She’s 91 and Is Being Kicked Out of Her ApartmentJune 16, 2020 | By administrator
Dozens of residents of an independent living community in Manhattan — some as old as 99 — are being forced out of the homes they thought they’d die in.
Gabrielle Wagner, 91, moved into the Riverview Senior Independent Living facility last April after her identical twin, whom she had lived with, died in 2018. She had been lonely and the modern apartment tower in Hell’s Kitchen felt less like assisted living and more like a comfortable community for active seniors where she could live out her days.
“I thought I’d go out feet first,” she said just before Christmas. “I thought I’d finally found a place I can stay in until I die.”
Muriel Fisher, 86, left her $811-a-month, rent-controlled, two-bedroom apartment in Jackson Heights, Queens, to move in to a studio at the Riverview in 2018. Her grandson, who lives on the same Manhattan block as the center, insisted it was no longer safe for her to be alone.
Milton Gluck, also 86, moved in three months ago to be closer to his son, after his partner of 30 years entered a nursing home. He hasn’t yet fully unpacked.
Then, on Dec. 3, the building’s management distributed a surprise letter to all the residents. Riverview was being sold, it said, “sometime in the first few months of 2020.” Everyone would have to leave.
The nonprofit that owns the building said the center, which opened less than two years ago, had been losing money and it could no longer afford to run it. The group was seeking a market-rate buyer.
The news sent the 31 residents of Riverview — who are nearly all in their 70s, 80s and 90s — into a panic, unsure of where they would go.
New York City is in the grips of an affordable housing crunch for seniors — the latest data shows an estimated 200,000 low-income seniors were on waiting lists for federally subsidized housing in 2016 citywide — and middle-income seniors are also struggling to find homes that fit their needs.
At the high end, there are luxury independent living options in Manhattan like the Atria on West 86th Street, where fees soar to over $11,000 a month for a one-bedroom, and the Inspir, an even more expensive option opening on the Upper East Side.
For older New Yorkers in the middle — even those who can afford Riverview’s rates of about $4,000 a month for a small apartment, three meals a day, housekeeping and some social events — the options are limited. And when you’re a nonagenarian looking for what may be your last home, it’s not just about finding an open spot.
The EastView, a new independent living facility that the Salvation Army just opened in Harlem, has space, but many residents felt it was too far from their families. The West 74th Street Residence, which has interviewed several Riverview residents, was less expensive, but had less charm, some said.
Nothing felt like the Riverview, a 14-story building at 49th Street and 10th Avenue in the heart of Midtown. Several residents described falling in love with its hotel-like hallways, modern finishes and Hudson River views. So its residents, many using pensions from careers as educators, engineers or public servants, sold homes, left friends and moved in.
For Stuart Dunn, 90, it was the second time that his senior living landlord was asking him to move in order to sell the property. Until 2018, he lived in the Williams on the Upper West Side, a Salvation Army-owned independent living residence that was closed to make way for luxury housing.
“It is a societal issue that we really are at the cutting edge of,” he said, of the difficulty of finding a quality place to live with other independent seniors. “What is society going to do about the elderly?”
He said he most feared losing contact with his fellow residents, particularly Ms. Fisher, with whom he had become very close.
Some residents are meeting with lawyers to see what else can be done. About five have already moved out.
One has died, and another, who has been in the hospital, has not been able to deal with the news completely. “They are fearful of what is going to happen, and overwhelmed,” Joel Riff, 68, who is among the younger residents. “The mood is pretty depressed.”
They were particularly surprised, they said, because Riverview is owned by a nonprofit corporation that largely operates homeless shelters, Homes for the Homeless. After losing its city contract to run the building as a family homeless shelter in 2015, the organization decided to renovate and reopen the facility as an independent living building in early 2018, said Ralph da Costa Nunez, the chief executive officer of Homes for the Homeless.
The organization had succeeded with a similar conversion in Staten Island, and thought it could do the same in Manhattan. But Riverview never filled more than 35 or so of its 82 apartments, he said.
The residents felt that Riverview had not adequately marketed itself. Some said that they knew seniors who had reached out to explore moving in, but that the management had not followed up with them. Mr. da Costa Nunez disputed that account. He said there were likely not enough interested residents because Riverview did not offer assisted living services, and some families wanted the option of more comprehensive care as their family members aged.
Assisted living centers are regulated by the New York Department of Health, which provides additional protections to residents. But the Riverview, though it marketed itself as a place where seniors could bring private aides, had no such designation. As a result, the seniors, who had only month-to-month contracts, were vulnerable to eviction.
Mr. da Costa Nunez said that his organization could no longer afford to run the facility at a loss. “We are getting killed” with the costs of food, staffing and utilities, he said, adding that part of the issue was that the seniors were keeping the heat too high.
The losses, which he said amounted to “several million dollars already,” had started to threaten the operation of the senior facility in Staten Island, he said.
“No one wants to shut this down,” he said, “but Economics 101 is Economics 101.” He added that the closure “won’t happen before April for sure,” though the management had not stated the same in writing to the residents.
As the losses spiraled, residents said, the nonprofit repeatedly reassured its tenants not to worry and kept signing new contracts. Among the most fragile residents are a 99-year-old Holocaust survivor, who has no family and is looked after by an organization, Selfhelp Community Services, and Mildred Burt, 95, who arrived in March at the urging of a niece.
Ms. Burt had come from a public-housing project where she had lived for 60 years. Her niece, Pat Jackson, said: “Where does that leave me? With an aunt who is 95 years old who is basically homeless, and not much time to look. This is just heartless.”
Determined to fight back, the seniors formed a committee and contacted their elected officials. Five local elected officials signed a joint letter to Mr. da Costa Nunez demanding more time and support to the displaced seniors.
“They are slipping through the regulatory framework,” said State Senator Brad Hoylman, who represents the area, vowing to look into the matter further. “That seems to be duplicitous.”
Mr. Nunez himself earned over $620,000 in 2018 as the director of Homes for the Homeless and its nonprofit affiliates, according to tax documents. At a heated meeting with elected officials on Dec. 19, he claimed to be surprised by the angry reaction to the closure and “questioned why these seniors can’t fend for themselves,” Mr. Hoylman recalled.
As the issue gained attention, Riverview sent residents a follow-up letter on Dec. 20, saying that the building would “likely” not be sold until April.
“No one is being thrown out,” the letter said.
“We are going to run the place until we can transition every person out of there appropriately,” Mr. Nunez said in the interview.
Amid the uncertainty, the seniors have begun to plan their next steps. Both Mr. Dunn and Ms. Fisher have put deposits down at the Carnegie East House on East 96th Street, where assisted-living studios with meals start at $6,400 a month, a stretch for them. Ms. Wagner is moving March 1 to the EastView in Harlem, selling some of her furniture to do so.
“Luckily for me, I was a Navy wife, so I know what moving is all about,” she said. “Not that I am looking forward to it.”