Are Residences for the Disabled Being Priced Out?

Is Student Warehousing Destroying A Roosevelt Island Tradition?

Updated 3 weeks ago David Stone
Just when you thought you'd seen the worst of Roosevelt Island's community disintegration, with large volumes of rentals converted to foreign student warehousing and quick turnaround (and completely illegal) Airbnb-style mini-hotels, more bad news arrives about heartless, downstream effects.

It's Personal

30 River Road, Manhattan Park
30 River Road, Manhattan Park
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

Roosevelt Island as a welcoming place for people with disabilities seemed so normal you'd think it was in our DNA.

Our New York City neighborhood was a frontrunner in barrier free access with curb cuts on every corner and elevators welcoming access to every location.

Having been raised by a single dad disabled by a crippling bout of poliomyelitis at thirteen, the same disease once believed to have stricken FDR, I bragged about living in such an inherently decent place.

As a boy, I was painfully aware of my dad's struggles to do what others were able to without stopping to think about it. As an adult on Roosevelt Island, I was proud of how far we'd come.

During my first adult career, working for seventeen years to secure good jobs for adults hampered by disabilities, I saw that almost all went through more challenges, just to live normally, than you or I ever will.

Roosevelt Islanders made a lot of it easier, waiting patiently when drivers on the old red buses operated wheelchair lifts that let our neighbors have the same benefits we had. It's not as if we had any more time to spare than any other neighborhood. We're New Yorkers, tired and rushed, but you had to be proud of how that didn't also make us indifferent.

Although the Residents Association still can't bring itself to embrace Coler's population as being part of our community, minimally supervised group homes were easily introduced and normalized.

Now, it seems, greed coming into full fruition on Roosevelt Island may be forcing our longtime neighbors out. To God only knows where, but certainly no place as designed for inclusion as ours

How Warehousing Changes Us

3 bedroom apartment converted to student warehouse, Manhattan Park
3 bedroom apartment converted to student warehouse, Manhattan Park
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

To understand how valued stability has historically been here, you need only visit a community meeting and witness how frequently speakers introduce themselves by announcing their time in residence as if it's part of their name.

"Mary Smith, Twenty-Five Years on Roosevelt Island..."

But stability is eroding as our population swells with transients who, because of their short stay, have much less investment in the community.

While we applaud RIOC's commitment to maintaining a high level of services and security, will that remain with our demographics undergoing seismic change?

Another way to look at it: Will a core population that's here only for three to twelve months really care as much, if it doesn't?

You can find the answer in what's happening with our group homes and the likelihood that a longtime element will be pushed aside in a race to maximize profit while reducing services and living conditions.

Why You Should Be Concerned

You may not have thought too much about our neighbors who go through life with the extra burden of physical and/or mental disabilities. You've probably never had to. Care, concern and consideration were embedded in our values.

But at a recent meeting, the threat to group homes on Roosevelt Island came up, and RIOC President/CEO Susan Rosenthal reportedly shrugged off their predicament as "Not my problem."

If the selling out of Roosevelt Island to real estate entrepreneurs hasn't been clear enough to you yet, that should do it. Governor Cuomo's operations chief for Roosevelt Island sees existential threats to the homes of our most vulnerable to be of no consequence to her.

Here's what's happened...

From the day that the City's powerful real estate interests got burned by the Lindsay administration's decision to create Roosevelt Island as a community, not a profit center, four decades ago, the frustrated losers have been chipping away to get it overturned.

They've just about got it in the bag now

I'll use Manhattan Park as an example because it's where the majority of group homes are located and where the residents are all on the threshold of being tossed out, only for money.

With diplomats and families fleeing River Road in droves during and immediately after a mismanaged, disruptive facade work project, Grenadier (Manhattan Park's owner) seized the opportunity to fill up the empty spaces with students and packed them in like the boarding houses of old, cheek by jowl.

It worked because jamming five or six into a three bedroom apartment, its ex-living room sliced off to make room for more beds, meant higher rents could be collected, even while providing reduced services.

Debris left in hallway after Airbnb conversion, Manhattan Park
Debris left in hallway after Airbnb conversion, Manhattan Park
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

Were students, here for only a few months, going to complain about hallways that rarely felt the brush of a vacuum cleaner? While one River Road building went without a single vacuum cleaner for years, an intrepid porter did his job by using a push broom to get up as much debris as possible.

Insect infestations increased, with improperly handled food waste left to stink up refuse rooms. After seventeen years in our apartment, we were treated to first ever cockroaches frolicking near the AVAC chute. Red ants show up everywhere.

Security was abandoned as front desks gave up trying to identify the ever-changing flow of transients coming and going.

One morning at 4:00 a.m., I encountered an inebriated woman slamming her hand against an apartment door, begging to be let in. When I asked our concierge why she'd been allowed to go upstairs, he explained, "She's crazy."

Our property manager didn't bother to respond when I asked in an email what steps were being taken to guarantee security with conditions now so different than in the past, which we took to mean the obvious: nothing.

One day my wife ran into a stranger prowling the halls, trying to locate his friend's apartment.

How long before the next stranger allowed in has motives that aren't as innocent?

Manhattan Park has so increased its revenue through welcoming the warehousing of students and, recently, the spread of Airbnb locations, the addiction to cash flow seems to have them as hooked as junkies.

And now, that's led to rent increases escalating so rapidly that Grenadier/Manhattan Park is on the verge of wrecking a community value, forcing out about ten group homes in order to jack up revenue with even more warehousing.

Will Grenadier/Manhattan Park thumb its collective nose at one of the features that made Roosevelt Island's development a near miracle in urban design?

More important, will anyone raise a finger to stop them?

When I worked in vocational rehab, one thing we always understood, regrettably, was that people with handicapped were publicly dispensable for one big reason.

"Handicapped people," we were repeatedly reminded, "don't vote."

Is it all still just as down and dirty as that?

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