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LGBT issues

This could be Manhattan’s first LGBT elder housing project—if local residents don’t block it

The Daily Beast

March 11, 2019

Haven Green could be Manhattan’s first ever LGBT senior-friendly housing project. But locals fighting to block it say it would destroy the much-loved Elizabeth Street Garden.

LGBT elders will soon have access to public housing created for them in New York City. As The Daily Beast reported on Friday, the residences—in Brooklyn and the Bronx—will open later this summer and in early 2020 for those over 62 years of age. They are already over-subscribed, and the official application process hasn’t even started.

Meanwhile, the battle to build a similar facility for the first time in Manhattan is mired in a planning controversy and two lawsuits.

Haven Green would comprise 123 studio apartments, 15,000 square feet of ground-level retail, and around 8,000 square feet of open space.

The elder LGBT advocacy group SAGE (and partners including Habitat for Humanity and Riseboro) have identified a location that would require the razing of the Elizabeth Street Garden in Little Italy, a one-acre green space that has been run and enjoyed by locals since 2013.

Some of those locals have mobilized against the plan, to try to save the green space. Late last week, as reported by Curbed New York, the garden and a separate nonprofit have filed two lawsuits in Manhattan Supreme Court against the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), “charging that the city’s environmental review failed to rigorously evaluate the impacts of the green space’s loss.”

A spokesperson for City Council Member Margaret Chin, who represents the district and who supports the construction of Haven Green, confirmed that the developers would be working with SAGE to market this housing for LGBTQ seniors.

“The necessity is born out of the senior affordable housing crisis we are facing citywide. There are over 200,000 seniors waiting for housing and nearly 5,000 waiting for housing in Council Member Chin’s district,” Chin’s spokesperson told The Daily Beast.

“It’s very hard to build in any New York borough, but particularly Manhattan,” said Michael Adams, SAGE’s chief executive officer.

Adams said that he and the organization were “optimistic” that the Haven Green development would proceed “based on the strong merits of the project and strong support of City Council Member Chin, the Mayor and Manhattan Borough President, and advocates and neighborhood residents who recognize why this kind of affordable housing is critically needed in our city.”

“Building affordable housing is always a balance between a dire need for the housing and the concerns of local residents,” said Adams. “We believe that the Haven Green project does a very good job of balancing those concerns, among other things by including beautiful green space with neighborhood input that will be available to the community.

“It is notoriously difficult to find sites for affordable housing in NYC. The city spent years analyzing the feasibility of the current site. Low income elders who desperately need housing can’t wait years more, especially given all that has been done to balance the various concerns.”

The Friends of Elizabeth Street Garden, an advocacy group, has hired land-use attorney Michael Gruen to represent them. Gruen did not respond to a Daily Beast request for comment. Emily Hellstrom, a board member of Friends of Elizabeth Street Garden, told The Daily Beast, “When you have good urban planning you do not pit two desperate needs against one another as has happened here. This is bad urban planning.”

Hellstrom emphasized that residents’ objections to the new building was “in no way” related to the LGBT-aspect of the proposed building, but rather because the Elizabeth Street Garden is an important green space enjoyed by the local population. Hellstrom said that, without it, the nearest substantial green space is Washington Square Park. The garden has been open for six years, and is run by volunteers.

“We didn’t want to be ‘We want our garden, screw the rest of you,’” said Hellstrom. The Friends have lobbied for two other alternate sites for the project; one on Howard Street and the other on Hudson Street. “Real faith has been broken. The Mayor and the City have turned their backs on us,” Hellstrom said.

A SAGE spokesperson declined to comment on the question of alternative sites. “We don’t feel equipped to offer opinions on different sites, since it’s not SAGE’s area of expertise,” the spokesperson said.

Hellstrom said that if the plans go ahead, what would be left of the Garden would be a shaded space, mainly paved over, with benches. It would not be publicly owned. “For the last six years, this Garden has bought the community together. I know so many of my neighbors as a result of it.”

Hellstrom is confident that “either a judge or someone from the city will do the right thing,” and “give a win win” to both objecting residents and supporters of the new housing.

