This Astoria nonprofit wants to help the homeless by throwing residents out of its dormitory

Photo by Angela Matua

A Christian nonprofit organization in Astoria is looking to kick residents out of its dormitory to operate a homeless shelter.

New York School of Urban Ministry (NYSUM), located at 31-10 47th St., sent eviction notices to its 35 tenants on Nov. 28, informing that that they must “vacate the premises” on or before Dec. 31. The building contains 39 single-room dorms with a communal living and kitchen space and tenants must have references from three clergy to move in.

According to Florence Koulouris, district manager for Community Board 1, a concerned tenant reached out to her to report the eviction notice last week. Koulouris called Pastor Peter DeArruda, executive vice president of the ministry, and said he was “evasive” and “answered minimal questions.”

An attorney for NYSUM told her that they already signed a contract with a homeless shelter provider to convert the building. Koulouris quickly called local elected officials including Councilmen Jimmy Van Bramer and Costa Constantinides, Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas and Senator Michael Gianaris.

“Several days after Thanksgiving, to be told that you will be forced out and potentially homeless at Christmas is heartless. It’s cruel,” said Van Bramer at a press conference on Dec. 12.

The councilman said he spoke to DeArruda, who told him that the nonprofit would still move forward with the plan as of Dec. 12. The organization extended the date of the eviction to Jan. 31, but only if the tenants wave their rights to challenge the evictions in court.

“That is not an act of Christian kindness; that is a gun to your head where you are forced to sign away your rights and your home,” Van Bramer said.

NYSUM “hosts, trains and deploys over 5,000 youth and adults for urban ministry each year by partnering with inner city pastors and churches in New York City,” according to its website. The old Boulevard Hospital at 31-65 46th St. is the site of the organization’s operations and houses ministry students.

The building at 31-10 47th St. houses low-income people who are referred by clergy and who are encouraged to do charitable work while they live there.

Rents at the building start at $425 and many tenants say that they cannot afford market-rate apartments.

“This comes as such a great shock to us at this wonderful time of year,” tenant Linda Lane Smith said. “It’s Christ’s birthday and we are out on the streets. We cannot understand what we did to have this happen. Eighty-five percent of the residents here would be unable to meet with the market price of apartments out there in the world. He just ripped the rug right from underneath us.”

DeArruda claims that the organization is facing financial hardship and cannot afford to keep running the building as is. But public records show that the property was fully paid for by 2014. Smith said that the organization makes $200,000 per year in rent from the tenants.

According to Lauren Gray, spokesperson for the Department of Homeless Services (DHS), the nonprofit told the agency that missionary students were living in the dorms and they would be vacating the units soon. When DHS found out that the landlord wanted to kick out permanent tenants, they “immediately stopped any consideration of this property.”

“The city has had no intention of pursuing this location since Nov. 17,” Gray said. “At the time the city considered this property, it had no knowledge that there were residents living at this location who would be displaced. We are currently working to connect tenants at this location to free anti-eviction legal services.”

The nonprofit could potentially sign a lease with a privately funded homeless shelter contractor, Van Bramer said.

Sateesh Nori, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society, said that to be evicted every tenant must be taken to court.

“[We’ll] meet with each and every tenant, look at each document and make sure there is no stone left unturned and to make sure that the tenants have their day in court and that their rights are respected,” Nori said.

He added that in the worst-case scenario, Legal Aid Society would try to delay the period of time in which tenants have to leave to find alternatives.

“I don’t believe based on my conversation with the pastor that they exhausted all humane possibilities here, all compassionate, empathetic and Christian possibilities before they decided to use eviction notices,” Van Bramer said. “Innocent, good, hardworking people are being tossed out of their homes at Christmas time by a Christian organization because of money.”

Ira Clair, the attorney for the organization, did not respond to requests for comment.

A second letter given to tenants extending the date of eviction if they agree to wave their rights to a court appearance.
A second letter given to tenants extending the date of eviction if they agree to wave their rights to a court appearance.