Legal Aid Chief Raises Concerns About Vulnerable Children And Adults Housed In Hotels After The Hurricane
FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 30, 2012

With more than 1,000 families and individuals housed by the City in hotels in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Steven Banks, the Attorney-in-Chief, raised concerns about the needs of the affected children and adults.

In a November 29, 2012 story, the Wall Street Journal reported that Banks said "[certainly putting families and individuals in hotels rather than on armory floors is better. But a hotel room is not a home, and there's certainly an impact on children — in terms of their education and in terms of health — to have families crammed into hotel rooms that were meant for tourists and don't provide a proper way to store and prepare food."

The next day, in a November 30, 2012 story, Banks told in The New York Times that The Legal Aid Society had received dozens of calls from frantic evacuees who were told they had to leave their hotel rooms by the weekend. While most have FEMA checks in hand for the first month of housing allowance, he said, the money was not sufficient to cover a security deposit and first month’s rent. More problematic, he said, was the deadline. “The federal government may be providing the funds, but it defies reality that in the New York rental market, someone could put down a security deposit, pay the first month’s rent and be approved by the landlord in a 24- to 48-hour time frame,” he added.



The New York Times
City-Paid Hotel Rooms Are No Panacea for 1,000 New Yorkers Displaced by Storm
By Lisa W. Foderaro
November 29, 2012

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But for the past two weeks, Ms. Hand’s living conditions have been stunningly different: a hotel room on the 26th floor of the Doubletree Hilton in the financial district, with daily maid service and a complimentary chocolate chip cookie — warm from the oven — every afternoon.

“The bed is nice and fluffy,” said Ms. Hand, 54, sitting in the hotel’s quiet fifth-floor lobby on a recent afternoon. “It just feels good to have a home base.”

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, she is one of 1,000 storm evacuees who are being temporarily housed by the city in 416 rooms across 29 hotels, most of them in Manhattan. The hurricane victims, many of whom were in noisy, chaotic shelters during the storm’s immediate aftermath, now have the almost Oz-like experience of waking up in some of the city’s most desirable hotels.

They include the hipper-than-thou W New York Downtown, overlooking the National Sept. 11 Memorial, and the historic Carlton Hotel, on Madison Avenue at 23d Street. The city is shelling out as much as $295 a night for a room, particularly in the costlier precincts in Manhattan, and in a few cases, more than $300 a night.

But while the hotel stays have been a balm for frazzled families and individuals, they are no panacea.

For one thing, many of the hotels that have set aside blocks of rooms for storm victims do not use Frette linens or leave chocolates on pillows. Among the properties in the quickly assembled network are the Harlem Y.M.C.A., the Best Western Kennedy Airport and the LaGuardia Airport Hotel. City officials insist that in some instances, they were able to negotiate below-market rates and are paying less than $100 a night.

Moreover, the arrangement is highly temporary. While city officials have not set a date by which they hope to have all evacuees out of hotels, they are busy working on a more permanent housing solution with private landlords and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. A plan is expected to be announced soon.

Already, hotel guests like Ms. Hand are facing a final checkout, even as the city gears up for a new wave of evacuees who can no longer tolerate the falling temperatures in their storm-battered homes.

“We’re now in a phase where we are doing a lot of outreach and communication with people who should not be in places without heat,” said Seth Diamond, commissioner of the Department of Homeless Services. “We anticipate and hope that more people will come from those dangerous conditions into our office and then we will place them in hotels.”

The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday that scores of hotel rooms paid for by the city had sat vacant since last month, including about 120 at the Milford Plaza Hotel in Midtown Manhattan, at a rate of $295 a night. In a news conference, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg defended the supply of rooms.

“We have hotel rooms in advance, particularly now, because as you get toward the holiday season the hotel occupancy goes up, and if we need it — and I hope we don’t — we’re going to have those,” he said. “It’s a de minimis amount of money, but it just shows a proactive approach, I think, to preparing for every eventuality.”

As newcomers check in, however, others guests are exiting. The Red Cross and the city have worked with evacuees in hotels, explaining their eligibility for long-term housing assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Ms. Hand, for instance, must leave the Doubletree on Friday, at which time, she said, she will begin receiving $1,000 a month directly from the agency to pay for a temporary apartment.

