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A heartless act

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As homelessness worsens in the city and the state increases rent subsidies for poor families to keep them off the streets, a Christian nonprofit in western Queens is evicting its longtime tenants to open a shelter.

The irony of the move by the New York School of Urban Ministry in Astoria has not been lost on the remaining residents or area lawmakers, who have been fighting to let the tenants stay in their single-room homes on the grounds the units are rent-stabilized.

There were 39 residents living in the building on 31-65 46th St. back in November when the Rev. Peter DeArruda, executive director of the ministry, told them they had to move out by the end of the year.

There was outrage in the community that a faith-based group would resort to such heartlessness right before Christmas.

The low-income New Yorkers, many of whom had lived in the building for years, paid between $400 and $500 a month and were prime candidates for a homeless shelter themselves. By mid-February only 12 tenants were left, despite repeated attempts by state Sen. Michael Gianaris to encourage all the renters to stand their ground and assert their legal rights. The dozen stalwarts said they had endured harassment and intimidation.

Gianaris, U.S. Rep. Joe Crowley and state Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas urged the state attorney general to investigate the pastor for tossing the tenants out of their homes during the holidays. The lawmakers attached a document indicating the ministry had paid off the mortgage and owned the property outright. But Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer said DeArruda told him the building was not financially viable and he wanted to lease it to a shelter operator.

AG Eric Schneiderman then ordered the pastor to rescind the eviction notices until a court reviewed the rent-stabilization question.

On behalf of the tenants, the Legal Aid Society filed a lawsuit to stop the evictions last month. And Gianaris introduced legislation that would prohibit the blacklisting of tenants who take their landlords to court and then face discrimination when looking for other housing.

DeArruda has remained silent about his motives. But it is disappointing to have a Christian organization that has provided a rental haven for 33 years suddenly lumped in with the city’s unscrupulous landlords. The pastor owes the tenants and the community an explanation for his sudden transformation into a profit-seeking property owner.

As a charitable organization, the ministry’s top priority should be the people already living under its own roof.

Posted 4:25 pm, March 3, 2017
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