By Carol Tannenhauser
Sam Domb, the owner of The Lucerne hotel on West 79th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, has put his nearby townhouse on the market, according to the New York Post. But not to worry, Domb said. His decision to sell the townhouse did not stem from what some locals say has been a decrease in the quality of life in the area since the hotel became a homeless shelter for 283 men, many of whom are dealing with substance-abuse problems. “We have no problems at the Lucerne,” Domb insisted.
As for the future of the Lucerne, “I will not renew,” Domb said, before hanging up on the Post reporter. He meant he wouldn’t renew his contract with the New York City Department of Homeless Services (DHS). The contract for the shelter reportedly expires in October.
But using hotels and similar properties as housing for people who lack it may not disappear with the pandemic.
Deputy Mayor Alison Bremen opened that possibility up at a roundtable at the end of June, which the news site THE CITY covered:
We’ve been looking hard at — are there hotels that we could acquire to turn into supportive housing rather than having to build from ground up?…We’re looking both at, are there assets that we own that we can make available to affordable housing or other needs — and are there private market buildings that we could acquire to convert into affordable housing at a cheaper cost.
To add fuel to the speculation, the CEO and Executive Director of the nonprofit running the homeless shelter in The Lucerne, called Project Renewal, wrote an editorial In the Daily News urging the City to buy hotels — made vacant by the decrease in travel and tourism caused by the pandemic — and convert them into affordable, supportive housing. On June 14, Eric Rosenbaum wrote:
We should take this opportunity to convert thousands of hotel rooms to affordable studio apartments. We can do it much faster and at lower cost than trying to build new units by using long-term bond financing at a time when the city’s operating budget is forced to shrink and bond interest costs are at historic lows. Thousands of low-cost studio apartments would be a perfect addition to the city’s affordable housing plan.
The Mayor and his homelessness czar, Steven Banks, once himself a homeless advocate, reiterated that the ‘hotel solution’ was temporary, at an August 7th press event. However, the Mayor’s first statement at the briefing was misleading. He said about the city moving people without homes to hotels, “That really happened earlier in the height of the crisis.” In fact, The Lucerne was converted on July 25th, less than three weeks ago. New York’s COVID-19 numbers have been low and stable in recent weeks (though clearly the virus remains a deadly threat).
The Mayor went on to say, “You’re exactly right to be saying now what’s going to be the next step to bring folks back to shelters as is appropriate. So, the Commissioner will talk about it, but I want to emphasize, at the height of the crisis, there was an honest and real problem of folks being in close quarters and we needed to spread them out for their health and safety. That was our concern for all New Yorkers, including folks who unfortunately lost their home. That’s why we went into some hotels, but that is a temporary reality. We’re going to be coming back from those hotels over time into the shelter system. So, Commissioner, can you give a sense of that approach?”
Steven Banks, Commissioner of DHS said, “I can assure you, we will return when it is safe to do so. That is – this is not a permanent state of operations to be in commercial hotels. We were working very hard, we have a plan to get out of commercial hotels. Before COVID, we had driven down the number of commercial hotels the City was in and we were continuing to make progress in that plan. We opened more than 60 hotels in the last eight to ten weeks in order to deal with this crisis.”
Isaac McGinn, spokesperson for DHS added, “…Of course, our decisions will continue to be guided by public health experts and at the point at which public health guidance determines that clients can be relocated back to our congregate shelters from the temporary emergency relocation sites, we will inform the community.”