Suffolk County Commissioner of Social Services Greg Blass is passionate about his commitment to provide housing for the homeless, and has little patience for those who stand in his way, particularly politicians. But he has his critics to be sure.
Several emerged this week after The Independent published an interview with Blass during which he discussed what he said was a successful conversion of the Hidden Cove Motel on West Tiana Road into homeless housing. Blass said at the time that the motel was being sold and the residents evicted anyway.
But several people disputed that claim.
"The motel has been `for sale' for five years, and there are no buyers. The reason is the landlord was asking a ridiculous amount of money," one critic with knowledge of the motel operation charged.
Blass also has drawn the ire of Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne Holst, who charged the county keeps local municipalities in the dark when choosing where to house homeless.
"We are after all better familiar with the neighborhoods, schools and facilities that may be impacted and where there may be better choices than meets the eye from the county's more distant and less familiar perch," Throne Holst said.
And warranted or not, homeless dwellings have the reputation of increasing crime rates and decreasing property values.
"It is well documented that the existing situation has already created increased crime and disturbances on West Tiana Road," one neighbor wrote to Blass.
The commissioner aggressively challenges his critics. He agreed that the motel wasn't about to be sold, but said, "It is true that the motel had been for sale on and off for the past five years, and in fact, several deals involving condominium conversion were in the works."
Critics contend that people living in the motel were evicted to accommodate the county homeless. "The 20 or so working poor who were unceremoniously evicted from their minimally decent, affordable housing have NOT been heard from," one letter writer stated. "Blass has seen fit to ignore their needs -- coming as a result of his agreement with Lami Realty (the landlord) -- because it doesn't serve his purposes to think about these displaced people." The critic in effect, said Blass created a new group of homeless people -- who don't have county financial aid -- by throwing them out of the motel and replacing them with county homeless.
Blass disputed the charge. "The owners planned to close this winter due to the difficult tenancy, with many pending evictions due to non-payment of rent and the high cost of energy (oil and electricity)." Those close to the situation claim that is not true -- that the cash windfall given the company by the county was simply too lucrative to pass up. "There is no doubt the property owner is benefiting greatly from this program," Throne-Holst said.
The Southampton supervisor is giving indications that she may fight the motel use on another front -- that it doesn't conform to town zoning. She sent Hidden Cove a letter on December 7 stating in essence that motels are for "transient" stays, up to a week, "but in no event more than one month in one calendar year." That would make permanent homeless housing at the Hidden Cove against town code. Blass said Throne-Holst sent it to a number of motels in Southampton.
"Only a few days ago, the supervisor falsely argued that year round tenants at the motel were being unjustly forced out to make way for the homeless – no concern for their length of stay," Blass countered.
When one owner of a nearby motel suggested to Blass that the motel would cause "increased crime and disturbances" Blass fired back a letter, stating "I would submit that no such documentation exists, and that such remarks have prejudice as their basis." But when The Independent queried about police reports at the location we were privy to, Blass acknowledged, "There was one domestic dispute. However, some of the other calls involved existing tenants, and since October, the incidence of such calls has diminished to well below the previous use and occupancy."
One letter writer, who asked that his name not be used, said "Blass has been quoted as having a personal animus for Anna Throne Holst as justification for not telling her what he was doing. The reason for the sneakiness is simple to discern: The expected pushback from the community . . . it's a homeless shelter plopped down in the middle of a residential area."
According to Blass, New York State Social Services law requires that the location of homeless facilities remain confidential and prohibits disclosure of housing sites for the homeless. Blass said local officials are "fully aware" of the rule of confidentiality.