New York Times City Officials Are Questioned Over Changes to Nursing Home’s Deed by J. David Goodman
A condominium developer bought Rivington House, a former nursing home on the Lower East Side, after the city changed its deed. CreditDave Sanders for The New York Times
The questions came steadily, for six hours, at a City Council hearing on Thursday that tried to get to the heart of why officials had lifted a deed restriction on a nursing home and let it be sold to a luxury condominium developer.
And for six hours City Hall cabinet members — including the first deputy mayor, Anthony E. Shorris, and the corporation counsel, Zachary W. Carter — offered replies and sparred with council members, but ultimately revealed few new details in a case that had become a black eye for Mayor Bill de Blasio and spawned multiple overlapping investigations.
How were possible warning signs overlooked? Why were decisions at City Hall not effectively communicated to the agency entrusted with carrying them out? When did Mr. de Blasio, a champion of affordable housing, learn that a prime bit of city-protected real estate on the Lower East Side had slipped away for a price?
“I recognize that what happened here was not the right outcome,” Mr. Shorris told the Council at the start of the hearing, saying that he bore ultimate responsibility for what he called “a mistake.”
But he insisted that the handling of the nursing home, known as Rivington House, was atypical for City Hall. He resisted the suggestion that his role — directly overseeing dozens of agencies as a kind of chief operating officer for the city — meant he had been stretched too thin to ensure that key decisions were carried out effectively.
“We haven’t heard anything this morning about changing policy for communicating with agencies,” Councilman Vincent J. Gentile said after two hours of testimony. “That’s the bigger issue here.”
“I think our policy goals here were good policy goals,” Mr. Shorris replied. “I think our execution of them was flawed.”
Just before Mr. Shorris testified, City Hall officials sought to deflect attention from the proceedings by announcing plans to essentially replace Rivington House with a center in Lower Manhattan that is expected to house between 100 and 200 seniors in a combination of health care and affordable housing units.
The construction of a new center appeared to close the door on the possibility that the city would try to claw back the Rivington House property, though Mr. Shorris in his testimony said that any such action would depend on the results of two continuing investigations by the New York State attorney general and federal prosecutors.
The plan, according to City Hall, is to use $16 million — the equivalent of the proceeds that the Department of Citywide Administrative Services accepted in exchange for lifting the deed restriction last year — to build a new center at 30 Pike Street on land owned by the city and used by the Environmental Protection Department as a repair yard. The total cost of construction could exceed that amount, though Eric Phillips, a spokesman for the mayor, said it was “not expected to be substantially more.”
Mr. Shorris’s testimony followed reports from two inquiries by the Investigation Department and by the city comptroller, Scott M. Stringer, as well as supplementary materials in the form of emails, memos and other records related to the decision to sell Rivington House to a for-profit nursing home company, Allure Group, in 2015. After paying the city to remove the deed restriction, which had limited the property’s use to nonprofit health care services, the company sold the building to a luxury condominium developer for $116 million.
Councilman Ben Kallos of Manhattan asked why Mr. Shorris had not followed up to make sure his decision — that the center should remain a nursing home — had been observed.
“Council member, the government is large and we have very excellent staff,” Mr. Shorris said. “I don’t personally execute the decisions I make.” He said no one had been disciplined over the matter.
Mr. de Blasio, a Democrat, has said that he learned of the issue with Rivington House from news reports in late March. But Mr. Shorris testified that he informed the mayor of the issue after requesting in late February that the Investigation Department begin its inquiry. Mr. Phillips, the mayor’s spokesman, later said that those two events were contemporaneous and occurred in late March.
The City Council hearing, which finally took place after a several-month delay, did not include testimony from Stacey Cumberbatch, the former head of the Department of Citywide Administrative Services. Ms. Cumberbatch left that post in January, two months after the city lifted the deed restriction and weeks after anger over the nursing home’s fate began percolating.
Mr. Shorris said her departure had nothing to do with Rivington House, though he pointedly did not answer a yes-or-no question as to whether she was asked to step down, saying only that he had approved her leave and move to NYC Health & Hospitals. (She has since retired.)
A Council spokesman, Eric Koch, said state and federal prosecutors requested that only current city employees be called to testify, excluding Ms. Cumberbatch for “investigative reasons.”
The new commissioner of the administrative services agency, Lisette Camilo, did testify, but she appeared unable to answer specific questions about how the deed was handled.
The hearing was punctuated during a brief lunch break by a bizarre clash between the Council and the mayor’s office over whether Mr. Shorris’s testimony had been limited to two and a half hours because — as Mr. Kallos said he was told — he had to catch a flight to Oklahoma.
Mr. Shorris, appearing perplexed, said he had no such flight.
It was a miscommunication over testimony in a hearing that focused on miscommunications, a stand-in for the sort of municipal management issues at the heart of the Rivington House matter.
Mr. Koch said in a statement that the Council had been “misled” by “false” information; Mr. Phillips replied in his own statement that it was the Council whose accusations were false and that Mr. Shorris was owed “an apology.” None were forthcoming.