Leaders vow to fight closure of Astoria senior center
by Benjamin Fang
May 14, 2019 | 419 views | 0 0 comments | 27 27 recommendations | email to a friend | print
In June, seniors at the Astoria Houses are supposed to celebrate the completion of a long-awaited renovation project for their senior center.

Instead, they may see the center shutter altogether due to proposed cuts in the city budget.

In 2014, Councilman Costa Constantinides secured $500,000 to upgrade the space.

Despite multiple construction delays, the renovated center was expected to be complete by the end of June. Seniors were planning a celebration and “a new beginning” at the site, the Astoria councilman said.

“It was long overdue, the space has always been cramped,” he said. “It needed more space to do programming.”

But last month, Constantinides was told by City Hall that the Astoria Houses center would be among 12 sites that would be closed due to low attendance and lack of quality services.

Other centers slated for closure include Baisley Park, Bland and Shelton Social Club in Queens, and Armstrong Social Club, Langston Hughes, Palmetto Gardens and Sumner in Brooklyn.

At his executive budget presentation on April 25, Mayor Bill de Blasio said this “cost-effective new approach” will close these senior clubs –– which a City Hall spokesperson described as lounges –– and relocate seniors to actual senior centers nearby.

The city would provide free transportation, while producing nearly $900,000 in savings through the consolidation.

“Those clubs, which we found were underutilized, could not provide the same quality of service as our DFTA programs could,” said de Blasio, referring to the Department for the Aging. “So seniors will go to an established senior center that specializes in supporting seniors.”

The senior centers where they will be moved to are all within three-quarters of a mile from the original senior clubs, city officials said.

City Council members whose districts would be impacted rallied against the cuts. Constantinides, who sits in the council’s Budget Negotiating Team, pledged to fight to restore the funding in the final budget.

“We shouldn’t be balancing the budget on the backs of our seniors,” he said. “They all deserve better.”

Claudia Coger, president of the Astoria Houses Residents Association, said they have a large population of seniors, all of whom need an outlet like the senior center. They don’t want to hop on a bus and be taken to another site.

“We don’t need anybody scattering us about to say, ‘you can go here for this service or that service,’” she said. “We can benefit from it right here.”

Initially, the city planned to send seniors to the RAICES Astoria center. But elected officials say after they found out that center is predominantly Spanish-speaking, the city decided to bus the seniors to the center at Queensbridge Houses instead.

“The Queensbridge center is a wonderful center for the residents of Queensbridge,” Constantinies said. “But it’s a long way to go.”

Andre Stith, a lifelong Astoria Houses resident and a member of Community Board 1, said Queensbridge already has many seniors living in the 96-building complex.

“Our seniors should not have to go there and feel out of place,” he said, “when they have a place right here at home.”

Both Coger and Stith vowed to fight the closure of the senior center “to the very end.”

“We are not going any place,” she said. “Hear us out and understand this is our lives.

“It is unacceptable, and we’re not going to stand for it,” Stith added. “It’s not going to happen, not going to fly, not on my watch.”

In response to the mayor’s assertion that the site is underutilized, Constantinides said the attendance drop was a result of disinvestment and ongoing construction.

“It’s because NYCHA and the mayor’s office haven’t been investing in it,” he said. “Let’s invest more in our seniors, not less.”

State Senator Michael Gianaris added that the city created the environment for fewer people to attend these centers.

“It was a plan designed for failure,” he said. “It is a huge mistake.”

In a testimony on the budget before the City Council on May 7, DFTA Commissioner Lorraine Cortes-Vasquez said the mayor called for $750 million in savings to “meet the challenges presented by an uncertain revenue and economic future.”

DFTA’s $2 million in savings include a six-headcount reduction agency-wide and the $900,000 in senior club closures.

While the decision to close the centers was “challenging and complex,” the commissioner said it was the right move because many of them were not meeting essential health and safety standards.

“Many are not ADA compliant and have chronic leaks, flooding and sewage back up,” she said in her testimony. “Several have low participation rates that have resulted in higher than usual per-participant costs.

“We recognize there may be some concerns,” Cortes-Vasquez added. “However, we will work closely with the members of the NYCHA senior clubs as well as the alternate senior centers to provide a smooth transition.”
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