Thirty-nine single adults living dorm-style in Astoria for between $425 and $500 per month are being evicted by their landlord, an Evangelical Christian nonprofit, according to residents and elected officials. The New York School of Urban Ministry [NYSUM] has said that it can't afford to maintain the apartments, and is reportedly removing the residents to make way for the new owner: an undisclosed charitable organization.
Linda Smith, 66, an opera singer and tenant of three years, said the news came as a shock. "I am not going into a shelter," she said. "And I will not be on the street. Something good will happen. But many of [my neighbors] have menial jobs, and this is about all they can afford."
The NYSUM residence was being considered for homeless shelter conversion as recently as December 3rd, according to an email sent to tenants. A spokesman for the Department of Homeless Services confirmed that the city was in talks with NYSUM, but backed out as soon as it became clear that the Christian nonprofit was planning to evict tenants in order to house the homeless.
"We were originally told that the residents were missionary students who were being relocated," said DHS spokesman David Neustadt, adding, "When we found out this was not the truth, we immediately made it clear that we would absolutely not be involved and we have offered legal assistance to the current residents to help them fight eviction."
However, an attorney for NYSUM told the Daily News this weekend that the evictions are going forward, and that the building has been sold to an undisclosed charitable organization.
"NYSUM is unable to continue to afford the current operation and an opportunity to allow charitable and public use of the facility by a long-term lease of the building to a third party engaged in those endeavors came up," attorney Ira Clair told the tabloid (neither Clair, nor NYSUM, could immediately be reached for further clarification on the planned use).
NYSUM has operated 31-65 46th Street as a single room occupancy building for the past 18 years. Men and women live on separate floors and rent individual rooms, sharing bathrooms and kitchen and common areas. According to the mid-November letter to tenants, the residential building has "been losing revenue for the past three years."
NYSUM also operates as a training center for "inner-city ministry," according to its website, and trains thousands of people each year to evangelize at hospitals, shelters and rehab centers.
DHS clarified that while the city's non-compliance doesn't prohibit NYSUM from selling to a shelter provider, city funding is a significant factor in shelter development. "Unless they have some other source of income, [I'm] not sure how they would pull that off," Neustadt said.
Smith estimates that roughly 85 percent of her neighbors can't afford market rents. (The median asking rent for a studio in Astoria is $1,655, according to Streeteasy.) Many of the tenants also appreciate the environment that NYSUM has cultivated—the prayer meetings, the gender segregation, the ban on drinking and smoking. "No hanky-panky goes on, no drugs or alcohol," she said. "You don't have to attend prayer meetings, you just live a good clean life."
"The NYSUM people call us family," Smith added. "Do you do this to family?"
The eviction date, initially set for December 31st, has reportedly been pushed back to January 31st. Clair told the Daily News that the nonprofit also intends to help people relocate.
Marie Torniali is director of the Central Astoria Local Development Coalition, a housing advocacy group. She's been working with the NYSUM tenants since mid-November. Along with Queens Legal Services, her group is preparing the tenants for housing court—a legal right for any NYC tenant facing eviction. CALDC is hoping to help the tenants win a few buffer months before they have to move, ideally at a reduced rent to help them save up for what's next.
"The fact that [NYSUM] has to take them to court will hopefully buy some time for these tenants," she said. "Because the rents [in this neighborhood] are unaffordable."
NYSUM residents will protest the evictions outside of their apartment building this afternoon, with Queens City Council Members Jimmy Van Bramer and Costa Constantinides.
[Update 3:30 p.m.]: Van Bramer's office said that the city will fully fund legal fees for the tenants. “It would be unconscionable and immoral to suddenly evict long-time Astoria residents at any time in the year, but the act is especially heartless during the holidays,” the council member said in a statement.