Board rejects expansion of Jamaica homeless shelter

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A large Jamaica homeless shelter seeking to expand its facility had its request turned down last week, a spokeswoman for the shelter confirmed.

The decision by the Board of Standards and Appeals, a five-member group appointed by the mayor to rule on zoning issues, was hailed by Community Board 13, which along with the borough president’s office opposed the request.

“It’s the first time the BSA ever voted the way the community board and the borough president wanted,” said Sally Martino-Fisher, pointing out that the board usually ruled in favor of builders and developers.

The shelter, the Saratoga Interfaith Family Inn on 175-15 Rockaway Blvd., currently has room for 225 families in a converted hotel and wanted to add space for an additional 91, the spokeswoman said. To do so, the shelter wanted to convert a second hotel located next door. Both the shelter and the old hotel are owned by Homes for the Homeless, a non-profit based in Manhattan.

If the expansion had been approved, it would have created the largest homeless shelter in the city, according to community opponents.

The Saratoga spokeswoman said the shelter wanted to expand so that it could take in more homeless families. The Saratoga has a contract with the city’s Department of Homeless Services, and while the department did not specifically encourage the move, the spokeswoman for the shelter said the department has a standing request citywide for more shelter space.

Martino-Fisher said while the community was supportive of the homeless, it and Community Board 12 were already swamped with homeless shelters and group homes. In opposing the shelter, Borough President Helen Marshall submitted a letter to the BSA stating that 12 shelters with a capacity of more than 1,000 families are located within 5 1/2 miles of the Saratoga.

“You can hear the screams of people saying please give us a break, put the shelter somewhere else,” Martino-Fisher said.

She said that in concrete terms having an influx of additional shelter residents in the area would further burden schools, police precincts, ambulance services and firehouses.

In making its decision on the expansion, the BSA wrote that it did not consider the issue of over-saturation and said the existing use of the site by Homes for the Homeless as a shelter facility does not materially affect the surrounding area or impact neighboring uses.

The BSA did challenge the Saratoga’s contention its expansion was needed to meet the current demand for shelter space. The board said testimony indicated the Department of Homeless Services might not need the additional facility.

Saratoga is a Tier II facility, which means families can only stay there a maximum of 23 days while they and the city search for permanent housing.

While the Saratoga did not win approval for expansion, the BSA did sign off on a separate request to legalize its existing facility. The zoning for the area where it sits does not technically allow homeless shelters, but the Buildings Department gave the shelter special permission when Homes for Homeless bought the hotel in the 1980s, Community Board 13 president Richard Hellenbrecht said. That allowance still did not permit them to make any changes in the building, and so the Saratoga wanted to become official, he said.

For the Saratoga, it was only a small victory.

“We were really disappointed,” the spokeswoman said of the expansion denial. “It looked like the right thing to do.”

Reach reporter Michael Morton by e-mail at or by calling 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.

Posted 7:02 pm, October 10, 2011
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