in writing to keep the facility as a long term residential nursing home, something they agreed to do verbally according to Paul Leonard, Chin’s communications director.
“We are engaging everyone, including attorneys, but we need ammunition so we are looking for written assurances we can give to the community,” he said.
K Webster, co-president of the Sara D. Roosevelt Park Coalition, and Melissa Aase, executive director of University Settlement, assured the crowd that they would exhaust all their options.
“This was a human choice. And that can be reversed, that can be reconsidered, undone and restored,” said Aase. “There’s still time to stop and do different. There’s still time to do right.”
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