An attorney for the housing nonprofit RUPCO has accused a Common Council member of working unlawfully with opponents of a planned housing complex for senior citizens and the recently homeless, and hinted at possible legal action if an upcoming council decision scuttles the plan.
The May 31 letter from attorney Michael A. Moriello to council Laws and Rules Committee Chair Lynn Eckert (D-Ward 1) comes as Eckert’s committee is set to weigh a crucial zoning change that will allow RUPCO’s Landmark Place project to move forward. The issue is set for a public hearing on Thursday, June 8.
The proposed Landmark Place project would create 66 units of affordable supportive housing on the campus of the former Kingston Alms House at 500 Flatbush Ave. The plan calls for the conversion of the circa-1870 alms house into studio apartments and the new construction of a second building on the campus to hold one-bedroom apartments. The new housing is aimed in part at the recently homeless and those struggling with substance abuse, mental illness and physical disabilities. RUPCO’s proposal calls for staffing the facility with on-site program and medical staff to assist residents using a state grant program intended to encourage supportive housing and prevent homelessness among vulnerable populations. All units at the site would be reserved for adults aged 55 and over.
For the project to move forward, the Kingston Common Council must approve a zoning change since the site is in a zone reserved for single-family housing. RUPCO’s proposal has faced strong opposition ever since the nonprofit purchased the property from Ulster County in 2015. Some opponents, like county Legislator Dave Donaldson (D-Kingston) questioned whether enough was done to market the property to the private sector for purpose, like a boutique hotel, that would generate more tax revenue. (The site was transferred to the Ulster County Development Corporation in 2014 to allow for easier marketing and sale, without going through a bidding process required for direct sale of government-held property.) Others complained that the low-income housing, located in close proximity to a Kingston Housing Authority complex and privately owned low-income housing tract, would contribute to a “pocket of poverty” in the neighborhood. At public hearings on the issue, some residents worried that housing aimed at the chronically homeless, addicted and mentally ill would push down property values and compromise safety and quality of life in a quiet neighborhood of single family homes.
On the council, opposition to the plan has been led by Alderwoman Maryann Mills (D-Ward 7). In January, Mills, joined by Alderman Tony Davis (D-Ward 6) who represents the area around the alms house and council Minority Leader Deborah Brown (R-Ward 9), submitted a resolution to create an “Alms House Development Task Force.” The task force would be charged with examining “all possible uses for property with the understanding that the building has historical, social, economic and environmental significance to the Kingston community.”
The resolution gave the committee at least six months to issue its findings. In a January 22 email from Donaldson to Mills and copied to Mayor Steve Noble, Common Council President Jim Noble, Davis and Brown Donaldson suggests that the RUPCO project could be put on ice until the task force completed its work.
“It is my belief that no zoning change should be done until the task force carries out their due diligence and presents its findings,” wrote Donaldson in the email which was attached to Moriello’s letter.
In a response submitted to the council by Moriello in January, the attorney dismissed points made in support of the resolution. He noted that the project had already undergone rigorous review by the city’s planning board, making, he argued, the task force superfluous. Moriello also argued that, contrary to opponents’ claims, the property had been actively marketed for five years with no takers before RUPCO made their offer on the site. Moriello pointed to “pejorative, biased and conclusory” language and suggested that putting the project on hold could amount to unlawful interference with RUPCO’s contract with UCDA.
“It would be wholly unlawful for to place the project on hold while an amorphous ‘task force,’ which possesses no legal standing or ownership interest in the property is formed,” Moriello wrote in the January letter.
The task force resolution did not pass. But, in his May 31 follow up letter, Moriello points to the resolution as evidence of political interference with the approval process. The letter singles out Mills as working in concert with opponents of the project to scuttle the plan in violation of fair housing laws.
“It is my opinion that Councilman [sic] Mills has pre-judged my clients zoning petition and has attempted to utilize her position as a Common Council member on behalf of and in league with project opponents based on the affordable housing aspects of the landmark place project.”
Moriello goes on to suggest that Mills actions could leave the city open to litigation under federal fair housing law if the zoning change is denied. Moriello notes that any feasible use of the property would require the same zoning change sought by RUPCO. If the change was denied to the nonprofit and later granted to another buyer at the same site the move would be “actionable” — i.e., grounds for a lawsuit.
“Councilwoman [sic] Mills is certainly entitled to her opinion and she is free to speak the same against the Landmark Place Project,” Moriello wrote. “However, as a city official she is not entitled to engage in a course of action which is in variance with New York State law and which may result in discriminatory effect under federal law.”
At a Common Council meeting Tuesday, June 6, Mills declined to comment on Moriello’s letter. During the public speaking portion of the meeting, however, one of Mills’ constituents defended the alderwoman while accusing RUPCO of engaging in “legal bullying.” Paul Casciero said that he had never heard Mills attack the RUPCO proposal based on its would-be residents’ economic status.
“Unfortunately, this tactic has often been used by RUPCO,” said Casciero. “Labeling opponents as prejudiced and NIMBY [not in my backyard].”
Eckert, meanwhile, said that Moriello’s letter highlighted the importance of elected officials remaining neutral on the project itself while keeping their focus on the zoning issue. Eckert said any evidence that lawmakers had acted out of prejudice against the RUPCO plan could expose the city to a costly legal action under fair housing laws.
“Part of our job as responsible elected officials is to protect the city from legal liability and to do that you can’t go to discriminatory arguments,” said Eckert. “The question is, has that already occurred?”