The city and a well-connected homeless shelter operator on West 95th street had a nice little arrangement going for months — the Department of Homeless Services had a “handshake” deal with the shelter operator to pay the operator millions, even though they didn’t have a contract. The mega-shelter, housing up to 400 adults at 316 and 330 West 95th street, was opened on a six-month emergency contract last summer, but that contract ended in February and the DHS did not formally submit a new contract for approval by the Comptroller’s office.
Upper West Siders have been fuming about this no-bid deal since we first broke the story last July, and local politicians have said the community is “getting played” as the city is quietly paying a “scum landlord.”
We asked the city and local officials a couple of months ago how a shelter could pay out tens of millions of dollars without any oversight, but we were met with complete silence.
It turns out the deals the city has been making are so sketchy, a judge lashed out at them on May 31, saying that the DHS is acting like the CIA and apparently has no problem ignoring the city charter. The judge was referring to a Bronx shelter, but the ruling is relevant to dozens of shelters, including the one on 95th street.
“In essence, the Department of Homeless Services has made itself a little like a CIA black op, spending unbudgeted funds without apparent restraint,” wrote Bronx Supreme Court Justice Geoffrey Wright in an order that we have posted below. “To accept their arguments would be to vitiate, if not annul the City Charter.”
“The history of the funding of the homeless shelter in question is suffused with subterfuge, double talk and evasion,” he added.
In 2008, the city was operating 107 shelters like this, according to a report from the comptroller. “The practice of cutting backroom deals with shelter operators cannot and should not be tolerated,” said Comptroller John Liu in a statement his office sent to us.
The ruling came down on May 31, and lo and behold the city submitted a contract to operate the 95th street shelter just a few days later. Guess they were just dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s. The shelter operator, Aguila, stands to make about $3,700 per room per month at the shelter — a total of $46.8 million over five years, according to the most recent version of the contract that we’ve seen. The rooms are bare-bones, with no refrigerator or bathroom. That’s right, $3,700 a month for no bathroom or kitchen. Even on the UWS that’s a luxury tab. The deal gives DHS the option to extend the contract to nine years.
DHS officials said at the one community meeting they attended that the community was essentially fighting the shelter because of NIMBYism. It’s the kind of argument that attempts to insulate them from any criticism whatsoever. How about the massive payoffs to a notorious landlord, whose shelters are known for drug abuse, prostitution and violence? NIMBYism! The fact that former DHS commissioner and current Aguila CEO Robert Hess, who has a long history with this particular site, skipped every meeting with the community even as he stands to make a boatload? NIMBYism! The concern that 17 supportive facilities in an 18-block radius (according to one activist group) is more than this community’s fair share? NIMBYism! The lax screening procedures at the shelter, the residents going without heat, the lack of public notice, the lack of public meetings, the shelter residents themselves complaining that the community is getting ripped off? Yup, you guessed it, it can all be brushed off because of the community’s apparent NIMBYism.
We reached out to the DHS for comment on this story and have yet to hear back. The agency has never responded to any of our questions about the shelter, despite assurances at a public meeting that they would. In general, when journalists have asked hard questions about this deal, they’ve gotten completely cut off.
The contract is now in Comptroller John Liu’s hands. He’s running for mayor and has a surprising amount of support on the Upper West Side (at least one local Democratic district club endorsed him) and he is likely to listen to how Upper West Siders feel about this deal. (Mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio already returned donations from the shelter landlord after we started inquiring about his position on the shelter.) If you’re for or against the shelter, now is probably the best time to act. Liu’s office tells us the comptroller usually rules on contracts within 30 days from when the contract was submitted (it was submitted on June 5). Activist group Neighborhood in the Nineties previously has urged people to call the comptroller at 212.669.4185, and/or his assistant, Nancy Cruz or the general number, 212.669.3500, and ask to speak to Mr. Liu or Ms. Cruz. You can also send an email to: Comptroller John C. Liu, c/o Nancy Cruz at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you do contact them and hear back from Liu or his office, let us know the response (also let us know if those are the wrong phone numbers).
Neighborhood in the Nineties is also considering filing a lawsuit over the shelter, Aaron Biller tells us.
Check out all of our coverage of homeless shelters here.