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AIDS Advocacy Group Yanks Free Rent for Partner Organizations

By Mathew Katz | September 26, 2012 10:50am

CHELSEA — For years Ed Shaw has hosted seminars, workshops and support groups for people over 50 living with HIV/AIDS, using space provided by Gay Men's Health Crisis, the city's oldest HIV/AIDS service organization.

But this past summer, the organization decided to start charging Shaw rent — a cost his small volunteer group could not afford.

Shaw's organization, the New York Association on HIV Over Fifty, is one of several community groups that provide grassroots support to people with HIV/AIDS around the city.

NYAHOF used the free space at GMHC for seven years to host events, including monthly educational workshops. Shaw also works in a cubicle at the organization's office, located at 446 W. 33rd St.

GMHC has long given its smaller partners, who receive little to no funding, office and meeting space — a policy that suddenly changed this past summer. But moving forward, roughly a dozen additional groups with space at GMHC will have to pay rent in order to stay, according to the organization.

In July, GMHC told Shaw's group it would have to pay $450 a month in rent and obtain liability insurance that could cost them thousands of dollars a year in order to stick around.

"We're an all-volunteer organization," Shaw said. "We can't really afford that."

Internal emails obtained by DNAinfo.com New York show that Shaw tried for months to negotiate for better terms, but that GMHC eventually decided to evict Shaw's group unless it could pay.

For the time being, the organization will be allowed to stay at GMHC after threats of eviction — but only after GMHC's board chair, Mickey Rolfe, stepped in to convene an emergency meeting on Tuesday afternoon, resulting in a deal allowing NYAHOF to stay in the space, sources said.

"We came to an amicable decision about their staying at GMHC," said Marjorie Hill, GMHC's CEO, who would not provide further details on the deal. She would also not elaborate on the status of the other groups with space at GMHC.

Representatives from some of the other groups did return requests for comment.

In April 2011, GMHC moved into an expanded, 165,000-square-foot office, and the decision to start charging rent came after the organization moved into the new facility, Hill said.

"I think the economy is a challenge," she said. "That has been our process since we moved into the new location."

If Shaw's group is eventually forced to go, he said it would greatly hurt the support structure for adults over 50 living with HIV.

A report put out by GMHC itself estimates that by 2015, half of all New Yorkers living with HIV will be over 50.

"Other groups don't specifically target older adults," Shaw said.

GMHC first notified Shaw that he would have to start paying rent in July, but since then has struggled to find consistent funding to go toward it.

In emails, Hill wrote that the change was a matter of policy.

"This need to institute even tighter fiscal controls on GMHC’s space expenditures has absolutely nothing to do with the respect and high regard I have for you," wrote Hill in a Sept. 4 e-mail to Shaw.

"Nor does this need to comply with our space policy any reflection on how much I value the many years you and I have collaborated together — even before our current roles at GMHC."

Hill also wrote that the relationship between the two organizations had been a good one, but that it "must now come to an end."

However, Hill made an about-face after the meeting on Tuesday afternoon.

"The relationship was never going to come to an end," she said.

NYAHOF's brush with eviction raised larger concerns for board member Manuel Rivera, who blasted off an email obtained by DNAinfo.com New York to staff and other board members slamming the original decision.

"I think the position being taken in regard to NYAHOF is unreasonable, unfair, and....extremely concerning on several levels," Rivera wrote in the Sept. 21 email. "It is also puzzling, and appears to be a contradiction of several of GMHC's core principles, and operating policies."

Shaw, a longtime supporter of GMHC, said that he still believes in its mission despite his recent troubles.

"GMHC is providing a wealth of services to the community — they’ve been doing a fabulous job for 30 years," he said. "But I'm not sure where the people who rely on us will go if we're gone."