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Plan to House Disabled Men in Luxe Condos is Cut Back

By Jeff Mays | March 1, 2012 10:42am | Updated on March 1, 2012 6:08pm
The Savoy West is located at 555 Lenox Avenue at 138th Street.
The Savoy West is located at 555 Lenox Avenue at 138th Street.
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GREENWICH VILLAGE— A controversial plan to house seven developmentally disabled men in two luxury condominiums on Lenox Avenue has been scaled back.

Non-profit Community Options, which had initially applied for two $500,000 condominium units to house seven disabled men in Harlem, is now seeking approval from the state Office for People with Developmental Disabilities to purchase just one condominium. 

The group said they scaled back the proposal hoping to temper the objections of Community Board 10, which twice voted down the plan, citing what they felt was an overabundance of "special interest" housing.

"They say they aren't against the disabled but they don't want the homes there," said Jessica Guberman, a vice president for Community Options, who appeared at the Thursday hearing to argue on behalf of the program alongside Todd Hansen, a regional vice president for the organization.

"These are long-term placements. This is not transitional housing. They will spend the majority of their lives, if not their entire life, there," said Hansen.

The group had been hoping to move seven men, ranging in age from 17 to 22, into Savoy West, at 555 Lenox Ave. at 138th Street. The men, who do not have criminal or drug histories, would go to work or volunteering opportunities during the day and would have at least one 24-hour aide supervising them, according to Eileen Egan, regional vice president for Community Options New York.

However, under the new proposal, the group will only seek to place four men into one apartment. It was not immediately clear what would happen to the remaining three men.

CB10 representatives and members of Community Options met at a hearing Thursday before the state OPWDD. 

Representatives from CB 10 said they had too many such facilities in the area and that the two group homes in the same building constituted over-saturation, hence the reduction in the number of units Community Options is seeking to buy. Representatives from CB 10 said they would have been more amenable to the plan if Harlem residents were going to live in the group home.

"This is not a program for people in the Harlem community," said Stanley Gleaton, chairman of CB 10's land-use committee.

CB 10 District Manager Paimaan Lodhi said the number of group homes in the area prove that there are enough already. CB 10 has between 84 and 96 beds in 12 group homes of various sizes. Half of the facilities are located in two adjacent Census tracts.

In addition, there is a disparity between the number of group homes each community board has that they believe is based on income.

CB 10, which covers Harlem, is home to at least 12 group homes, while CB 2, which covers Greenwich Village, SoHo, NoHo and Chinatown, only has two group home facilities.

Meanwhile, Community Board 5 in Brooklyn, which includes East New York and Cypress Hills, has 519 group home beds.

"We would like OPWDD to take a hard look at saturation and how these facilities are sited," Lodhi said.

Lodhi blamed the abundance of group homes in Harlem and parts of Brooklyn on the high percentage of people who rely on government assistance programs for their income. In Brooklyn's CB 5, that number is 50 percent and it's 43 percent in CB 10, he said.

CB 10 has rejected the proposal to purchase two condos, for $500,000 each, twice since October 2011. The board has had a moratorium on approving so-called "special interest" housing since 2008.

Community Options' VP Guberman said there is a dire need for these services in Harlem and that one apartment with four beds does not oversaturate or substantially change the character of the neighborhood.

"We believe developing another home for people at 555 Lenox will not substantially change the character of the neighborhood. It will enhance the neighborhood," Guberman said.

As of October 2010, there were 513 individuals in Manhattan waiting for residential placements. In all of New York state, there are 2,175 people waiting for a residential placement. The homes are intended for young, disabled adults who are aging out of the foster care system and have no other place to go, Guberman said.

The closest group homes are on 139th Street and has five beds. Another on 140th Street has 12 beds. Community Options says it considered other locations that were deemed too close to those facilities before settling on 555 Lenox Ave.

After the first rejection, Community Options said CB 10 was making a mistake by comparing the small group homes with facilities such as methadone clinics, nursing homes and halfway houses.

Community Options moved to have a hearing before the commissioner of OPWDD. The group cited Padavan's Law, a law passed in the 1970s that helps guide the placement of supportive housing after a federal order to deinstitutionalize the developmentally disabled.

CB 10's board said it wanted to reconsider its decision and asked for the meeting to be cancelled. Community Options executives said they thought CB 10 was going to support the plan.

But the board voted down the proposal again, prompting Community Options to request today's hearing.

Among CB 10's other concerns was the cost of the condominiums. At $500,000 apiece, Community Options might be able to find better value elsewhere, said Gleaton who called the cost "exorbitant."

In addition, because the facility would have a 24-hour aide and other professionals coming in and out of the building, the board questions whether it is appropriate for the home to be located inside a residential structure such as a condominium. Gleaton said the board was not against housing for the disabled.

Hansen said the program, although supervised, is classified as residential by the state. He said Community Options has dealt with concerns about the cost of its facilities in the past, an argument they refuse to address.

Lodhi said the real issue is developing a clear understanding around the issue of saturation.

"The problem with trying to make a case for saturation is there is no yardstick," said Lodhi. "But in Manhattan, we have among the highest numbers."

The hearing officer will make a recommendation to the commissioner, who will then make her ruling in the next 30 to 60 days.

Guberman said Community Options would appeal if they lose and would move forward with housing at a different location in CB 10 even if they lose an appeal because of the need.

"We have no choice," said Guberman.