But overwhelmed by health and employment problems even before the storm hit, Ms. Hand is not sure where she will live next. Her grown son, who is mentally ill, was seriously burned in an assault in late September, and she wants a place that can accommodate both of them. She wonders if she can find a large enough apartment for $1,000 a month and worries about the security deposit. In addition, she herself has been on medical leave from her job since June, suffering from phobias, depression and migraine headaches.

“The hotel made such a difference,” she said. “FEMA was there for me. They told me what I needed to do. Being here has taken a lot of stress off. I knew I had a warm place to go with hot water and lights. But now I don’t know what to do. I don’t know where to go.”

For families with young children, the hotel stays can be challenging. They may be far from a child’s neighborhood and school. Also, rooms generally lack kitchen facilities, and the hotels may not be close to affordable supermarkets.

Tricia, a 53-year-old evacuee at the Doubletree, said that food had emerged as one of her family’s top expenses since the storm. (She declined to provide her last name, citing her employment with the city.) “We have to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner out,” she said. “That’s big money for three people.”

For the hotels, the influx of storm victims is not quite the cash cow it might seem. The $295 rate is based on a lodging per diem for New York City that is set annually by the United States General Services Administration. Late fall is the busiest time of year for hotels, and some are accepting that amount even though rooms can command more.

At the Doubletree, about 70 of the 400 rooms were set aside this week for storm evacuees and FEMA employees. “Today, a room with a king-size bed is going for $369,” the general manager, Marcello Munoz, said on Monday. “We’re giving the government per diem rate, which is a lot less than our normal rate.”

Steven Banks, the chief lawyer for the Legal Aid Society, said that his office received dozens of calls on Thursday from frantic evacuees who were told they had to leave their hotel rooms by this weekend. While most have FEMA checks in hand for the first month of housing allowance, he said, the money was not sufficient to cover a security deposit and first month’s rent. More problematic, he said, was the deadline.

“The federal government may be providing the funds, but it defies reality that in the New York rental market, someone could put down a security deposit, pay the first month’s rent and be approved by the landlord in a 24- to 48-hour time frame,” he said.




The Wall Street Journal
Paid-for Hotel Rooms Sitting Vacant
By Andrew Grossman and Andrew Strickler
November 29, 2012

Cracks are appearing in New York City's improvised network of emergency housing for more than 1,000 people who remain homeless nearly a month after superstorm Sandy, including scores of hotel rooms paid for with public money that have been vacant for weeks.

At the Milford Plaza Hotel in Midtown, 120 rooms paid for by the city at a nightly rate of at least $295 have gone unused since mid-November, according to documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. Knocks on the doors of dozens of the rooms went unanswered this week.

The tab for the vacant rooms at the Milford will be just under $1 million, according to the documents. A City Hall spokeswoman said the total cost of the post-storm housing program hadn't been calculated.

Beyond the wasted hotel rooms, New Yorkers displaced by the storm pose a daunting challenge to city officials charged with finding them places to stay as temperatures drop below freezing.

In Brooklyn, for example, a group of men sleep in spare quarters on a desolate stretch of Atlantic Avenue after having been moved around the city for a month. Newly homeless families distributed to more spartan accommodations across the city are struggling to make do in cramped hotel rooms miles from their old neighborhoods.

As it closed down temporary shelters in schools and colleges last week, the city relocated the remaining inhabitants to 29 different hotels, putting them in blocks of rooms booked on city credit cards at the rate for government employees. Some ended up in upscale Manhattan hotels while others found themselves sleeping near an airport.

The resulting arrangements, which will last until permanent homes are secured, is messy at best. Displaced residents say they can't afford restaurant meals and don't have cooking facilities. Medical attention is also hard to come by. "We're just in limbo," said one woman whose Staten Island home flooded and has been living in a single room with her mother and brother at a Holiday Inn Express on West 29th Street in Manhattan. "I'm just getting my head above water right now." The city expects to be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency for all the hotel rooms, including those that no one is sleeping in, said Seth Diamond, the commissioner of the Department of Homeless Services, which is administering the program. More than 2,000 people in the region are staying in hotels paid for directly by FEMA as part of a separate program.

