Staten Island Judge Steps Into Migrant Shelter Mess

On September 26, 2023, a state court judge in Staten Island issued a preliminary injunction barring the City of New York from continuing to use a closed Catholic school building as a migrant shelter.

In August, a Staten Island resident and several Republican elected officials went to court to challenge the City’s proposed use of the former St. John’s Villa Academy to shelter up to 300 of the approximately 60,000 migrants that are under the City’s care. The school building, which is now owned by the City, is located in a residential neighborhood consisting mostly of one-family homes; a girls’ school is nearby. The City has moved approximately 70 individuals into the shelter, and neighbors complain of loud noises, murky water, and bad odors coming from the building. Protests—including unpleasant and unlawful behavior by anti-shelter protesters—have ensued.

Legally, this case deals with the question of whether a “right to shelter” exists that would require the City or the state to provide shelter to migrants. A related question is whether two emergency declarations from New York City Mayor Eric Adams allowed the City to bypass existing laws in setting up the Staten Island migrant shelter. Hon. Wayne M. Ozzi, J.S.C. held that the 1981 consent decree frequently cited as the basis for a “right to shelter” within the City of New York was not a binding precedent. The Justice added that Article XVII of the New York State Constitution did not create a “right to shelter.” Furthermore, Justice Ozzi ruled that the influx of migrants into the City of New York did not justify Mayor Adams’s emergency declarations or the suspension of existing laws. Justice Ozzi further held that the applicable zoning ordinances did not allow a migrant shelter, and that a local law giving residents the right to a community hearing had been violated. On that basis, Justice Ozzi enjoined the City against using the former St. John’s Villa Academy as a migrant shelter and directed the City to cease using the property for that purpose. The City has stated that it intends to appeal this ruling and to continue using the property as a migrant shelter as the litigation proceeds.

New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms believes that the City may prevail on some portions of its appeal. Specifically, Justice Ozzi’s rulings on the 1981 “right to shelter” consent decree and on the need for an emergency declaration could be vulnerable. While we can empathize with the concerns Staten Island residents would have about having a migrant shelter opened in their neighborhood, we are also mindful that Mayor Adams is dealing with the extraordinary challenge of housing 60,000 people on relatively short notice. There are no easy answers here.

Ultimately, the Biden Administration and Congress must act to stem the tide of undocumented migrants into the United States. If it fails to do so, New Yorkers can expect many more situations like this one to arise.

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