New York City Comptroller Brad Lander called the short-lived tent complex a “debacle” for humanitarian and financial reasons.
How much is that controversial tent complex for newly-arrived immigrants on Randall’s Island costing New York City taxpayers? Not even the official who oversees city finances knows the answer.
In a letter to the city’s budget office Friday, Comptroller Brad Lander demanded the price tag and contract specifics after Mayor Eric Adams decided to close the refugee camp-style facility less than a month after it opened. City Limits first reported Thursday on the decision to shut down the sprawling structure, known as a “Humanitarian Emergency Relief and Recovery Center” (HERRC), and move residents to a Manhattan hotel—a plan many advocates and lawmakers called for from the start.
“This was a debacle,” Lander told City Limits Friday. “So many people were saying to do this in a hotel from a humanitarian point of view, but that’s true from a resources point of view too.”
The 1,000-bed barracks opened Oct. 19 with initial capacity for 500 people, but hosted relatively few people before a large number of men from West Africa arrived there earlier this month. The site will close sometime this week.
Lander specifically asked the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for “detailed accounting of the costs associated with erecting, dismantling, rebuilding, and operating the HERRC facility initially sited at Orchard Beach and relocated to Randall’s Island.”
Under an emergency procurement order issued in August, and approved by Lander, the Adams administration is not required to share payment information or register contracts with the comptroller when it comes to sheltering newly-arrived immigrants in need of housing and services. Around 23,800 asylum-seekers, many of them from Venezuela, have made their way to New York City in recent months, with about 17,500 receiving some kind of municipal services, the mayor’s office said Thursday.
Lander said the Adams administration has not yet provided a copy of its agreement with the firm SLSCO, a Texas-based contractor that worked on ex-President Trump’s border wall and got paid big bucks to build and operate little-used field hospitals in New York City early in the COVID pandemic.
A report issued Sunday by the Independent Budget Office estimated that the city would spend a combined $16 million on the Randall’s Island HERRC, a social services facility known as a Navigation Resource Center, and translation services in the city’s homeless shelters.
Lander estimated that the short-lived structure will end up costing the city several millions of dollars. But some of the payment information provided to his office differed from cost estimates presented to the media, he added.
Office of Emergency Management (OEM) Commissioner Zach Iscol told reporters last month that the city paid $325,000 to take down the structure in Orchard Beach and another $325,000 to build it again on Randall’s Island. Lander said city officials told him that the cost to build the tents at a flood-prone Orchard Beach parking lot and take them down was $871,000, not including labor.
“The administration has failed to reconcile that discrepancy,” Lander wrote in the letter, addressed to OMB Director Jacques Jiha Friday.
A spokesperson for OMB said Friday afternoon that they had not yet received the letter from Lander. The agency and the Mayor’s Office did not respond to requests for the contract with SLSCO and other associated costs. City Limits has submitted a Freedom of Information Law request for those documents.
SLSCO did not respond to an email and phone call seeking information Friday.
On Oct. 1, the organization South Bronx Mutual Aid tweeted video showing the initial Orchard Beach site covered in water after a day of rain. City officials then decided to move the tents to Randall’s Island, incurring additional expenses.
Labor costs for the short-term structure are likely to mount. Dozens of employees worked at the Randall’s Island complex, with many of them sitting in one tent for a training on Oct. 18, the day reporters visited the site for a press tour. The facility was also staffed by security guards positioned around the perimeter. Heavy machinery, large mobile generators and food service will add to the total bill.
”This was an enormous amount of money spent with essentially nothing to show for it,” Lander told City Limits.
But, he said, wasted money aside, the city made the right decision to close the complex and move residents to the Watson Hotel on West 57th Street, “which can provide the private space, shelter from the elements, and proximity to services and transit that individuals need to get their bearings in New York City.”
“However,” he added, “we are frustrated that the administration failed to utilize hotel sites in the first place, seemingly wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
Last month, the City Council recommended that the city lease the Watson Hotel as an emergency shelter for asylum-seekers instead of setting up the tent.
Council Speaker Adrienne Adams also praised the delayed decision to ditch the tents.
“People who seek asylum in our city deserve to be treated with dignity, care and compassion, and we always believed this was more appropriate,” she said in a statement Thursday.
The city has already set up additional “HERRCs” inside two other Manhattan hotels, one for families with children and another for women and adult families. All told, the city has leased space in 58 hotels, most of them overseen by nonprofits contracting with the Department of Homeless Services (DHS). The DHS shelter population reached a record-high last month.
The three—soon to be four—HERRCs are overseen by OEM and the Health + Hospitals Corporation, allowing the city to skirt regulations associated with New York’s unique right to shelter, which guarantees a bed for anyone who requests one in most cases.
The new site “will provide asylum seekers with a place to stay, access support, and get to their final destination,” said Mayor Adams in a statement Thursday. “We will continue to pivot and shift as necessary to deal with this humanitarian crisis, but it’s clear that we still need financial assistance from our state and federal partners.”
That outside aid has been slow to arrive, with Gov. Kathy Hochul and President Joe Biden looking to downplay immigration-related issues as Election Day approached. Republicans sought to exploit the rising number of asylum-seekers in New York City to further their anti-immigration agenda. And last month, Biden reinstated a Trump-era border policy to deport most Venezuelan migrants who try to enter the country.
The move from the HERRC to the hotel can’t come soon enough for many of the men staying in the tent barracks, said Ariadna Phillips, an organizer with South Bronx Mutual Aid who has worked closely with asylum-seekers.
Cold weather is setting in and the men sleeping on hundreds of thin cots lined head-to-toe in the cavernous “sleeper unit” have complained about limited heat inside the facility, she said.
Phillips said she visited the site throughout the night Friday and encountered six men stranded outside in the rain who told her they were not allowed to enter the tent until advocates and a reporter intervened.
The men are also forced to go outside to use bathrooms and take showers in trailers, with overnight temperatures expected to drop into the mid-30s this week.
“Usually when that happens you’re trying to bring people who are outside inside,” Phillips said. “To me it makes absolutely no sense. This [closure] needs to move faster.”