Mr. Diamond said some number of unused rooms are reserved by design so city officials don't have to turn people away if more seek shelter. On Monday, Mayor Michael Bloomberg urged people living in homes without heat to reach out to the city for assistance.

"What we worry about is people freezing to death in unheated apartments and we need to make sure that we have a buffer, that when people come to us and we need a place to put them immediately," Mr. Diamond said. "We're always looking to add more capacity because we can't be in a position of not having rooms for people who need them."

The number of unused rooms fluctuates from night to night, a City Hall spokeswoman said. Some nights there have been fewer than 100, others there have been several hundred.

City officials have also worried about securing rooms during the busy holiday tourism season. In the week that ended Nov. 17, 93.2% of city hotel rooms were occupied, according to the Bloomberg administration—up 11 percentage points from the same week last year.

At the Days Inn near Kennedy Airport, owner Jigs Gandhi said his rooms have been nearly fully booked since the storm. "It's a big mix of people," he said. "Families who lost their homes, FEMA people, insurance company people, construction."

Michael Byrne, a federal official coordinating FEMA's response to Sandy in New York, said there will be money available to reimburse the city for its hotel rooms as long as it can show that the bookings were necessary to keep people safe. The city's strategy, he said, is an unusual one in postdisaster situations.

"We generally have other options than hotels," Mr. Byrne said. "There's generally rental options available. There's big open spaces where we can put temporary housing units."

FEMA and the city say they are working to keep hotel stays short by focusing on getting homes repaired quickly. Mr. Byrne also pointed to the hundreds of millions of dollars FEMA has given out for rental assistance so people can move into apartments and to help with repairs.

"What we're talking about here is a housing challenge," Mr. Byrne said. "The best solution to a housing challenge is to get the people back into their homes and that's how we've pivoted all of our heavy effort that we've got."

Housing those displaced by disasters has bedeviled officials around the U.S. for years. In September, manufacturers of portable homes that housed thousands after Hurricane Katrina settled a lawsuit brought by people who had lived in the units—sometimes referred to as FEMA trailers—and had been exposed to dangerously high levels of formaldehyde. After Hurricane Irene hit in 2011, hundreds of North Carolina residents remained in temporary units for months.

Still, advocates for the displaced argue that New York City's effort has deep problems.

"Certainly putting families and individuals in hotels rather than on armory floors is better," said Steven Banks, chief attorney at the Legal Aid Society. "But a hotel room is not a home, and there's certainly an impact on children—in terms of their education and in terms of health—to have families crammed into hotel rooms that were meant for tourists and don't provide a proper way to store and prepare food."

Many of those living in hotels and other temporary housing are on their third or fourth stop since the storm. They've been bounced from place to place as the city has tried to reopen educational facilities that initially served as shelters.

A building normally used as transitional housing on Atlantic Avenue in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, is the third stop in an ongoing storm evacuation for Philippe Drice, 55 years old, who was homeless before Sandy.

Mr. Drice said he was asked to leave a Bronx hospital days before Sandy struck and had planned to return to his camp on a beach in Far Rockaway, Queens, when a homeless-services group called his cellphone.

"They said if you sleep under the boardwalk, you're going to die, so I knew I had to go," he said.

Mr. Drice was initially directed to a temporary shelter at York College in Queens. After several days, he and more than a dozen other single men were moved to two rooms in a Bronx home for recovering addicts.

His current accommodation in a converted warehouse building is bare but clean: two single beds, a bathroom and a small kitchen.

He said city workers or Red Cross volunteers at previous shelters provided some clothes, three meals a day and a folding bed he called his "Mayor Bloomberg trophy."

"I'm not leaving until the police take me out," he said. "If it weren't for Sandy, I wouldn't even have this."

Mr. Drice's roommate, Damien, 36, an unemployed computer repairman. said he was embarrassed by his living situation. He evacuated his sister's home in a Far Rockaway public-housing project the day before the storm.

The pair said they are surviving on food stamps and pre-packaged military rations. They pass the time in libraries and watching movies on a laptop.

"I'm not complaining, it's OK here, but I'm leaving as soon as I can," Damien said.