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December 05, 2012

Evicted Man Cries Foul



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Kitty Merrill. (click for larger version)
There are those who work hard but can barely afford to pay rent around here, and there are those who rely on the Suffolk County Department of Social Services (DSS) to find housing for them, and taxpayers to pay for it.

Nick Saridakis is learning the cold, hard truth: the county homeless trump him – he's getting evicted from a Hampton Bays motel so Social Services can place its clients in his space. And the landlord, LAML Realty, certainly isn't complaining – the county pays almost 50 percent more than the private sector does for the same room. For LAML, that means a cool $33,000 a month at capacity for the nondescript 32-unit motel it owns on West Tiana Road in Hampton Bays, The Hidden Cove.

Taxpayers take a double hit: many of the residents are single mothers with children, who immediately become eligible for enrollment in the Hampton Bays School District. That means property owners there shell out $30,000 or so annually for each student, though students can opt to stay in their original school district and be transported to and from Hampton Bays every day on the taxpayer's dime.

"The number of homeless families have doubled, and the DSS has to do something," said County Legislator Jay Schneiderman. "I can jump up and down about how bad it is but I can't make it go away." He said the goal is to find permanent housing for the tenants, and limit their stay at the Hidden Cove to 90 days if possible.

Saridakis and a neighbor, an 87 year-old woman, have refused to give up their units, and are being evicted as a consequence.

The bad news came for Saridakis Friday, when the court ordered him to vacate the premises. His neighbor and her daughter are due in court December 21. "They're going to march her into court a few days before Christmas and throw her out of her home," Saridakis said.

Saridakis said the entire program is little more than "a scam." Suffolk County pays a private company, Community Housing Innovations, to oversee its homeless shelter program. CHI is licensed to run numerous similar facilities on Long Island and Westchester.

CHI gets paid handsomely. According to IRS filings the company grossed over $16 million in revenues in 2010, the last year filings were available. Its executive director earns $191,000 per year plus benefits; four other executives in the firm have six figure salaries. Almost all the money comes from taxpayers, be it county, state or federal programs designed to help the homeless.

"They are laughing all the way to the bank. It's a racket," said Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst.

Alex Roberts, the executive director of CHI, strongly disagreed. "We have a so-called 'cost contract' with the county, which means that every expenditure must be documented and approved under the county's eligible cost manual. Our books are audited every year by an independent auditor and if there are any surpluses, they are returned to the county," he said.

"The motel is overcrowded, and its septic system is hopelessly outdated. It can't contain the flow. There are compliance and environmental issues," Throne-Holst said. She is meeting with County Executive Steve Bellone about it this week.

Neighbors are upset as well. Over 200 people jammed into a Concerned Citizens of Hampton Bays meeting Throne-Holst attended. "Local residents are being displaced, and these kids are in our schools," Throne-Holst said. "We understand they are having a hard time making ends meet, but this is ill-conceived and wrong."

Schneiderman said not all the neighbors are upset. From his perspective, CHI "Is doing a good job" managing the motel. As for the Southampton Town zoning issues, if the state approves the motel as a homeless shelter, it will be exempt from the town's zoning regulations – thus the rush to evict rent-paying tenants.

Saridakis said he was set up. "I signed an agreement to move out and found another place. I asked for a letter of recommendation and they wouldn't give me one." Saridakis suspects CHI played hardball with him because he publicly complained he was being forced out. He said his elderly neighbor, who he didn't identify by name, was "paralyzed by the rent increase. She was crying."

The county pays CHI almost $5000 a month for a single mother with two children, Saridakis said. The family itself receives only a faction of the allowance. "It's like a prison," Saridakis said of the motel. "The rooms are tiny, about 250 square-feet, and many have four cots jammed into them to accommodate tenants."

The family only gets about $400 spending money a month, Saridakis guessed, leaving a chunk of taxpayer money for CHI. "It's a sanctimonious hustle. The county is its cash machine."

"We lease the efficiencies as anyone else would. The rate we pay (about $40 per day) amounts to less than half the cost of renting a motel room, which makes Hidden Cove more cost-effective for county taxpayers," Roberts countered. "Since they have kitchens, the residents cook for themselves and the county does not have to pay a restaurant allowance."

Saridakis is waiting for the county sheriff to formally evict him. "And then I'll be homeless." And therein lies the rub: he will then be eligible for county aid, and taxpayers might well end up paying his rent.

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