As a looming bottleneck of delinquent renters in the city faces the prospect of eviction in the coming months, a high stakes public hearing has been set for Wednesday over a permanent occupancy application for a temporary downtown homeless shelter at the former YWCA on Bleecker Street.
The Gloversville Free Methodist Church operated the Center of Hope emergency Code Blue homeless shelter at the former YWCA from February to mid-April using a temporary certificate of occupancy.
Rev. Richard Wilkinson said the Center of Hope operated under Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s 2016 Code Blue executive order, which mandated local governments provide for the operation of temporary emergency shelters for homeless people on nights when the temperature drops below 32 degrees. Cuomo’s Code Blue executive order includes language that says the mandate must “supersede all local laws, as well as any local directives, guidance, or policies to the contrary.”
Despite the executive order, no Code Blue shelter had been established in Fulton County until the Center of Hope opened in February using a temporary certificate of occupancy from the city. The group was able to raise $56,000 from local donations in only a few days to pay for the operation, which includes the capacity to house up to 40 people, although the temporary occupancy certificate only allowed up to 10.
Wilkinson said the shelter successfully housed a total of 27 people over 34 Code Blue nights between February and mid-April, with no more than 8 total people in a given night. The longest stay at the shelter was 26 nights, and the second longest was 13 nights.
“We weren’t just a place to warehouse people, out of that we had four individuals who were assisted with permanent housing,” he said. “We had another four who were assisted with acquiring medical insurance.”
Wilkinson said the board of directors of the Center of Hope had prepared an application for a permanent certificate of occupancy from the city Planning Board in October, until city Building Inspector David Fox sent a letter stating that a Code Blue homeless shelter is not permitted in the city’s form-based overlay area of its downtown urban core.
Wilkinson and the Center of Hope board of directors dispute Fox’s view. He said the former YWCA originally included a shelter component to its operations, and — even without Cuomo’s executive order — there’s nothing in Gloversville’s city code that expressly prohibits a homeless shelter.
“Really, what’s going on is [the city] is saying the shelter doesn’t fit with the zoning code, and we believe that it does,” he said. “They’re saying it’s a prohibited use, and we don’t believe it is a prohibited use.”
The Center of Hope presented its application to the City Zoning Board of Appeals on Wednesday Dec. 2. The ZBA Board then scheduled an expedited public hearing for Wednesday Dec. 9, at which time it is expected the board will rule on whether or not to grant the Center of Hope its appeal for a permanent certificate of occupancy.
Wilkinson said it’s his understanding that normally the Center of Hope’s appeal would have needed to wait until January to be ruled on by the ZBA, so he’s glad the board has agreed to move faster because there are people living on the streets of Gloversville right now despite the increasingly cold nights.
Jerry Ryan, a retired college professor and member of the Center of Hope’s board of directors, said he wishes Mayor Vince DeSantis would grant the center another temporary occupancy certificate for the winter to help the homeless while the occupancy issue is resolved.
“I just think it should be a possibility given all of this delay, delay, delay strategy by city hall,” Ryan said.
DeSantis said he does not believe it would be proper for the city to grant another temporary occupancy certificate given that the City Planning Board and City Zoning Board of Appeals process is already underway.
“The authority to interpret the zoning ordinance is delegated by charter, by law, to the Planning Board and the Zoning Board of Appeals, and the Building Inspector determines whether something is an acceptable use and issues the building permit or not,” DeSantis said. “The city council and the mayor have no control over that. If something is really needed, a temporary permit can be issued, and that’s what we did at the beginning of the year, because they hadn’t gone before the Planning Board or Zoning Board of Appeals yet, but now that they have applied … once the ZBA rules that would preclude any temporary certificate. They’re either going to get an occupancy certificate or not.
DeSantis, who formerly served as Gloversville’s city judge, said it would be wrong for he and the common council to intervene in the process at this stage.
“I don’t want to exceed my authority by giving my opinions on these things or for the council to do that,” he said. “It would be highly improper to do that, like putting our thumbs on the scale.”
Wilkinson said if the ZBA appeal is denied the Center of Hope is considering filing an Article 78 lawsuit against the city, which would argue the city’s Planning Board and Zoning Board are unfairly interpreting the law with respect to the homeless shelter. He said he wishes DeSantis and the common council would grant a temporary certificate to help the homeless get through the winter.
“Unfortunately, this is a very long process and there are people sleeping outside in the cold,” he said.
LANDLORDS ASSOCIATION SEEKS EVICTION RIGHTS
And there could be significantly more homeless people in Fulton County before the end of the winter, if Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s coronavirus moratorium on evictions expires.
Since Cuomo’s eviction moratorium, and a similar federal moratorium on eviction instituted by President Donald Trump, a growing number of renters in the Fulton County area and elsewhere around the country have stopped paying rent, building up a potential humanitarian crisis whenever eviction rights are restored to landlords.
Tim Fonda, the former managing editor of the Leader-Herald and former Saratoga County editor for the Daily Gazette, recently organized a group of 35 landlords who own rental properties in Fulton County into a new organization called the Fulton County Landlords Association.
Fonda said the eviction moratorium was poorly thought out, in that it included no mechanisms for requiring tenants receiving pandemic jobless assistance to pay their rent, effectively shifting the burden of public housing onto landlords, many of whom have lost thousands of dollars in lost rent, revenue that the landlords need to pay property taxes, liability insurance, in some cases utilities and other expenses.
“I don’t have a number, but I can tell you, at these meetings we’ve had, most of the landlords I’ve talked to all say they have a least a couple of tenants who haven’t paid rent in months,” he said. “The state isn’t forcing retailers like Walmart to provide free milk and bread to people, that would be absurd, and yet the state is forcing small landlords to provide free services to people during this pandemic. Even though the law says the tenants are still going to owe that money when they are eventually evicted, everybody knows they aren’t going to be able to pay it. Tenants aren’t going to be able to come up with $5,000 or $10,000 to pay all of this back rent.”
Fonda said the Fulton County Landlords Association will attempt to lobby for the restoration of eviction rights, as well as some kind of direct state and/or federal aid for landlords to make up for at least a portion of unpaid rents. He said the group also wants to partner with local governments to help combat blight, a longstanding issue in Gloversville and other locations.
Fonda said Trump’s federal eviction moratorium is set to expire at the end of the year, and so is Cuomo’s, although he expects Cuomo’s will be extended. He said the longer the eviction moratorium remains in place the larger the bottleneck of problems associated with it will ultimately become, including property owners unable to pay their local property taxes and a flood of evicted tenants happening all at once.
“Another reason this moratorium was a bad idea, if people needed to relocate during this pandemic, some would have, but now since you’re pushing it off for months you’re going to have a massive amount of people having to relocate at the same time,” he said.
Fonda said the court system has begun, at least for now, to allow some eviction proceedings due to expired leases or violation of the terms of a lease, although not for failure to pay rent.
Fonda said he supports the establishment of a homeless shelter in Gloversville, not only due to the economic stress brought on by increased unemployment from COVID-19, but because the city needed a homeless shelter long before the pandemic.
“The city should have a homeless shelter, not just because of the situation with potential evictions, but because during normal times people in our area do struggle who are residents here, and during an economic downtown, like we’re having now the need becomes especially great,” he said. “I think it would be a positive development to have some sort of homeless shelter here in the city.”
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