At a Monday press conference in front of City Hall, Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz joined seniors and their advocates to protest the potential closing of the city’s 135 senior centers and 136 community centers located in New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) public housing developments.
In June, NYCHA announced that budget shortfalls placed these senior and community centers at risk of being shuttered. It would take an estimated $75 million to keep both the senior and community centers open, and $30 million to save just the senior centers, said Bobbie Sackman, Director of Public Policy of the Council of Senior Center and Services.
The City Council has already kicked in $18 million. But Markowitz and Sackman called for federal, state, and local officials to pick up the remainder of the tab.
“In our city, public housing is the only true affordable housing. And it must be maintained,” Markowitz said.
“Each senior and community center is a town square. And no town would ever tolerate the bulldozing of their town square.”
NYCHA officials would not say which senior and community centers were in danger of closing. At the press conference, Markowitz said that Brooklyn would be the hardest hit borough because it has the city’s largest population of seniors. Of Brooklyn’s 94 total senior centers, 41 are in NYCHA developments.
According to a recent report by the Mayor’s office, around one-third of the city’s seniors live below the poverty line. Another study by the Mayor’s office revealed a dearth of supermarkets in areas near NYCHA developments, making the need for free and low-cost meals provided by senior centers more acute.
Advocates also pointed out to senior centers’ role in facilitating social activities, as well as providing health and other services.
“What will happen to those seniors [if the centers close]?” asked Sackman. “They will go into their apartments, close the doors, and stay there. They will be isolated. They will deteriorate physically and mentally. This is not a legacy that any Mayor or City Council will want to leave,” she said.
NYCHA is currently running a debt of $170 million. Since 2001, the agency has qualified for more than $600 million in federal money based on spending formulas, but this money was not allocated in Congressional appropriations bills.
Sackman pointed out that NYCHA uses over $200,000 of its federal monies to pay for police and sanitation services, routine city services that private landlords receive at no additional cost. She called upon the city to pick up this tab so that NYCHA can use its federal allocation to keep senior and community centers open.
The timing of the press conference – on the first day of the Democratic convention – was not coincidental. Markowitz expressed hope that an Obama presidency would allow Washington “to get its priorities straight and get money flowing back into New York City where it belongs.”
“Washington needs to wake up from its George Bush-era coma,” Markowitz railed later.
The press conference also came a week after the death of 5-year old Williamsburg resident Yakov Neuman, who fell to his death down an elevator shaft in a NYCHA building after the elevator got stuck.
The incident focused attention on NYCHA’s budget shortfalls. The elevator had a long history of problems and was scheduled to undergo rehabilitation years ago, but this rehabilitation never took place because of lack of funding.
Markowitz was careful not to point the finger exclusively at NYCHA for the closing of the centers, saying, “NYCHA doesn’t want this, but they’re being shortchanged financially and they have to make decisions. We recognize the city is in belt-tightening mode, but these are not the services to cut.”