Elderly residents on the U.W.S. protest Salvation Army plan to move them to East Harlem
By Daniel Fitzsimmons
Upper West Side Elected officials and residents of The Williams on the Upper West Side came out en masse to protest the Salvation Army's plan to move them to East Harlem.
"We're all surprised, taken aback, and disappointed that the Salvation Army wants to move these tenants out of this location, and has decided to sell this building," said Council Member Helen Rosenthal. "It's going to be a great loss to our community to lose this senior housing."
The Williams is a senior residence run by the Salvation Army that, while not subsidized in any way, nonetheless provides affordable housing for over 200 seniors. The building, at 95th Street and West End Avenue, has 352 units, but the Salvation Army has not been filling units as they become vacant, according to Major James Betts, a regional official for the organization.
The Salvation Army is in the midst of finalizing a deal to sell the building for $108 million to Brack Capital. According to Betts, they're selling for financial reasons in order to continue their operations in Upper Manhattan. Their plan is to move residents of The Williams to another facility that they'll build in East Harlem at 125th Street and 3rd Avenue.
Rosenthal, Borough President Gale Brewer, and Public Advocate Letitia James want the Salvation Army to consider a financing proposal between the city's Dept. of Housing Preservation and Development and a NYC-based non-profit that's interested in operating the home, at least two of which have expressed interest.
"Not for $108 million, but that's not what being a non-profit is about," said Rosenthal. "This is the Salvation Army. Whose mission it is to take care of those most in need who are now selling this residence to the highest bidder."
A crowd of residents bearing picket signs gathered in front of The Williams last Thursday to voice their opposition to the Salvation Army's plan.
"I speak for all the people who live here; we do not want to move," said Jean Polshuck, a tenant leader at The Williams. "Many of us living here are infirmed and have limited mobility."
But Betts said his organization has no choice, and that needed renovations to The Williams would cost somewhere north of $20 million, money that the Salvation Army does not have. Under the terms of the deal, residents can stay at The Williams until the East Harlem facility is built, which will take at least two years, according to Betts. There is currently a two-story Salvation Army facility at the property, which would be demolished and replaced with a 250-unit, 10-story building for residents of The Williams and others, he said.
Residents have six months from when the deal is finalized with the State Attorney General's Office to decide if they want to remain at The Williams and eventually move to East Harlem, or have the Salvation Army try to find them alternate housing in their network. The cost of moving will be covered by the Salvation Army, said Betts.
"We're committed and invested in serving the community, and we've been here 50 years," he said.
But for residents and leaders in the community, the move amounts to a business decision that harms seniors on the Upper West Side and is in stark contravention to the Salvation Army's stated purpose.
"The mission of a non-profit like the Salvation Army is to support, in this case, senior affordable housing and not to sell the building to an owner who is going to put in luxury housing," said Brewer. "If the Salvation Army wants to sell this building, they should sell it to another non-profit who will continue the mission of this building."
In addition, Rosenthal said her office could not get a guarantee from the Salvation Army that residents who move to East Harlem in accordance with their plan will not see a rent increase after 18 months. "That's a disgrace, it can't be part of their mission, they need to change their minds," said Rosenthal, who is fearful that her former constituents' rent would increase after a year and a half in East Harlem.
Betts' response to calls urging the Salvation Army to make a deal with a non-profit and the HPD is that doing so would equate to his organization subsidizing another non-profit.
"We have to consider the future of the Salvation Army," said Betts. "For us to take whatever that discount is and give that to another agency, I think our own donors would question that at some point. Why would we take dollars that we've been given for our mission and through this deal, essentially give it to another non-profit or to the city? It doesn't make sense."
The deal must still be approved by Attorney General Eric Schneiderman's office in accordance with laws governing real estate transactions by non-profit organizations. According to Public Advocate Letitia James, the Salvation Army must demonstrate to the state that the deal is in the best interest of their organization and is in keeping with their mission.
"And that is where I believe they'll run into a problem," said James.
Betts responded later by saying that the Salvation Army is not at all concerned with the legal hurdles faced by his organization because the deal is necessary for them to continue operating in Upper Manhattan.
Still, for elderly residents of The Williams, many of whom have called the Upper West Side home for decades, the possibility of having to move is daunting. "The prospect of leaving the Williams is catastrophic and inconceivable," said Poleshuck. "Moving shortens life spans, and this is a matter of life and death."
Rosenthal and other elected officials, along with local activists like the SRO Law Project's Marti Weithman, said they will continue to pressure the Salvation Army to make a deal with HPD and a local non-profit.
Residents, too, remained defiant, concluding the rally with a rendition of the popular protest song, "We Will Not Be Moved."
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