By Bill Parry
The attorney for the New York School of Urban Ministry would neither confirm nor deny that the Astoria residence owned by the Christian non-profit would be converted into a shelter. Ira Clair did confirm the property, located at 31-65 46th St., is “being turned over to a long-term lessee,” but he is required to not discuss specifics of the deal.
Pastor Peter DeArruda, executive director and vice president of NYSUM met with the building’s low-income residents Nov. 17 and told them they had to move out by year’s end,. He then signed a “Notice of Termination” that said proceedings would begin to evict the 39 tenants and slipped it under their doors just days after Thanksgiving.
“Only a modern-day Ebenezer Scrooge would blind side resident with sudden eviction notices during the holiday,” state Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria) said. “I am continuing to advise tenants, some of whom have lived there for half a decade, of their legal rights and will support them as they fight for their homes.”
Gianaris said DeArruda, who could not be reached for comment, was not following proper eviction proceedings and four residents had moved out because they could not afford proper representation. City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside) and Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas (D-Astoria) joined many of the 35 residents who have stayed and demanded DeArruda rescind the evictions.
Van Bramer spoke with the pastor Monday and confirmed that the plan to evict the residents and lease the property to an undisclosed shelter provider was going forward because the apartment building was not financially viable. Van Bramer said it was a heartless and cruel double-edged crisis that he was prepared to fight.
“Money is at the heart of what is happening here,” Van Bramer said. “People. Innocent hardworking people are being tossed out of their homes at Christmastime by a Christian organization because of money. There is no other way to say it.”
The residents, who pay between $400 and $500 a month, would not be able to afford market-rate apartments and would likely end up homeless, according to Van Bramer, who said they would get an extra month provided they sign away any right to challenge the eviction in housing court.
“That is not an act of Christian kindness, that’s more like a gun to the head,” Van Bramer said. Clair called that a “misperception,” and said residents would not be locked out on Jan. 1 and pointed out they can defend themselves in Housing Court.
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 Department of Homeless Services had been interested in the property but not since Nov. 17.
“At the time the city considered this property, it had no knowledge that there were residents living at this location who would be displaced,” DHS spokeswoman Lauren Gray said. “We are currently working to connect tenants at this location to free anti-eviction legal services.”
The Legal Aid Society will examine all documents and assist the residents.
“Kicking low-income residents out of their homes in the middle of December in the cold is heartless and asinine,” Simotas said. “This organization appears to be using scare tactics rather than lawful procedures and I will continue to work with tenants and my colleagues in government to ensure that no one loses their home due to this unconscionable money grab. We will band together, fight together. We are activated and awake and we’re going to make sure this does not happen.”
Van Bramer said the pastor believed the residents would have no problem relocating.
“Relocate? In this incredibly expensive real estate market in this incredibly desirable neighborhood?” he said. “That just isn’t reality.”
Linda Lane Smith, 66, a tenant of three years and an opera singer, said she was stunned with the eviction.
“This comes as such a great shock to us at such a wonderful time of year. Christ’s birthday and we are out on the streets,” she said. “Eight-five percent of the residents here wouldn’t be able to meet the market price of apartments. Pastor Peter never took into consideration perhaps the mental stability of some of the people in this building. He just ripped the rug out from under us.”
Amy Burgmaier works in the travel industry and was overseas for the last month. She returned home Sunday night and discovered the notice of termination.
“I don’t know what to do next. It’s alarming information and it’s not fair,” Burgmaier said. “We love this neighborhood, we love living here, we love each other and we are family. We’re like a dysfunctional family and we want to stay.”
Jennifer Hiemstra has kept in touch with several of the residents after she herself was kicked out of the residence just before Christmas last year.
“I’m not a rule breaker, but I didn’t follow all of them because they’re unwritten rules. They just saw the opportunity to get rid of me,” she said. “It’s very true we were like a dysfunctional family, but it was an uplifting place to be to be with people that truly cared about each other.”
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparr