By Dena Twain
Residents of the upper west 90s expressed open-mindedness — laced with worry — about the new permanent supportive housing program being created at 258 W. 97th Street, which previously was an illegal hotel.
Among the greatest sources of unease is “accountability” for residents’ behavior, as well as the new residence’s potential negative impact on small businesses on the neighboring blocks.
These and other topics were discussed Monday night at a meeting of the Community Board 7 Housing Committee, which Council Member Gale Brewer attended. The meeting was held via Zoom and included approximately 14 members of the Board, four members of the Fortune Society — the provider at the new facility — and multiple community members.
The Fortune Society presented and defended their plans for the new program. Of the 82 SRO units, 15 will be available to current residents of the former hotel. The rest will be parceled out either via lottery to low-income New Yorkers, or to Fortune tenants who are currently living in homeless shelters.
The work is slated to be finished within eighteen months.
Fortune Society has already seen great success with their 10-year-old Castle Gardens project in West Harlem. Their plan for this new building comes with solid criteria for excluding certain persons from housing, namely most sex offenders and those convicted of arson or meth production on property. Stanley Richards, Fortune’s Deputy CEO, spoke at length about assessment procedures for incoming residents.
Staff will be on-site seven days a week to supervise residents, and ample support services will be available, both in house as well as at other Fortune facilities in Harlem and Long Island City. Said JoAnne Page, Fortune’s CEO, “We made a commitment to the neighborhood that it will be safer because of us.”
Community members voiced support for the endeavor as well as some trepidation.
Some worried about introducing new sex offenders into their midst. Board member Paul Fischer asked for clarity on exactly what level offenders would be accepted into the program. Per Page, they will only allow individuals in Level 1, meaning they carry a low risk to re-offend. “We will not accept people that pose a risk to the community,” she said.
Local resident Kim Duncan spoke on behalf of “all small business owners” unhappy about the arrival of another facility on a block “already with two nearby.” Said Duncan, “You’ve got fourteen vacant stores right here, but no one will come in to shop in this environment.” She asked for accountability for residents relapsing into bad behavior. “We are upset and anxious about what’s coming. If there is a problem, we want it handled immediately.”
In response, Page asked Duncan to “consider Fortune’s record” and promised action should illegal activity arise, but some residents found Fortune’s lack of specificity on protocol too vague. “You’re not answering the question,” Duncan countered.
Some local residents seem prepared to welcome their new neighbors with open minds, and praised the new building’s architects, Curtis + Ginsberg LLP, for their skill and artistry. Board member Catherine DeLazzero asked what Upper West Siders can do to be good neighbors. “Realize that our former homeless incarcerated residents have been stigmatized most of their lives,” offered Page. “Get to know them as human beings. Invite them into your church.”
Council Member Brewer closed by commending the Fortune Society. “Other nonprofits in the city could learn how to be transparent and open from this presentation. It would be a very good lesson for them.”
It’s a step in the right direction, but, said Page, the building on West 97th “will be a drop in the bucket” for meeting the full housing needs of this city.
Other agenda items addressed at Monday’s meeting included new budget requests, which will be presented in the next three months and considered over the summer. Some additional agenda items, such as discussion of Project FIND, an UWS non-profit organization that provides senior support services and housing (coming to West 79th Street), were postponed.
View the entire discussion on YouTube here.