Bill Morris in COVID-19 on June 10, 2021
This story has all the elements of the perfect New York City storm – the coronavirus pandemic forcing the relocation of homeless people and stoking fears that they would present safety risks and drive down the value of expensive co-ops and condominiums. The saga recently came to a murky conclusion when an appellate court judge ruled that the city can move ahead with its plan to relocate homeless men from temporary quarters in the Lucerne Hotel on the Upper West Side, where neighbors formed the West Side Community Organization (WestCo) to push vigorously for their removal.
“We are gratified by today’s decision putting an end to this sad litigation saga,” Randy Mastro, WestCo’s lead lawyer, said in a statement. “WestCo’s goal has always been to see the men get the services they need. Now that will happen, and that’s a good thing for all concerned.”
This storm began brewing when the pandemic descended on the city last year and Mayor Bill de Blasio, in an attempt to slow the galloping spread of the virus, announced that he was moving thousands of residents out of dormitory-style homeless shelters and lodging them temporarily in vacant rooms in 139 hotels across the city. The Lucerne, located in the heart of the liberal bastion of the Upper West Side, was one of the hotels.
Neighbors, many of them living in pricey co-op and condo apartments, responded by creating a Facebook page called Upper West Siders for Safe Streets. That group morphed into WestCo, which raised more than $100,000 last summer to mount a legal challenge to the presence of homeless people in their neighborhood, which some critics derided as classic a NIMBY move.
Members of WestCo saw things differently. In a press release, the group said: “The Upper West Side was among the first of many neighborhoods galvanized by the shared concern about the danger posed by men with drug addictions and mental illness housed in hotels. The Upper West Side is already home to more shelters than 42 of the 51 city districts… Three hotels – the Lucerne, Belleclaire and the Belnord – housing more than 700 mentally ill and drug-addicted men, were opened without warning in July of 2020.”
Mayor de Blasio, responding to the outcry, agreed in late 2020 to move the men from the Lucerne to a Radisson Hotel in the Financial District – only to have a group called Downtown New Yorkers for Safe Streets file a lawsuit to block that move.
Downtown residents weren’t the only critics of de Blasio’s moves. Some saw the mayor’s decision to suddenly close the Lucerne as a knee-jerk reaction to a vocal group of politically connected Upper West Siders. “It has to be more than you get a call from one lawyer and then make these changes that have this devastating ripple effect across the city,” said Councilmember Helen Rosenthal, who represents the Upper West Side.
While the recent ruling by the Appellate Division, First Department clears the way for the homeless men to leave the Lucerne, their ultimate destination remains unclear. The city’s Department of Social Services (DSS) said that the remaining 68 Lucerne residents will be included in a larger plan to return homeless people to shelters rather than to the short-term COVID-period hotels. In a statement, the DSS said, “The Lucerne will be phased out as part of that return-to-shelter plan, and these individuals will be included in that plan, rather than relocating twice in a short time period.”
NIMBY or not, WestCo’s members are happy this storm is over. “Hotels are not shelters,” says Melinda Thaler, the group’s general counsel. “We must do better, and doing better requires that the right to housing does not supersede the right to safety – safety of both the shelter clients and the surrounding community. We can find appropriate housing for those in need without putting neighborhoods at risk.”
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