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NYC public housing authority pulls Christmas Pearl Harbor on religious groups

Over the Christmas holidays, several local directors of facilities of the New York City Housing Authority notified religious groups, mostly Christian churches, that they could no longer rent community rooms and other facilities. NYCHA officials gave little or no warning of the change of policy and did most of their communicating with the religious groups […]

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Over the Christmas holidays, several local directors of facilities of the New York City Housing Authority notified religious groups, mostly Christian churches, that they could no longer rent community rooms and other facilities. NYCHA officials gave little or no warning of the change of policy and did most of their communicating with the religious groups through word of mouth or email. One church, Open Door Fellowship of East Harlem, was given notice on December 29th which was two days before their January renewal, leaving the pastor to a scramble to find space for their annual Baptism service.

Their sudden ouster with no hearing process about the change of policy left religious leaders angry. This morning they protested outside the NYC Department of Law at 100 Church Street. A Journey received a call describing the situation, “This is Pastor Devlin [of Manhattan Bible Church] in the back of a police van.  We've been arrested.  There are 7 arrested.”  Pastors Dimas Salaberrios of Infinity Church, Pastor Michael Carrion of Promiseland Covenant Church, City Councilman Fernando Cabrera and three others were also arrested.

Right after the United States Supreme Court declined on December 5th to consider a lower court’s ban of religious groups renting space for worship services in public schools during the off-hours, some local NYCHA directors asked their bosses if the court decision meant that religious groups also can’t meet in the NYCHA rooms set aside for community groups’ usage.  One director of a Manhattan community center at a public housing project sent the administrator of Manhattan Borough Community Operations a copy of the newspaper article about the case. The implied question was, what should I do? The administrator emailed back, “NYCHA will not be able to rent to Churches based on a recent circumstance. Our Apologies.”

Other pastors in other boroughs report similar notices. One local NYCHA community center director admitted that NYCHA was still formulating policy, but that she didn’t want the church to meet in her facility in the meantime. She gave the church twelve days notice. The relations between the Bronx River Community Center and the church had long been amicable and steady. Stunned , Pastor Dimas of Infinity Church swooned with heart pains. He recounted that he was taken to the emergency room at Sloan-Kettering Hospital. Fortunately, the doctor determined that he only had stress pains. The local administrator extended the deadline.

NYCHA top leaders deny that there has been any change of policy. One official argued that how could there be a change of policy because “the New York City Housing Authority has no formal policy in place for how its spaces can be used…and therefore none to be changed.”

The housing authority also denies that any religious group would be required to leave until a new policy is put into place. Sheila Stainback, a Communications Officer for NYCHA, issued a formal statement last night in response to A Journey’s enquires that states as the policy is being formulated,  “Meantime, NYCHA has allowed current facility uses to continue under our short-term lease agreement.”

NYCHA officials point out that all groups have only short-term, often month-by-month, lease agreements with outside groups. However, there is some confusion in their terminology which has left pastors with the impression that they have leases. Several pastors contacted by A Journey say that they have lease agreements. However, NYCHA makes a distinction: “The New York City Housing Authority does not have ‘leases’ in any of these cases, and therefore there is absolutely no landlord tenant arrangement. Rather, NYCHA issues temporary applications for short-term facility uses. However, NYCHA also calls “these “applications” by the name of “short-term lease agreement.”

Today, NYCHA seems to be backtracking on its stealth ouster of the churches. After the arrests of several protesting pastors in front of the NYC Department of Law, Pastor John Acevedo of the Open Door Fellowship received word that his church could hold their baptismal service in the Dewitt-Clinton Community Center in East Harlem after all. A NYCHA official told A Journey that NYCHA’s Board will establish their new policy “in the coming of weeks.” We will see if NYCHA will give religious groups a valentine or a raspberry in February.

 

With additional reporting by Melissa Kimiadi.

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