Despite solid opposition from the county Board of Legislators, Greenburgh Supervisor Paul Feiner continues to press forward with his effort to tear down 108 affordable apartments at the WestHELP complex so that a Yonkers-based agency can build a campus for developmentally disabled children.
Now the Democrat-controlled town government has the Republican administration of County Executive Rob Astorino on his side. Astorino spokeswoman Donna Greene said on Thursday that the county’s Law Department was working with Greenburgh on a lease agreement with Ferncliff, which will be presented to the county board.
“Our preference is for Ferncliff,” Feiner told Tax Watch. “But we aren’t going to wait indefinitely. If Ferncliff falls through, then obviously we will move forward with affordable housing.”
Board of Legislators Chairman Ken Jenkins, D-Yonkers, says the Democrat-controlled panel has no intention of backing a plan that would remove 108 affordable apartments from the housing market. The apartments, located on the campus of Westchester Community College, are owned by Westchester County, and are under Greenburgh’s control through 2031 as part of the agreement that brought construction of the complex in 1991 to serve as a national model for transitional housing for the homeless.
Since the complex closed in the fall of 2011, Greenburgh has had the right to operate the complex, as long as the apartments are rented to low-and moderate-income tenants. Greenburgh, however, has kept the units vacant.
Jenkins noted that Westchester County is currently under federal court order to comply with the settlement of federal housing discrimination lawsuit , which remains tangled up in US District Court, with the federal monitor charging that Westchester has failed to live up to its obligations.
“We have made our position very, very clear,” said Jenkins. “We are not going to allow the tearing down of perfectly good affordable housing that we could get people in right now. We are concerned about the situation.”
The settlement calls for Westchester to build 750 affordable units in 31 predominantly white communities, of which Greenburgh is not one.
Greene said tearing down affordable apartments that are owned by the county would have no impact on the case.
“What goes on in Greenburgh with housing has nothing to do with the county’s housing settlement,” she said. “The settlement deals with 31 so-called eligible communities; Greenburgh is not one of them.
But Edgemont civic leader Robert Bernstein notes that the settlement also has countywide obligations, including the source-of-income legislation, which would prohibit landlords countywide from discriminating against low-income tenants who qualify for federal housing support through the Section 8 program.
“The county has an affirmative obligation to support low- and moderate-income housing countywide,” said Bernstein. “You cannot be in the position of saying that we agree to promote affordable housing in 31 communities and we can tear it down everywhere else.”
Bernstein urged housing advocates to speak out on the issue.
“It’s morally reprehensible that the units are still vacant, and nobody seems to be complaining about it,” Bernstein said. “Greenburgh is keeping them vacant, and getting away with it.”
Since May, the county legislators have been working with Ferncliff to find alternative sites on county land where it could build its residential campus.
Jim Cavanaugh, of Empire Planning Strategies, which represents Ferncliff, said the Legislature’s suggestion that the agency build on the North 60 near Westchester Medical Center appears infeasible.
“The biggest issue with the North 60 is that any project is several years away, and the State will not hold funds for Ferncliff that long,” he said.
He said two or three other sites at the county’s Valhalla campus bear further study and may have potential. But he’s not sure Ferncliff would want to build its residential facility near the county’s Volunteers of America homeless shelter in Valhalla, which Cavanaugh said has housed sex offenders.
“It would be important to avoid any potential security issues since Ferncliff has a very vulnerable population,” he said. “This may be an issue for at least one of the sites.”
Cavanaugh says Ferncliff would prefer the six-acre WestHELP site. Ferncliff would tear down the apartments but keep the administration center and its eight classrooms, which would be used for Ferncliff’s educational program.
“Ferncliff continues to believe the WestHELP site makes the most sense, since they could begin using the main building as a school within just a few months, and could begin construction of the residences soon after,” he said. “The WestHELP site also remains the most cost-effective by far for the state taxpayers who will be paying for the cost of construction.”
That decision will be made in the coming weeks, after the Astorino administration sends its proposed lease to the Legislature for review, and action.
Feiner has argued that Ferncliff will provide a steady stream of funding for the town. Housing advocates say the apartments could yield as much as $1 million a year. The complex brought in $1.2 million a year to the town while it served as a homeless shelter.
The town will receive $400,000 from the Valhalla schools by Sept. 15 in the first installment on the $1.1 million settlement of the lawsuit regarding the town’s payments to the schools as part of the deal that allowed the homeless shelter to operate from 2001 to 2011. A Supreme Court justice ruled that the payments were illegal. Bernstein and Dobbs Ferry attorney Herb Rosenberg intervened in the case, resulting in last week’s negotiated settlement.
Feiner has said that the apartments will need some fixing up if they were to be rented. Tax Watch asked Feiner if he might consider using the $400,000 from the WestHELP settlement to get the apartments in shape.
He said he wants the WestHELP money to go directly to the town’s general fund.
“We going to use it to keep taxes down,” he said. “We can’t afford major tax increases. We are committed to staying within the state’s 2 percent tax-cap.”