By LOUIS FLORES
Two cornerstone nonprofit HIV/AIDS advocacy groups are choosing to remain silent about the controversy surrounding the planned luxury condominium conversion of Rivington House, a former AIDS nursing home on the Lower East Side.
Progress Queens made requests to interview officials with Housing Works and GMHC, two large HIV/AIDS advocacy groups, but officials with both groups ignored the requests.
Since these groups depend on government funding or grants, that dependence can, at times, prevent these groups from checking the actions of elected officials, who have discretion over awarding the government funding or grants. For example, in Fiscal Year 2015, GMHC received over $200,000 in grants from the discretionary fund controlled by the New York City Council, which is, in turn, controlled by allies of Mayor Bill de Blasio (D-New York City). The administation of Mayor de Blasio has been the target of criticism for approving changes to the deed of Rivington House, paving the way for its planned luxury condominium conversion.
Any criticism of the loss of Rivington House to real estate speculation may reflect poorly on Mayor de Blasio, which would upset his allies in the New York City Council. Because real estate developers are large contributors to political campaigns in New York politics, the mayor and City Councilmembers would expect their supporters to be sensitive about politicians’ dependence on developers for campaign contributions.
The closure of a series of healthcare facilities in Lower Manhattan
Notwithstanding the mixed motivations faced by large nonprofit HIV/AIDS advocacy groups, the closing of Rivington House represents a third major set-back for comprehensive HIV/AIDS and sexual healthcare services in Lower Manhattan in the last few years.
In 2010, St. Vincent’s Hospital closed after Rudin Management Company called in a mortgage for one of the hospital’s buildings, setting off a financial scramble for the hospital. The closure of St. Vincent’s led to the spin-off of its comprehensive HIV/AIDS unit to Mount Sinai Health System. Though that unit was originally located at the O’Toole Building in the West Village and continued to operate there under direction of Mount Sinai, that building was eventually given for free by the bankruptcy estate of St. Vincent’s Hospital to the North Shore-LIJ Health System, now known as Northwell Health, for downgrading into an urgent care center.
As a consequence of the deal for the urgent care center, Mount Sinai relocated its HIV/AIDS clinic to Chelsea. At the time of the St. Vincent’s HIV/AIDS unit’s spin-off, Mount Sinai lauded the onboarding of approximately 83 per cent. of the patients and a majority of St. Vincent’s HIV and AIDS doctors. From anecdotal evidence, some doctors were unable to maintain the economic viability of their medical practises, and some doctors have either relocated or closed their practises, leaving patients scrambling to find new primary or specialty care doctors.
What is more, the Mount Sinai clinic in Chelsea is treated as a branch of Mount Sinai’s main HIV/AIDS service center in the Upper East Side, the Jack Martin Fund Clinic. Similarly, the unrelated merger of New York Downtown Hospital to NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital created an opportunity for the downtown hospital to be treated as a feeder hospital for the more prestigious uptown hospital.
In 2015, a municipal clinic on Ninth Avenue in Chelsea that provided critical healthcare in the field of sexually-transmitted diseases was closed for a multi-year renovation. At the time of its closure, city health officials were referring former patients to a clinic on West 100th Street, according to a report filed by Andy Humm for Gay City News. Alternatively, some were suggesting that former Ninth Avenue clinic patients seek treatment at the diminished Mount Sinai clinic.
For a time, the closure of the Ninth Avenue clinic triggered a stronger reaction amongst grassroots HIV/AIDS activists, like members with the group ACT UP New York, than from the established nonprofit groups, like Housing Works and GMHC. Demonstrations, and even one town hall meeting, were organised by activists in response to the clinic’s closure. ACT UP New York sponsored one protest outside City Hall to increase political pressure on the de Blasio administration to replace the Ninth Avenue clinic.
But Mayor de Blasio’s controlling and deliberate management style does not respond well to grassroots movements. As has been seen time and again, the de Blasio City Hall only engages community groups that have hired expensive lobbyists, which act to subvert public discourse to backroom negotiations that better suit the political sensitivities of elected officials. This was seen when NY-CLASS was forced to first hire The Advance Group, then Henry Sheinkopf, before finally adding Mercury Public Affairs to its campaign to end the horse carriage industry, moves that nonetheless ended in legislative disaster for the animal rights group. Another community group, Pledge 2 Protect, had been opposing a waste transfer station in the Upper East Side. It took, in part, hiring The Advance Group to reach a settlement with City Hall. The police reform coalition, Communities United for Police Reform, had, for a time, worked with the unregistered lobbying firm BerlinRosen, before tensions made that relationship untenable.
The de Blasio doctrine of affirming the role of money in politics relegates the public’s business to private negations between lobbying firms and his staff. It also reinforces everything that was bad about how a lobbying firm and real estate developers were able to, without a public process and without any public input, negotiate for the payment of $16 million to lift the deed restrictions on Rivington House, paving the way for a speculative real estate sale and proposed luxury condominium conversion of the former AIDS nursing home.
Although advances in medicine as long ago as in 1997 had foretold that people with AIDS would be living longer, possibly without as many people with AIDS needing the intensive complex care of nursing homes, people with AIDS and people at higher risk of contracting HIV/AIDS are still expected to require complex healthcare and supportive housing, if not for end of life care for people with AIDS, then for people for whom supportive housing could improve their health and wellbeing, and for gradations in-between. According to information published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for example, homeless youth are at risk for HIV infection if they “exchange sex for drugs, money, or shelter.”
In New York City, there is an unmet need for providing shelter to homeless LGBT youth, for example. Despite this unmet need, the large, establishment nonprofit groups did not advocate for the repurposing of Rivington House for supportive housing for either people with AIDS or for homeless LGBT youth, a wasted opportunity for sure, but an example of the kind of abdication that can be seen in their silent response to the loss of Rivington House.
Speaking generally to Progress Queens about large nonprofit HIV/AIDS groups before news of the controversy surrounding Rivington House became public, one activist from the LGBT community observed that many groups now provide housing or supportive housing, and these large nonprofits either own or are seeking to purchase real estate for housing or shelter programs. Even though nonprofit groups are meant to operate without a profit motive, they are still vulnerable to pressures of competition for scarce government funding or grants. The unfortunate consequence of competition may reveal a second, mixed motivation to explain the large HIV/AIDS advocacy groups’ silence.
Since grassroots groups, like ACT UP New York, cannot afford to pay five or six figures to a lobbying group, the big and bulky independent healthcare facilities that developers covet for luxury housing conversion will continue to be susceptible to closure, speculation, and flipping, in large part because the larger, establishment AIDS advocacy groups have been silent about the disappearance of complex, long-term AIDS healthcare facilities.
If the investigations reportedly launched to probe what happened at Rivington House lead to any reforms, then that process may act to create some marginal protections for healthcare facilities going forward, which is more than can be expected from the silent treatment by establishment groups, like Housing Works and GMHC.