Properties get flipped for large profits and people get pushed out. It’s the reality of hot real estate markets across the country. But when a coveted building is full of sick, fragile, senior citizens, the result can have devastating consequences – even death. Yet it’s been happening more frequently.
At 1 Prospect Park West in Park Slope, five seniors fought the closure of their assisted living facility and have been living in a nearly empty, nine-story building for more than two years.
One day last month, Annemarie Mogil pushed her walker down a long carpeted hallway lined with vacant apartments. She lives all the way down at the end.
"I’m far away from everything,” she said. “When the back elevator doesn’t work, it’s a tiny bit scary."
Mogil is a charismatic lady who, in her twenties, would take road trips on a motorcycle and snap photos along the way. Her constant companion is Yanni, a brown and white cat that roams the halls freely.
"When she rolls over like that it’s because she is happy to see her mommy," Mogil said. "Yes you are a Yanni cat."
One hundred and thirty senior citizens used to call this place home. Now the exercise room sits empty, the "General Store" is closed and decorations from Valentine’s Day still hang in the large spacious dining room that was gutted after a flood. Mogil is one of the five final holdouts as this decades-old facility shuts down. Three have dementia. One is 101-years-old.
Inside her apartment, boxes of papers and pictures sit on the floor waiting to be sorted. Packing has been difficult. And talking about the move makes Mogil anxious. A small bookcase still displays family photos and classical music fills the space. But it’s the view behind her twin bed that stands out.
"If you look at the church spire you’ll see the Statue of Liberty,” Mogil said. “Isn’t that a wonderful view ? You can see why one would be reluctant to leave."
The expansive view is surely one of the many features that appealed to the developer, Sugar Hill Capital Partners. They plan to convert the stately building into luxury housing. The owner, Haysha Deitsch, notified residents two and a half years ago that he was closing the facility and selling the building. He gave them 90 days to get out. Family members of residents say panic set in and most of the seniors moved out.
"But you know these are the brave souls who stuck it out," said Judith Goldiner from Legal Aid, one of several attorneys representing the five women in a lawsuit against the operator.
Goldiner usually represents low income tenants; she said she was surprised to find that fragile nursing-home and assisted-living residents have far fewer rights.
"If you were a rent regulated tenant, they couldn’t evict you like that. They couldn’t give you a 90 notice and say get out," Goldiner said. "A tenant even with a lease that expired, they would have had more rights. That was really surprising to me."
The lawsuit alleged that the operator failed to help residents find the most appropriate new homes. The home’s attorney, Joel Drucker, said that the five holdouts refused any assistance, and the state health department approved of the closure plan being challenged by the residents.
The residents are suing the state health department too. Goldiner blames the agency for approving plans that do not comply with federal regulations, which call for residents to live as independently as possible.
The case against health officials is pending. Deitsch settled with the five residents and agreed to pay them over $3 million to move. Goldiner said three of her clients will move to private apartments.
"Their family members feel like that’s a safer option for them because they don’t have to worry about losing that apartment," Goldiner said.
Controversies like this one are popping up more frequently. At a recent City Council hearing on the selling off of Rivington House, a nursing home on the Lower East Side, Brooklyn councilman Brad Lander pointed out that Rivington House was one of three facilities to be recently flipped.
"We could have stronger protections in place in state law for residents of senior and assisted living facilities, just like we do for tenants,” he said. “But we don’t. And I think we don’t because it’s only recently that real estate values are so hot and gentrification is so hot that people would engage in such evil acts. Before, we didn’t really need regulation."
Deputy Mayor Anthony Shorris, under scrutiny for failing to prevent the Rivington House sale, added that facilities are also being flipped because healthcare reimbursement rates have changed.
"So both the nursing homes become less profitable and the foregone opportunity on the real estate becomes greater. So you’re basically begging people to do this and they are doing it," he said.
Shorris said it was up to the state to make changes. State Senator Daniel Squadron represents the Lower East Side and was caught off-guard by the sale of Rivington House in his district.
"The state department of health doesn’t believe that its role is to consider the impact on the community of a closure," he said.
Squadron plans to introduce a bill that would require the agency to issue a report and hold public hearings when a facility wants to close. A similar bill having to do with hospital closures is currently stalled in Albany.
When it comes to Prospect Park West, the health department says any facility may choose to remain open or close.
"DOH's sole responsibility is to evaluate a facility's closure plan to ensure that appropriate services for patients and residents are provided," the agency said in a statement. "Based on those guidelines, the department approved a plan when the owner of Prospect Park decided to close."
According to data from the agency, there are roughly 10,600 assisted living beds in the city, and 43,300 nursing-home beds, a loss of about 1,800 over the last decade. At the same time, the senior population is growing. Last year, New York City had 749,000 residents who were 70 or older.
Today is the deadline for all residents to be out of Prospect Park West. Mogil will move into an independent living facility in lower Manhattan with a 92-year old down the hall named Alice Singer, whose daughter Joyce said the Park Slope facility is steeped in sadness.
"What happened has led to shortened lives and tremendous grief and to me I can’t imagine anyone wanting to live here," she said. "I think there are ghosts in these halls."
After the facility closed, at least 12 families sent letters to Health Commissioner Howard Zucker. Four said their loved ones passed away shortly after moving. Others described parents who took falls, had strokes or stopped eating. All believed the move was to blame.
Mogil has fared better. But she still dreads leaving.
"I think as you get older – and I’m 94 now – it becomes more difficult to relocate,” she said.
“It’s never easy to move," she said. "However, at this age I really need more rest and peace and — let me use the word: 'enjoyment'."