The city’s Department of Homeless Services is dropping plans for a 140-bed single men’s homeless shelter in Morris Park, officials informed Bronx neighbors last week — making a rare break from a landlord whose building conditions and business practices have attracted scrutiny.
Leaders at Bronx Community Board 11 were informed of the decision in a letter from DHS First Deputy Commissioner Molly Park last Friday.
“In reassessing our siting goals for Bronx Community Board District 11, we have decided to reconsider our proposed use of 2028 White Plains and will not be moving forward with this site,” Park wrote in the letter addressed to board chairperson Albert D’Angelo.
The reversal comes after months of opposition by the community board and a local task force and leaves the district as the only one remaining in the borough without a single homeless shelter.
At an in-person board meeting in February, more than 100 people signed up to discuss the proposed shelter — with all but one person opposed to the shelter plan, according to Community Board 11 District Manager Jeremy Warneke.
“I think this is a win for us,” Warneke said in a phone interview on Tuesday.
First proposed last October, the shelter at 2028 White Plains Road was to be operated by Westhab, a nonprofit homeless shelter and affordable housing provider. The property’s owner, a frequent Westhab partner, is a company associated with real estate investor David Levitan, whose signature is on deed records.
Levitan was the subject of a recent New York Times investigation that documented how he profited off of city homeless shelter contracts while housing violations festered in his properties.
Levitan purchases properties with an eye to turning them into homeless shelters and then leasing his buildings to nonprofits, reaping millions in the process, the Times found. In this case, the Morris Park site — previously home to a bingo hall — stands next to a day care facility.
As part of the arrangement, a Levitan company sold the nonprofit groups maintenance services and in some instances required the shelter providers to use his firm, the Times found.
Westhab’s vice president of development, Maureen Natkin, declined to comment to THE CITY.
The Times found that Levitan was the biggest developer of the new shelters under de Blasio, after a history of racking up serious housing violations at his properties. Issues include lack of heat and hot water, vermin infestations and, in the case of one Queens building, the collapse of one of the internal stairwells.
Liberty One did not respond to a message left at the phone number listed on its website.
In her letter to D’Angelo, Park didn’t name any specific reason for pulling out from the site, and a spokesperson for the Department of Social Services and Department of Homeless Services did not respond to questions from THE CITY about the project.
“If we determine a need for additional capacity in this community in the future, DSS-DHS remains committed to finding an alternative site,” Park wrote.
Shelters for Every District
If DHS under the Adams administration decided to pull the plug on the project because of community opposition, it would mark a change from how the de Blasio administration approached shelter development.
In 2017, de Blasio proposed 90 new homeless shelters distributed across the city, replacing what had been a largely ad hoc system that included hotel rooms and converted apartment buildings. Key to his “Turning the Tide” plan: Each community district would have at least one shelter, with a goal of providing shelter for local residents who need it.
The Times found that Levitan, through several shell companies, owns nearly a third of the buildings where new shelters have opened since 2017. In all, he owns 14 of the 49 buildings where new shelters opened during de Blasio’s tenure. His homeless shelter work boomed even after he was named among the city’s worst landlords in 2015 for housing code violations at a Bronx building.
Liberty One Construction, a Manhattan LLC listed under an address linked to Levitan, builds shelters with Westhab, public records show. Property records for 2028 White Plains Rd. list the owner as registered under the same Pine Street address as Liberty One.
A DHS spokesperson declined to answer questions about whether the reversal had anything to do with concerns about Levitan’s dealings or with community opposition.
That hasn’t stopped Bronx Community Board 11 from taking credit for the reversal. Warneke said that the board waited until Mayor Eric Adams took office Jan. 1 before petitioning to pull the plug on the deal.
A petition created by board member Yahay Obeid opposing the shelter plan has nearly 600 signatures.
“The Bronx ranks fourth out of the five boroughs in population, but has more homeless shelters than any other borough,” Obeid wrote in the petition. “The city must place these shelters equally amongst the five boroughs.”
A 2019 analysis of DHS data by City Limits shows that homelessness is a persistent problem in The Bronx, and that the borough is one of two — the other is Staten Island — that actually hosts less than its share of its own homeless population. While 38.34% of people in the homeless shelter system come from The Bronx, the borough only shelters 31.42% of the total sheltered homeless population.
The community task force included several CB 11 members as well as representatives for the Bronx Borough President’s Office and the local Council member, Oswald Feliz.
Christian Amato, a CB 11 member who is on the task force, said neither group is opposed to a homeless shelter in the community, but rather that the proposed shelter’s “proximity to a school and to a park makes us nervous.”
Amato, who is running for the area’s state senate seat currently held by Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, noted the task force pushed DHS to consider making the White Plains Road site a family shelter or supportive housing, instead. Those plans have not yet materialized, Amato said.
February meeting minutes show that when pressed by Housing Committee member Juanita Randall about whether the agency would be “flexible” about the proposed shelter, “DHS said they are committed to 2028 White Plains Road.”
A deputy commissioner, Erin Drinkwater, a senior advisor, Erik Paulino, and two assistant commissioners, Cindy Teta and Yvonne Ballard, were in attendance.
Drinkwater, the agency deputy commissioner for Intergovernmental and Legislative Affairs, touted Westhab as a reputable shelter provider, noting that the nonprofit already operates six shelters in The Bronx, meeting minutes show.
DHS is also floating two other possible sites in the neighborhood for shelters: on Poplar Street and Blondell Avenue.
Drinkwater noted there were “zero shelter beds available for individuals whose last known address” was in the district represented by Community Board 11, according to the meeting minutes. According to DHS data, as of September 2021, it was the only district in the entire borough without a single homeless shelter.