Opposition to a shelter planned for 130 single men at 6661-6667 Broadway in North Riverdale continues, while the city Department of Social Services (DSS) moves forward with the plan.
The site, across from Van Courtlandt Park, contains a handful of active storefronts, including a family-owned Chinese restaurant. The African American Planning Commission, Inc., (AAPCI) a Brooklyn-based non-profit selected to build and run the shelter through an open-ended request for proposals process, plans to tear down the building and create a new facility housing 4-6 men to a room with on-site services and 24-7 security.
The contract between the city Department of Homeless Services and AAPCI would last more than 30 years and is for more than $195 million. The price tag on the property is $4.4 million, according to Community Board 8 Chairwoman Laura Spalter, who questioned whether it was appropriately priced.
Out of 111 DSS shelters in the Bronx, the Community District 8 has one, according to DSS data.
“Our provider is building a ground-up, purpose-built development with the intention of sheltering individuals in mind, not shoehorning a program into an already existing building,” DSS Deputy Commissioner Erin Drinkwater said on Tuesday in defense of the plan.
The proposed shelter has gotten fierce pushback from local residents, with concerns both about the suitability of the shelter for the residents — like its distance to medical services and the subway — and the impact on the surrounding residential community — like storefronts being torn down and park-goers potentially being bothered.
The shelter is not intended for people with severe mental health or substance abuse problems, but if residents need those services they will be referred to them, AAPCI founder and CEO Matthew Okebiyi said in response to concerns. Drinkwater said the agency transfers people to different facilities when their location isn’t appropriate.
More than 400 people attended an Oct. 21 meeting about the shelter; 240 watched another meeting on Nov. 1 — at which DSS did not send a representative — and more than 200 sat in on Tuesday’s meeting. On Nov. 15, the full board voted 33-1 with one abstention to urge elected officials to mandate a review process for proposed shelters that includes the local community board, borough president, city Planning Commission and City Council.
On Nov. 16, The Mayor’s Office of Contract Services held a public hearing, which is required for contracts valued at more than $100,000. While the agency must consider testimony, it is ultimately up to DSS whether to move forward.
The community board does not have a formal review process for shelters. DSS said it notifies communities of their shelter plans at least 30 days before potential opening, and under the Turning the Tide plan, they have provided a combined average of 259 days notice. The agency also creates community advisory boards to maintain communication between shelter staff and local communities.
But state Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz and his son City Councilman Eric Dinowitz said communication with DSS has been a struggle, lacking transparency and concrete details about the shelter.
“It feels like DSS is working against us,” the councilman said. “There is no other way to frame it than that.”
He said he is encouraging the city comptroller to reject the project.
Weeks ago, CB8 sent a list of 24 questions to DSS about the shelter and didn’t receive a response until minutes before the meeting on Tuesday. Drinkwater said the email was supposed to be sent earlier Tuesday but wasn’t because of a miscommunication in her office. But DSS insisted that it has made itself available to the community.
DSS told the Bronx Times they send letters across city communities — including community boards and elected officials — annually, asking for suggestions for potential shelter sites, and haven’t received any responses or suggestions from CB8.
Land Use Committee Chairman Charles Moerdler — who said he has provided suggestions himself — and Spalter both said they have never seen the letter.
Moerdler, who called DSS a “rogue” and “nonfunctional” agency, grilled Drinkwater on Tuesday about nepotism within AAPCI and Okebiyi’s salary, which according to tax forms, was more than $530,000 in 2018. The city investigated AAPCI after discovering Okebiyi supervised his brother, who worked as CFO, according to the New York Times. Also, his sister-in-law was on the non-profit’s board.
Drinkwater didn’t directly address accusations of nepotism but insisted the agency follows all procurement rules and said Okebiyi’s salary aligns with similarly sized organizations.
On Nov. 3, state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi and U.S. Rep. Jamaal Bowman both announced they support the shelter.
As to whether the shelter is a done deal, Moerdler said to assume “they are going to try” to make it one and Drinkwater said the agency is committed to moving the project forward.