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Maya Mitrasinovic / Columbia Daily Spectator

"No more endless displacement," reads one poster at a Monday press conference at a vacant lot where West Harlem residents gathered to protest the city's plan of a transitional homeless shelter, instead calling for the city to invest in permanent affordable housing.

Community leaders and West Harlem residents huddled in front of an empty lot on Amsterdam Avenue for a press conference to protest the proposed construction of a homeless shelter at 1763-1771 Amsterdam Avenue. Knowing that the building is likely to be converted into market-rate apartments after the seven-year lease, they instead called on the city to build permanent, affordable housing at the site.

The speakers at the press conference brought forward many concerns with the plan proposed by the Department of Homeless Services, the Urban Resource Institute, and Empire Development LLC, consisting primarily of studio apartments. Empire Development LLC owns the vacant lot and the city is awarding a contract to URI, which will use the money from the contract to lease the building that Empire Development LLC will build on the site. URI is also presumed to be helping to underwrite the financing for the building with that lease, Community Board 9 Chair Barry Weinberg explained.

Community members’ main concern is that transient housing is not an adequate response to the homelessness crisis in New York and would not help homeless residents build stable roots in their community.

Speaking in front of the crowd, Weinberg said, “If you want to end homelessness, you have to give people homes.” He further called for “permanent deep affordable housing with onsite services” to allow for more permanent residence.

“Housing is critical to every aspect of life. If you don’t have stable housing, your life is not stable,” CB9 Housing, Land Use, and Zoning Co-Chair April Tyler said.

Tyler explained that transient housing is often not helpful for families with children, adding to a sense of instability rather than providing families with roots in a community. Transient housing makes it harder for children to enroll in and attend school, for adults to find work, and for families to become active members of their neighborhoods. However, according to some, the project appears to limit the accessibility for families beyond the building’s status as transient housing.

“Why are they building studios if they want to house homeless families with children?” Weinberg asked.

[Related: As COVID-19 cases rise, so does food insecurity among the homeless. Can food providers and shelters keep up?]

Darrin Frederick, an attendee at the press conference who identified himself as homeless and as a current shelter resident, explained that permanent affordable housing is also important for electoral purposes.

“I really think that when we talk about getting people to vote, it’s going to be hard to do that if you’re keeping people bouncing from place to place. ... Our addresses are in different places than where we are, and if anything, when we bring up issues ourselves, we’ll get stonewalled, because we don’t have personal resources,” Franklin said. “This is just a Band-aid, and they’ll keep perpetuating this for years.”

Moreover, there are concerns about the longevity of this shelter. Considering that there is very little vacant land in West Harlem, what is left has become more sought after. URI’s lease will only last seven years, and unless that lease is renewed, the building will likely transition into market-rate apartments.

Tyler also noted that the city prefers to build transient housing rather than permanent affordable housing because of expediency. However, she explained that building such a large building will take a long time whether it is for a homeless shelter or for affordable housing.

“We’ve got a site that’s not going to be built for at least a year. Let’s make it what is most efficient for that purpose,” Tyler said.

[Related: Local affordable housing initiatives face challenges posed by the COVID-19 recession] 

CB9 not only has the support of many community members, but also the support of the West Harlem Development Corporation and several elected officials including Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, City Councilmember Mark Levine, and Assemblymember Albert Taylor. In fact, even the developer, Empire Development LLC, said that it would support the building of permanently affordable housing at the vacant lot.

Weinberg also announced that the board would even be willing to “upzone” the site if that is what it would take for the city to consider building affordable housing, meaning that it would change the zoning codes to allow for bigger construction. West Harlem community leaders and residents continue to call on Mayor Bill De Blasio and the commissioner to consider their alternative proposal.

Tyler triumphantly announced in front of the press conference attendees, “We will win this fight because it is the right fight!”

Staff writer Maya Mitrasinovic can be contacted at maya.mitrasinovic@columbiaspectator.com.

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homeless shelter Community Board 9 homelessness affordable housing transienthousing West Harlem
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