A Victory for Lucerne Residents

Appellate court rules that city must maintain hotel as a shelter for now

05 Jan 2021 | 06:48

The saga of the shelter at the Lucerne Hotel continues.

A five judge appellate court ruled Tuesday that the de Blasio administration, which last September announced it would discontinue use of the Lucerne in the face of community objections, must maintain the shelter for now. The 187 men still living there can stay or move to a new shelter in the financial district as they choose, the court ruled.

“The forced relocation of certain homeless residents from the Lucerne Shelter Hotel (201 West 79th Street) to the Radisson Hotel shelter (52 William Street) is stayed,” the five judges ruled.

Their order will remain in force until they decide the appeal by three men that the city was wrong to order them to move when they were doing well at the Lucerne shelter.

Other men living at the Lucerne had testified that conditions were not good and they wanted to move.

The appeals court judges said they wanted the case completed by May, meaning that the Lucerne could continue to operate as a shelter for at least another six months.

“The City has a moral and legal obligation to provide safe shelter to all who need it,” said Nicholas Paolucci of the city law department. “The Radisson is better suited to meet the needs of these residents. When all the merits are heard, we believe the court will ultimately agree that this move is an appropriate use of the mayor’s emergency powers.”

The two-page order offered no rationale for the decisions. But one element was striking to those who have followed the many legal cases involving New Yorker seeking shelter.

“The trial court had dismissed the proceeding to block the move, ruling that homeless residents have no right to challenge their forced relocations, even if undertaken for invalid reasons,” explained Michael Hiller, lawyer representing the three Lucerne men. “Today, the Appellate Court ruled that, not only can the men of the Lucerne remain there, at least pending the appeal, but further, those who want to leave may also do so.”

Longstanding Precedent

That November ruling had followed longstanding precedent upholding the city’s authority to move sheltered men, women and children as necessary. The appeals court order is only temporary and so does not overturn those precedents. Nevertheless, Hiller said, the decision “is truly empowering to homeless residents who are fighting for their right to be heard and ultimately, for their dignity.”

The Lucerne, which has served as an SRO and later as a popular tourist hotel, was put into use as a shelter in late July of 2020 and 280 men, all with substance abuse or mental health issues, were moved there from another hotel.

Residents complained that the move, which was made without advance consultation, brought with it drug trafficking, urination and defecation in the street and a decline in the quality of the neighborhood.

Randy Mastro, representing a new group called West Side Community Organization, reached an agreement with de Blasio in September to discontinue use of the Lucerne, an agreement stymied by the continuing court case.

“While this split decision preserves the status quo for the time being for those who choose to remain at the Lucerne,” Mastro said, “it seems inevitable that the Court, when it rules on the merits, will find as every New York court has always found under well-established New York law - namely, that homeless individuals do not have the right to compel the City to house them in venues of their choice. Indeed, the City proposes to move these men downtown to a better, safer facility that the Court has now effectively greenlighted for opening, instead of leaving any of them imperiled at the Lucerne. Hence, this move should and, we believe, will go forward soon for the good of all concerned.”

Only one of the three men who originally brought the case to remain at the Lucerne is still there. Two have been given permanent housing.

The third, Shams DaBaron, said he was grateful to the court for not forcing the men at the Lucerne to relocate “and in doing so considered our humanity and wellbeing over those who showed no concern for us.”

“We still hope the Mayor and the First Lady will come here in person, see the great services happening at the Lucerne and call off this irrational move once and for all,” he added. “We hope our success here - working together with the permanent community - could be used as a model for shelters across the City.”

Justice Judith J. Gische presided over the five judge panel, which was also composed of justices Angela M. Mazzarelli, Jeffrey K. Oing, Anil C. Singh and Manuel J. Mendez.

“[The decision] “is truly empowering to homeless residents who are fighting for their right to be heard and ultimately, for their dignity.” Michael Hiller, lawyer representing three Lucerne men