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Plan to Put Group Home in Lenox Ave. Luxe Condos Fought by Community Board

By Jeff Mays | January 23, 2012 8:36am
Community Options wants to buy two condominiums that will serve as a home for seven developmentally disabled men at the Savoy West on 138th Street and Lenox Avenue.
Community Options wants to buy two condominiums that will serve as a home for seven developmentally disabled men at the Savoy West on 138th Street and Lenox Avenue.
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DNAinfo/Jeff Mays

HARLEM — An effort to bring a group of developmentally disabled men into luxury condominiums in Harlem is being fought by a community board that claims the neighborhood already has enough "special interest" housing facilities.

Community Options, a non-profit organization that helps house people with disabilities, is in negotiations to buy two three-bedroom units at the Savoy West at 555 Lenox Ave. for $500,000 each.

The non-profit intends to make them into a group home for seven men, aged 17 to 22.

Members of Community Board 10 argue the neighborhood already has more than enough facilities for the developmentally disabled, recovering drug addicts and recently released ex-convicts. The board has had a moratorium on approving so-called "special interest facilities" since April 2008.

"We already have more than our fair share of special interest housing. We have nothing against people with disabilities," said Stanley Gleaton, who leads the board's land-use committee.

The board voted 33-to-2, with three abstentions, to reject the proposal.

Community Options, citing Padavan's Law — which passed in the 1970s to help guide the placement of supportive housing after a federal order to deinstitutionalize the developmentally disabled — has appealed the decision.

CB 10 and Community Options will make their case Monday at a hearing with the commissioner of the New York State Office for People with Developmental Disabilities.

Eileen Egan, regional vice president for Community Options New York, said the board's decision is a classic case of "not in my back yard." The residents are men who have become too old for the foster care system, and do not have drug problems or criminal records.

"You can't compare seven guys living and being supported by three adults to a 25-bed drug facility," she said. "They haven't done anything wrong. They were just born with an intellectual deficit that requires some support."

During the day, the men will be out working at special educational programs or volunteering. There will be two or three paid staff members on hand to help the men, including at least one attendant 24 hours a day.

"We are not looking to change the community. We want to fit in and be accepted," Egan said.

Gleaton insisted the board has no objections to Community Options or the developmentally disabled men. Instead, the moratorium represents the board's desire to think long-term about the neighborhood's future.

Community Board 10 recently stirred controversy with a proposal to make new bars and restaurants stop serving liquor at 2 a.m., two hours earlier than normal.

"People are still going on the old premise of, 'You can come to Harlem and do what you want to do with no repercussions.' But we are taking a stand as a board and as a community and saying we need to look at our community long-term," said Gleaton.

"The entire city should shoulder this responsibility and let it be equal."

There are 20 group homes run by the state and nonprofits in the zip codes that make up central Harlem, according to the Office for People with Developmental Disabilities. That proves that Harlem is actually underserved, Egan argues.

Gleaton doesn't buy it. The board is compiling a list of lesser-known facilities to present during the hearing.

"There are a lot of undocumented facilities that we don't know about. Sometimes we don't find out about them until someone reports seeing 20 beds being moved into a building in the middle of the night," Gleaton added.

The board objected, too, because the condominium board at Savoy West was not notified of the plan. There is no legal obligation to do so, and condominium owners do not need board approval to sell their units.

"If you or I buy a condo we don't have to knock on the door of every neighbor and say, 'I'm black, white, Jewish or have a developmental disability,' " Egan said.

Sponsor Joseph Tahl, a developer who also owns 900 other apartments in Harlem, agreed.

"As a sponsor, we can't impose that requirement on any unit owner," he said. "We oppose discrimination in all its forms and it's discrimination for Community Board 10 to come out against providing housing for the disabled."

Community Options has since met with the condo board, said Glenn Martin, vice president of Savoy West's condominium board.

"People had some legitimate concerns, and some 'not in my backyard'-related concerns," said Martin, an executive with the Fortune Society who has experience placing supportive housing in the community.

"The main question was, 'Would having a 24-hour person in the building diminish the value of the property.' And there's simply not enough evidence to say that it would," Martin added.

"By the end of the meeting, some people had shifted their opinion, but there were people resigned to the fact that there was not much they could do."

For Community Board 10's rejection of the facility to stand, it has to prove the area is over-saturated with similar facilities. Egan is confident that's not the case.

As to why Community Options chose Harlem, Egan said cost is a big issue. The two three-bedroom units are each 1,425 square feet and were listed for $655,000 and $670,000, respectively, according to StreetEasy. Martin said they are part of five or six remaining units that the sponsor was having difficulty selling.

Egan is looking for apartments from 34th Street to 138th Street, but units on the Upper West Side, for example, are considerably more expensive. The purchase of the properties is funded by the state, which is trying to close a $3.5 billion 2012 budget deficit.

Egan said no matter where Community Options looks to purchase, there will be problems. When group homes try to move in upscale neighborhoods, the argument is that taxpayer monies are being wasted when less expensive properties should be sought.

By contrast, when they try to move to areas where property costs less, residents complain that they already have too many such facilities.

"It doesn't matter where you go, people will fight because there is a lot of ignorance and fear," said Egan. "But they are wonderful people who make great neighbors."