Council Member Chin had engaged with the opponents of the affordable housing project, her spokesperson told The Daily Beast. “She understands that the opponents are passionately devoted to their point of view. Cllr. Chin believes that while there is clear disagreement here, everyone involved cares about the community. Cllr. Chin is supportive of Haven Green and is hopeful that the project will move forward so the City can address the affordable housing crisis facing our seniors.”

Mayor Bill De Blasio did not respond to The Daily Beast’s questions about the controversy around Haven Green.

Instead, an HPD spokesperson sent The Daily Beast a statement saying, “This administration is deeply committed to partnering with community-based organizations like SAGE to not just create quality, affordable housing for our city’s seniors, but to provide supportive services and a safe space for LGBT seniors. We look forward to continuing our partnership with SAGE and other allies to serve the needs of the aging LGBT community.”

City Speaker Corey Johnson would not respond to The Daily Beast’s questions on whether he supports Haven Green as a site for Manhattan’s first ever LGBT elder-friendly residence.

“Speaker Johnson will continue working with the appropriate agencies and organizations to increase resources for elderly LGBT New Yorkers,” said Breeana Mulligan, a spokesperson for New York City Council.

Haven Green’s path to being built looks likely to be complicated.

In January, Community Board 2 voted to annul the proposal. Then in late February, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer backed the project though with qualifications, including requesting that the structural plans were reworked to make room for 30 per cent more open space.

Regardless of the lawsuits, the project is deep in the complicated throes of the city planning process, and is currently at the City Planning Commission Review stage.

The CPC has 50 days to hold a public hearing and make a decision. The hearing for Haven Green is scheduled for this week. If the City Planning Commission disproves the plan, it will not move forward.

If it does progress, the City Council would need to review and approve it. The Council has 50 days to hold a public hearing and make a decision. It can approve, approve with modifications, or disapprove the decision of the City Planning Commission. It requires a majority vote.

If the CPC wants to approve the plan with modifications, it then sends its ideas over to the City Planning Commission, which has 15 days to decide if the requested modifications require another environmental review.

After the City Council vote, Mayor de Blasio has the option to veto it, but has not yet indicated his thoughts one way or the other. The City Council could then override the veto if it has the two-thirds needed votes.

Roberta Brandes Gratz, author and urban critic, told The Daily Beast: “We have had too many instances where two legitimate needs are put in competition with each other. I fail to believe that this is the only site available in the entire Lower Manhattan area for a project like this. Both projects are worthy of either being preserved or built, but they should not be in competition with each other. It is outrageous. That garden is an important piece of the neighborhood and the new project is important to be built somewhere, but it does not have to be built here.”

Brandes Gratz said there were few such “positive examples in New York, or many other cities,” where community-created efforts like the Elizabeth Street Garden were so successful. If the development goes ahead, said Gratz, “it would be a terrible message that your efforts may not last. I can’t believe that this is the only place the city can find to site such a project. If the city really cared about both sides of this they would know how to solve this.”

“There is a tremendous need for affordable LGBT-friendly elder housing in every NYC borough, including Manhattan,” said Adams. “SAGE will continue to advocate vigorously for this housing, while respecting and supporting the balancing of legitimate neighborhood concerns.”

Whatever happens at Haven Green, Adams said the issue highlighted the need for such buildings and LGBT elder-focused services throughout the country, not just in New York City.

In a 2018 AARP survey, 34 percent of all LGBT survey respondents reported being at least somewhat worried about having to hide their LGBT identity in order to have access to suitable housing options as they age, as did more than half (54 percent) of transgender and gender expansive participants.

Legislatively, in a majority of states it is legal to discriminate against LGBT people and LGBT elders, said Adams. State and federal laws should be amended to protect both groups, he said, and spending prioritized according to LGBT elders’ greater social needs.

Those working in housing or facilities with LGBT elders should receive special awareness training, Adams said.

“The Trump administration has been completely hostile to the LGBT community from day one,” Adams said. “Having this administration in power makes it tremendously difficult to make progress on a federal level and why we’re focusing on a state level.”