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Planned Fourth Avenue homeless shelters divide Sunset Park residents

BY VICTOR PORCELLI

Sunset Park residents came out on Tuesday to voice their opinion of two homeless shelters to be built on Fourth Avenue in the coming months, at what turned into a heated forum hosted by Community Board 7.

Around 100 people on both sides of the issue crowded Grand Prospect Hall to discuss the two shelters planned for 535 and 555 Fourth Ave. The shelters will primarily provide housing to families experiencing homelessness, with the first floor of each building reserved for retail space. 

The largest provider of family shelter and supportive housing in the city, Women In Need, will run the shelters; according to the group,  92 percent of the families it serves are women-led households.

Previously, community members have protested as hotels in the area were taken over by the city to be used to house people experiencing homelessness,  in some cases without notifying the community first. 

Although the two shelters discussed at the forum will be apartment-style housing, many residents spoke out against them, citing concerns over lackluster construction and high costs.

Dan Guido, an organizer for the group Fourth Avenue Neighbors, said that he has problems with Slate Property Group and Adam America Real Estate, the developers behind the two shelters. 

“They haven’t been good neighbors and they’re not people that deserved to get an overwhelming amount of money in a bailout,” Guido told Brooklyn Reporter. “This is basically the single worst facility that you could give government money to.”

The market-price contract between the Department of Homeless Services and the developers will cost DHS around $7,000 a month per unit when taking into account the cost of the ground-floor retail space based on Winter 2018 data from REBNY.

Guido cited Slate’s 2015 purchase of a nursing home from Allure Group, which it then converted into luxury residential properties, as another strike against the company. At the time, Mayor Bill de Blasio accused Allure Group of lying about its intentions for the property. 

Guido also mentioned that the top story of the 535 property — which had originally been planned by Slate as a mixed-use apartment building — collapsed in 2016, and that Councilmember Brad Lander has criticized Slate over allegedly forcing tenants out of rent regulated homes.

Lander’s website confirms his dislike for Slate, but also states, “If DHS were only going to rent buildings from angels, we would have many more homeless families sleeping on the street.”

555 Fourth Ave.

Guido was not the only one at the forum who had an issue with Slate. Kaz Zielinski, who lives near the 555 property, said Slate “destroyed my friends’ yard” and “dug their footings underneath my foundation,” claiming that his backyard had collapsed as a result.

“Why did these developers end up with full market price for these buildings when they have not done their job as developers?” one resident asked, followed by shouts of “where are the developers?” from the crowd.

At the forum, Lander said DHS would pay market price because if the city only put shelters in areas with lower rents, low-income neighborhoods would be unfairly burdened with them. His website cites the city’s “Turning the Tide” plan that seeks to “have roughly as many shelter beds in each community board as there are people from that community board in shelters.”

Although some residents had concerns over the developers and the cost of the shelters, others spoke in support of the project, including members of CB7. 

“We’re committed at Community Board 7 to support homeless families. We take an affirmative position. I want to make that very clear,” CB7 Chair Cesar Zuniga said at the forum. “Things happen that are beyond people’s control . . . one of the determinants is the fact that we’re losing affordable housing at such a quick pace in this city. We have to do something about that, but in the meantime, we have to accommodate some of our homeless neighbors.”

To ease any concerns over the effect on crime in the area, Deputy Inspector Emmanuel Gonzalez, the commanding officer of the 72nd Precinct, said that his crime analysis unit had found no correlation between homeless shelters and crime rates in areas where they have been built. 

Alex Kouzemtchenko, who lives in the neighborhood, said that he came to voice his support for the shelters after seeing arguments against them in the news.

“I saw people going on about costs and costs and costs,” Kouzemtchenko said. “But I didn’t see any outrage from these people when the city was housing people in cluster sites. I didn’t see any outrage from these people when the city was housing them in hotel rooms.”

April Andrix, the PTA co-president at P.S. 124 in Park Slope, said the group supports the shelters but is concerned about having enough resources within the schools to support incoming children.

“We have always been a welcoming and, honestly, more diverse school than most of the neighborhood and we will continue to do that by incorporating this population into the school,” Andrix said at the forum. “Having said that … it has been extraordinarily difficult to receive the proper support for this school and I still do not feel confident that the school is getting everything it needs.”

Lander announced at the forum that the DOE had committed to provide funding to hire a guidance counselor for the school, a teacher for academic support and two school aides for mornings and evenings. Lander also stated the City Council was providing $20,000 for after-school funding. 

He also said that, because many children stay in the schools they had attended before coming into the shelters, the influx of students may be smaller than expected. He encouraged the PTA to continue to hold him and the city accountable for providing adequate support.

Multiple attendees at the forum told Brooklyn Reporter that they felt they were left with unanswered questions, with a crowd of those who didn’t get a chance to speak approaching the panel when it ended at 8 p.m.

Of those who spoke, some were from a community in the Bronx where a shelter had previously been built. Others gave statements on behalf of different elected officials.“I thought that it was rather stacked with outside community people,” Sheila Matlin, a Sunset Park homeowner of 20 years who did not get the chance to ask questions about WIN’s services and staff, told Brooklyn Reporter. “It was good to hear their point of view and it was helpful to me, but I think a lot of people from outside of the community got to speak, I think a lot of politicians got to speak and they didn’t give the time needed for community members.”

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