By JOSEPH DE LA CRUZ
For weeks, neighbors hoped for answers from city officials about the proposed men’s shelter at 6661 Broadway.
After deciding not to show up when they were first invited, a contingent of officials from the city’s social services department joined the recent Community Board 8 land use committee meeting. It was there that the committee chairman, Charles Moerdler, took on the agency’s deputy commissioner, Erin Drinkwater.
The first note of contention? The town provided responses to many written questions the community council had sent it regarding the specifics of the North Riverdale shelter which is expected to house up to 130 single men. The problem? These responses arrived a few minutes before the start of the meeting.
âIt was a mistake,â Drinkwater said apologetically. âI’m finding out what’s going on with my staff because they were supposed to be sent. “
Among the issues Moerdler focused on were the organization responsible for managing the refuge – African American Planning Commission Inc. – and recent negative reports on its operations. Earlier this year, The New York Times investigated social service providers who held municipal contracts, including AAPCI. The newspaper said chief executive Matthew Okebiyi had employed his brother Raymond as the association’s chief financial officer.
Additionally, another family member is said to have served on the organization’s board, suggesting a familiarity among those involved in the organization that may prompt some outside to take a second look.
But that wasn’t exactly a topic Drinkwater had a lot to share. When asked about her agency’s policy on nepotism, Drinkwater simply told Moerdler DSS was following the rules set by the New York City Procurement Policy Board.
She also had little to say about the overall site selection process – why this particular property just south of the Yonkers town line was chosen for shelter. This is because she said it was not the DSS that made this decision.
âThe site was presented to us by AAPCI as part of its response to the agency’s open request for proposals,â said Drinkwater. “They are required to demonstrate control of the site.”
But it was no accident that this particular shelter ended up within the confines of CB8, Drinkwater said. âThis is a community council that currently has no shelters for single adults. “
Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to tackle homelessness is to ensure high-quality shelters in every community council in town, Drinkwater said. This helps keep many of its protected residents close to the neighborhoods they call home, while trying to expand these services across the city and not just cluster them in certain parts.
Yet unlike other parts of the city, this accommodation site near West 262nd Street is not close to typical city services like transportation, hospitals, or even the nearest police station. Another DSS facility, 5731 Broadway, is not only within walking distance of 1 few stations for the families who live there, but it is also right next to the 50th Precinct.
“If you were looking for a site selection near an ambulance center, near a metro station, near a hospital – if you had looked, rather than asking the person who wants the contract to look for you – the fox in the chicken coop – you will get a very different result, âMoerdler told Drinkwater. âThis is the concern of the people here.
But if CB8 wanted to be so involved in site selection, Drinkwater said, why did she or local officials not answer these very specific questions as part of an annual site survey sent by DSS.
âUnfortunately, Community Board 8 has not provided any response to these letters that have been sent,â said Drinkwater. “Our elected officials did not provide answers in any of the letters that were sent.”
Moerdler disputed this claim, although he did not provide evidence that CB8 responded to the investigation otherwise, but added that he had personally spoken to Drinkwater boss, DSS Commissioner Steve Banks, on other site alternatives when 5731 Broadway was still in development. Moerdler, however, did not share the specific sites he suggested for Banks to build a shelter.
Beyond the location of the shelter, Drinkwater also described what the facility would offer when it opens in 2023, including on-site social services, case management and housing assistance. There would also be 24 hour security, as well as transportation for the men who would live there.
But that is not enough for city councilor Eric Dinowitz. One of the reasons he opposes the shelter is that it is difficult to get answers to the questions he posed to the DSS months ago. Of course, Drinkwater and Banks have spoken to him, but have yet to provide his office with the details he is looking for.
âWe’ve also been in contact with the comptroller’s office to say that we don’t know enough about this contract,â Dinowitz said.
âWe don’t know enough about the service provider. There are a lot of things we don’t know.
All of this, the city councilor said, demonstrates a reluctance to be transparent.
âIt feels like the DSS is working against us,â Dinowitz said. “There’s no other way to frame it than this.”
CB8 president Laura Spalter – who has long opposed any proposal for a homeless shelter in this part of the Bronx – has questioned AAPCI’s relationship with the site’s developer, Court Square Realty. She revealed that 6661 Broadway was selling for $ 4.4 million – a figure that she said was $ 1 to $ 2 million more than the asking price for similar properties in the area, although she didn’t cited no specific comparative study on which it was based.
âWe had worked with several neighborhood owners, several developers, and they brought our attention to several sites,â said Okebiyi, general manager of AAPCI. âWe presented these sites to (the city’s homelessness department) as part of the bidding process, including site check letters from various owners and the asking price. Based on this and the suitability of the site, it was determined that this particular site was a suitable site for us.
After intense discussions with Moerdler, Okebiyi agreed to submit his organization’s research to CB8 this week, while Drinkwater pledged to return to speak with the committee after the New Year.