CLICK ON THE ARROWS BELOW TO EXPLORE THE HISTORY OF FREEDOM HOUSE
UPPER WEST SIDE — A controversial Upper West Side homeless shelter's recent cut in the number of people it serves will mean fewer problems in the neighborhood, its opponents claim.
Neighborhood in the Nineties, a group that has openly opposed the Freedom House shelter, is hopeful that cutting the shelter's population by 200 people will mean fewer car break-ins, aggressive panhandling and other other problems.
The group's president, Aaron Biller, said he received assurances from the Department of Homeless Services that things would improve.
"The DHS Commissioner [Gilbert Taylor] wrote to me and said, 'I’m going to make things better,'" he said.
Local police executed a raid in May after attributing a spike in crimes like burglaries and car break-ins to shelter residents.
Other critics of the shelter, including City Councilwoman Helen Rosenthal, said there was "no question" the residence led to quality-of-life problems in the area.
Biller — who called the new $16 million contract the shelter signed this September through 2018 "outrageous" — said he is still skeptical neighborhood conditions would improve, in spite of the reduction in the number of homeless residents.
"We’ve kept our legal options open because there’s ample reason not to trust the city of New York," he said of his group, which has sued the city in the past.
In mid-January, nearby residents will have the opportunity to weigh in on shelter-related issues at a community advisory board that DHS agreed to operate. The board will include local residents, members of Community Board 7 and representatives from the offices of the Manhattan Borough President and Councilwoman Rosenthal, Biller explained.
The department did not return a request for comment confirming who would be on the advisory board and when it would meet.
As this new chapter unfolds, DNAinfo New York took a look back at the history of the two troubled Freedom House buildings, which have served as illegal hotels, rent-regulated housing and a home for hundreds of homeless New Yorkers over the past nine years.
The buildings at 316 and 330 W. 95th St., which are owned by the Podolsky family, are currently contracted by DHS to house 200 homeless tenants, alongside about 70 existing rent-regulated tenants.
The department agreed in April to reduce the population by half under pressure from the community and elected officials. The agency warned initially that it would miss its Nov.1 deadline — but ultimately relocated the 200 residents to other sites on time.
The saga started in 2005, when the buildings were used to illegally house tourists under the names "Candy Hostel" and "Fresh Hostel," before a $600,000 fine and new state legislation forced the owners to shut down the operation.
In 2011, DNAinfo learned that homeless people were brought to live in the buildings, despite the owners owing more than $45,000 in fines for safety violations. A lawyer for the owners did not return a request for comment.
Part of the controversy surrounding Freedom House stemmed from the fact that news of the shelter's arrival spread as homeless residents were moving in, with no notification to the community ahead of its opening.
Community members felt the shelter sprang up almost "overnight," said Rosenthal, who has been one of its chief opponents.
She said the shelter was too large for the area, calling the uptick in quality-of-life issues "an agreed-upon fact."
Last spring, responding to neighborhood concerns, the NYPD's 24th Precinct commanding officer Capt. Marlon Larin organized a raid in conjunction with DHS that removed 22 homeless people with outstanding arrest warrants. He had planned more sweeps, but was halted by NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton.
The precinct's approach of regularly patrolling the area near the shelter will not change, despite the population reduction, Larin said.
"We occasionally check in with [the building's] security, but will not patrol the interior unless we get a 911/311 call for service," he said.
Rosenthal said she's hopeful that conditions will improve now that the shelter is half its initial size.
"I’m definitely expecting that quality-of-life issues will diminish, and I’ll be tracking that closely and want to hear from the community for sure," she said.