On a very hot afternoon in late July in New York City’s West Village, James Wentzy, Tracy McNeil, and Catherine Allen stood on their rooftop garden looking down at the handsomely refurbished piers over the sparkling Hudson River and at the glassy wall of luxury housing that now runs up the West Side Highway. All three are residents of Bailey-Holt House (BHH), New York City’s oldest group home for people living with HIV/AIDS, opened in 1986.
McNeil, 59, said that when he moved into the seven-story BHH 18 years ago, “I was told by Gina”—Quattrochi, the home’s beloved longtime director, who died of cancer in 2016—“that I’d have a place here until I wanted to leave. I was told this was permanent.”
And that’s still so—sort of. But not quite in the way that McNeil, Wentzy (a resident the past seven years), and Allen (a resident for nearly 30 years) want.
You see, last summer, they and the roughly 41 other BHH residents, many of whom have been there for decades, were visited by new BHH director Andrew Coamey, a longtime manager at the massive New York City HIV nonprofit Housing Works, which merged with BHH early last year. Coamey told them that Housing Works planned to tear the building down, find temporary housing for all BHH residents who wanted it, rebuild BHH at twice the height and capacity with modern, kitchen-equipped units, then let everyone who wanted to come back do so.
It was good news to some residents—including a young one named James, who, that same late summer afternoon, in the building’s empty dining room, said that though the inconvenience of having to temporarily move “sucked,” coming back to up-to-date new units in a gleaming new building would be worth it. Other residents, such as a group of older gentlemen playing cards in the lobby, were more fatalistic, saying that since they had no choice in the matter, it wasn’t worth complaining.
But to residents like Wentzy—a longtime AIDS activist and videographer who used to live in a massive loft in Soho and whose small, river-facing room in BHH is crammed with artwork—the planned move (with no date certain for demolition, especially now amid the COVID-19 crisis) is horrible and unnecessary. And, he alleges, it’s based on false information from Housing Works CEO Charles King and others that BHH—whose very old building started as a rooming house but also once housed a gay bar and disco—was structurally damaged during 2012’s Superstorm Sandy and cannot withstand another major storm, being so close to the river.
“Folk,” wrote King on a July 7 Facebook thread on this author’s page about the move, “the decision to do something radically different with Bailey-Holt House was set in motion long before Housing Works’ merger with Bailey House. In fact, it was set in motion by Gina Quattrochi before her death. The building was seriously damaged by Sandy. And, after it was repaired enough to move residents back in, HRA [the city housing agency] dramatically cut its budget, largely because this is the only supportive housing program that provides meals, this because the SRO [single-room occupancy] rooms don’t have cooking facilities. So the facility had to be heavily subsidized by independent funds. It also became clear that it would be impossible to make the existing structure resilient from a future storm of Sandy’s magnitude.
“Before the merger,” King continued, “the Bailey House Board was looking at three options: 1.) sell to a market rate buyer and use the proceeds to build a new and larger facility in [that same community board district]; 2.) Gut renovate the existing building, adding kitchen units and building higher to add more units; or 3.) tear the building down and build a brand new building that has complete studio apartments and is significantly larger.
“After the merger,” continued King, “the Bailey House Board, a majority still being from the former board, decided to go with the third option. It is no longer legal to build supportive housing for a single population like people living with HIV. So the new building will include an additional 30 units, for a total of 76, for homeless and/or very low income New Yorkers. All of the existing tenants will be relocated during the construction period, but all of them have been promised an apartment in the new building if they want it.”
King also wrote that he could not give a firm timetable for the teardown and rebuild: “We are still in the redevelopment phase. That means developing the architectural plans, raising the capital, and then going through the various approval processes. ... But we did notify tenants as soon as the decision was made, so that we could start working with them on relocation plans. Many will move to other Bailey House/Housing Works apartments. We have already helped some move into independent housing, and we are working with HRA to identify other scattered site and congregate housing to meet the wishes of the tenants.”
But Wentzy says that King’s calling BHH a building of “SRO” units—historically, New York City SROs have had a bad reputation as run-down, filthy, and drug- and crime-addled—is a duplicitous attempt to depict BHH as a facility past the point of no return. He proudly pointed out his room’s minifridge and microwave, saying that they were more than enough to store and heat the daily frozen prepared meals doled out to the residents, and he said that everyone’s bathrooms were redone in recent years.
Wentzy said that if forced to leave, he would not come back, even though he had “not a clue” as to where he would go. “I want nothing to do with Housing Works,” he said. McNeil and Allen said that they’d be willing to move temporarily as long as the spots were in Manhattan, close to their usual doctors and therapists.
The trio said that since Housing Works took over the residence, beloved longtime staff including case managers and food staffers (the residence once had a working kitchen) have disappeared, replaced by counselors who are too young and inexperienced to really understand the needs of longtime survivors of HIV/AIDS and other issues, such as depression, anxiety, and a history of substance use.
Wentzy also claims that Daniel Tietz, at one point, while CEO, told residents that the current building was “fine” and not in need of a teardown. Tietz was the CEO of Bailey House from 2017 until the early 2019 Housing Works merger, at which time he joined the Housing Works board.
Contacted by TheBody, Tietz said, “I don’t recall saying that, and frankly would be surprised if I did.” He added that “the building is certainly safe today and has a valid certificate of occupancy,” but added that funding used to repair the building after Superstorm Sandy “was never enough to do what would be necessary. The current building can’t be made stormproof, whereas a new building,” even in exactly the same riverside location, “could be.”
Plus, said Tietz, echoing King, current law allows for the site to build higher, hence provide more affordable housing. (By law, current residents pay no more than a third of their monthly disability and other income, roughly $250, to live there.) Between that factor and the environmental one, he says, “Housing Works should want to redevelop the site.”
But acceptance of those points hasn’t come easy. “I love it here,” said Allen. “I have extreme anxiety over this [impending move]. We’re a real family here. And a lot of people have died here,” she said, giving the building special meaning.
In the lobby, the gentlemen said they would feel a lot better about the move if management gave them some sort of official, notarized document guaranteeing them units in the rebuilt residence—but that such requests had gone unanswered. King told TheBody that no such requests had been made, but that he held to his Facebook statement that all current residents who wanted a unit in the new residence would get one.
He added: “Also, as I said on Facebook, we notified residents as soon as the decision to redevelop was made so we could start working with them on relocation plans. We fully commit to working with each of them to find housing during the renovation, as well as to working with them when the renovation is complete, if they wish to return. We will keep listening and talking to residents. We’ll share information and have meetings to hear from them. And we’re absolutely open to hearing their concerns.”
At times, the Facebook exchange turned testy. George Carter, a longtime HIV activist who does not live in BHH, wrote: “Charles—I think you should have visited pre-COVID to explain this all to the residents. I’ve been asking you about this for a long time, and this is the most I have heard!”
King—who has also been under fire recently for allegedly blocking unionization efforts at Housing Works—commented: “This is not some callous corporate money grab. This is about building a resilient building, with modern apartments, that has enough scale to be able to be financially sustainable, and, not the least of the matter, expanding the number of housing units available to homeless New Yorkers. If you want to object to any of those objectives, be my guest.”