FDNY closes migrant shelter over fire code violations
Inspectors cited failure to provide sprinklers, fire alarm at the site of the former St. John Villa Academy
By Paul Liotta
Staten Island Advance
NEW YORK — Migrants left the city shelter set up at the former St. John Villa Academy Monday after the FDNY shut the site down, the Advance/SILive.com has learned.
State Sen. Jessica Scarcella-Spanton (D-North Shore/South Brooklyn) shared a photo of people with suitcases leaving the shelter boarding a city bus, and an FDNY vacate order citing a failure to provide a sprinkler system and a fire alarm system.
“From the beginning, we have always stood firm that a migrant shelter at Villa was an issue of safety. Todays closure by the FDNY proves what we’ve said all along,” Scarcella-Spanton said. “We hope that this shows the city how critical input is from the elected officials and neighbors who know their community best. As an alumni of St. John Villa Academy, I look forward to its next chapter, being a school that Staten Islanders deserve.”
A visit to the site by and Advance/SILive.com photographer confirmed that people were leaving the shelter, and the bus they boarded was seen leaving the Island via the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge.
Mayor Eric Adams’ administration confirmed the shelter would be closing Monday, but tried to downplay the move as part of routine FDNY inspections.
The Villa site’s closure followed the Thursday closure of another city shelter set up at the former site of the Richard H. Hungerford School in Stapleton over apparent asbestos concerns.
“As the city continues to receive thousands of asylum seekers weekly, we immediately work with our agencies to ensure the safety and security of all those in our care,” the spokesperson said. “Asylum seekers have undergone long and arduous journeys before arriving in New York City, and we are committed to keeping them safe while staying at emergency shelters. When identifying emergency sites, we work with agencies to ensure we are taking the proper fire protective measures.”
Since spring 2022, more than 110,000 people from around the globe have made their way to the five boroughs. Over 64,000 people still in the city’s care have prompted Adams’ administration to set up more than 210 emergency shelters around the five boroughs.
Several shelters set up around Staten Island have drawn large protests, including one outside Villa that drew over 1,000 people in late August.
Borough President Vito Fossella applauded the FDNY’s closure of the site citing zoning in the area and saying the site was inappropriate for habitation.
“From day one, we said that this facility was not only a horrible location for a migrant shelter, but also was not viable,” he said. “We maintained that there were not only locational but more significantly, safety issues with the site. We are beyond pleased that, finally, our opinions have been validated by the FDNY. It’s time for the lives of the people of Arrochar and the students at St. Joseph Hill and P.S. 39 to get back to normal.”
Fossella along with other local Republican elected officials and Scott Herket, a neighbor who lives directly next to Villa, filed a lawsuit in August seeking to close the shelter raising similar concerns about the site’s operation.
New York Supreme Court Judge Wayne Ozzi sided with the plaintiffs on Sept. 26 granting a preliminary injunction against the site, but Adams’ administration notified the court of their intention to appeal citing a portion of state law that prevents Ozzi’ ruling from being enforced.
“Today’s actions taken by the Fire Department demonstrates what we, the elected officials and residents, have been saying since the beginning of this nightmare,” Assemblyman Michael Tannousis (R-East Shore/South Brooklyn) said. “This location is the absolute worst possible location for a migrant shelter. Unfortunately, the fire department had to take action before someone became seriously injured. If only we were consulted beforehand, this migrant shelter would not have opened in the first place.”
Attorneys Mark Fonte and Louis Gelormino are representing the local case’s plaintiffs against the city, and on Monday, Fonte credited local elected officials for bringing the lawsuit.
“Relentless pressure from the community, elected officials, activists, lawyers and even a Supreme Court Judge caused the City to stand down,” Fonte said. “Much credit should go to our Borough President Vito Fossella for being the tip of the spear.”
On Friday, most of Staten Island’s elected officials gathered outside the Villa site to notify the public of the impending FDNY inspection that they expected would result in the shelter’s closure.
During that Friday press conference, Councilman Joseph Borelli (R-South Shore) tied the impending inspection to an alleged dispute in Adams’ administration among City Hall, the Office of Emergency Management (OEM), which operates the Villa shelter, and the FDNY over fire safety conditions at several migrant shelters around the five boroughs.
The councilman shared a list of several locations around the city that are scheduled for inspections, including the Villa shelter and two others at the former Staten Island Motor Lodge on Hylan Boulevard and the Ramada Inn on North Gannon Avenue.
“Finally, the pendulum is swinging back, and folks are starting to realize this has been ridiculous from the beginning,” he said Monday.
When the site initially opened, city officials said the shelter would have capacity for 300 people primarily housing families with children.
Scarcella-Spanton, Tannousis, and Councilman David Carr (R-Mid-Island) toured the Villa site shortly before it opened in August, and said at the time that the location was in too poor a condition for migrant housing.
Scarcella-Spanton and Tannousis on Friday shed a bit more light on what they saw, saying the location was filled with wall-to-wall cots, and that the conditions were unacceptable for the new arrivals.
“The former St. John Villa campus was never an appropriate site to be used as a shelter,” Carr said. “It is about time it was closed, and I appreciate the FDNY refusing to compromise on safety standards. This should send a signal to the City that it is long past time for us to end our open-ended commitment to sheltering migrants.”
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Other elected officials shared the following statements on the closure of the Villa shelter:
“The residents surrounding St. John’s Villa did not deserve this disruption to their neighborhood of heavy police presence, nightly protests, and smells of raw sewage,” Rep. Nicole Malliotakis (R-Staten Island/South Brooklyn) said. “St. John’s Villa should have already been made a public school as promised and zoned for, not a migrant shelter. We hope this is the beginning of New York City putting the needs and desires of our citizens and our community first.”
“For well over a month, we have alerted the city and state of the fire and safety violations existing at the building. While it is good the city has finally acted, both the fire and police commissioner need to explain to the people why it has taken so long to act,” said State Senator Andrew Lanza.
“I am glad that the shelter is finally being shuttered and the residents of this community can return to normalcy,” said Assemblyman Sam Pirozzolo. “We all knew there were safety concerns here and the placement of migrants at this site was always improper.”
“The site of former St. John Villa Academy and the events of these past several weeks exposed the hypocrisy of out of touch city bureaucrats whose subversive actions sought to prioritize sanctuary city rhetoric over the safety of our communities, egregiously violating basic fire code in the process and placing thousands of lives collectively at risk,” said Assemblyman Michael Reilly. “No community, not in this city, state, or country, should be forced to deal with the consequences of this federal government’s reckless border policies.”