Jonas Ekblom

Swedish journalist with breaking newsroom experience and prize-awarded photography. Currently reporter at Reuters in Brussels, previously Washington D.C.

Recepient of the 2019 Overseas Press Club Scholar Award and Reuters Fellow. Top-of-class MS (Honors) graduate from Columbia Journalism School.

Previously at Swedish Public Radio (Sveriges Radio) and other outlets.

“They lied to us!” - Salvation Army forces seniors to move across New York

“They lied to us!” - Salvation Army forces seniors to move across New York

Residents of a Salvation Army-owned senior residency on the Upper West Side feel continuously betrayed and lied to after being forced to move across town to East Harlem this summer after the building they live in was sold to a luxury developer for $108 million.

The residents complain that the Salvation Army are not only breaking up what they call a tight-knit “micro-community,” but also that the organization continuously lied during the process.

“The Salvation Army is only in the real estate business,” Eva Yachnes, 87, angrily said about the way their landlord had treated her and her neighbors in The Williams residence during the past five years.

She and several other residents said that when an impending sale of the move was rumored in 2014, the Salvation Army called a meeting explaining that the residents had several options, such as renovating the building with a large rent increase or sell the place.

“What we found later was the fact that they had already sold the place,” Yachnes said. “They lied to us when they said we had choices.”

Many of the over 350 residents of The Williams bounded together and took action and hired a lawyer who worked with them pro bono. Politicians got involved, including Manhattan borough president Gale Brewer, who called the Salvation Army’s behavior “outrageous.” As the outrage increased, the Salvation Army hired PR firm Berlin Rosen to handle the fallout.

In 2016, the seniors finally stroke a deal with the Salvation Army saying that the residents would not be forced to move until a new residence is completed, and that rents in the new building would be locked for the first three years. The new residence on East 125th Street and Lexington Avenue have been plagued by delays and the moving date has been postponed on several occasions, exacerbating the stress among the seniors, which includes several centenarians.

84-year-old William Suda moved into The Williams after his wife died in 2009. “This place saved me,” he explained. “It became a haven.”

Williams also says that there is a distance between the organization and the building administration and the residents: “They don’t really tell us that much. They keep us in the dark,” he said. “It’s a sort of elitism.”

The Salvation Army, who did not respond to interview requests, have previously found themselves in hot water when trying to sell similar buildings that were also originally old single room occupancy hotels (SROs), including one that provided 600 affordable housing units for women in Midtown.

Suda, just like many other residents, are excited about living in an entirely new building, and have visited the new location, but the prospect is overshadowed by the emotional stress the move and its uncertainties have brought. Most former residents have already moved and seniors have found their friends scattered across New York. Out of the original 350 residents only 80 remain.

Because there are fewer tenants in the building, the Salvation Army has turned down the heating and the hot water, and Yachnes bought a thermometer to check if the water was less than the by New York law required 120 degrees.

“I’ve never seen it above a 102,” Yachnes said.

Many seniors think that their landlord is only out to make as much money as possible. “The Salvation Army is capitalist!” said another resident, Frances Molinari, who says her health has deteriorated because of all the uncertainties.

That seniors find moving more stressful than younger persons has been well-studied, and the effects are even worse among seniors who are forced to move: Forced displacement leads to higher levels of stress which can increase mortality rates, a study by Berth Danermark in the European Journal of Public Health, found.

“I have found myself couple of nights crying,” said Yachnes.

Despite of all the stresses of being forced to move out of what many thought would be their home for the rest of their lives, they try to look to the future with optimism:

“I find it difficult to move myself,” Yachnes said. “I’m trying really hard to be absolutely positive about the move because what can you do?”

“I’m hoping a lot of nice people will come in,” a hopeful Williams said.

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