A promising proposal to rebuild the WestHELP homeless complex for affordable housing emerged Tuesday as Alec Roberts, of the White Plains-based Community Housing Innovations detailed his plan to invest up to $3 million to create 108 units for senior citizens.
It’s the kind of plan contemplated by county and town leaders more than 20 years ago when the deal was struck to construct the complex on six acres of county land at Westchester Community College’s Knollwood Gate.
Roberts’ non-profit company would also make the complex’s administration building, with its eight classrooms, several offices and multi-purpose room, available to community groups, such as the Lois Bronz Childrens Center, for $1 a year. He would pay the town $350,000 a year.
Roberts, whose company is the leading provider of housing to the homeless in Long Island, and the second-largest provider in Westchester, told the Greenburgh Town Board that it would be folly to raze the apartments, which were built just two decades ago, and worth $20 million.
Roberts said his plan would make the one-bedroom apartments available for $895 a month, with new kitchens and bathrooms.
“It would be crazy to get rid of $20 million in affordable housing,” he told the board. “The county pays $200,000 a unit to build affordable housing. It’s not fiscally responsible to destroy it.”
Roberts made his comments as the Town Board reviews six proposals for the complex, which is under the town’s control until 2031 if the apartments are rented to low- and moderate-income tenants. Town Supervisor Paul Feiner, meanwhile, continued his campaign to tear down the apartments so a Yonkers agency, Ferncliff Manor, can build a residential community for 64 severe disabled children and young adults.
Richard Hyman, the former Mount Vernon planning commissioner who worked for nine years at WestHELP, reminded the board that the units were only 20 years old, and built to last. They are about 450 square feet, which would be adequate for two adults, he said. He said the first-floor apartments were handicapped accessible, and several have kitchens set up for disabled tenants. The lack of elevators, he said, wouldn’t hurt marketing to healthy seniors who don’t have a problem walking up one flight of stairs.
“It’s a facility worth keeping,” he told the panel.
Feiner has argued that the town has fulfilled its commitment to provide affordable housing, so it would be acceptable to raze 108 units. He has noted that the town was not among 31 communities required to build housing under the federal fair-housing settlement that has mandated construction of 750 affordable units.
But Hyman told me that the town of Greenburgh has failed to live up to its obligations under Westchester’s Housing Allocation Plan, which was issued by the Westchester Housing Implementation Commission in 2004, and covered the years 2000- 2015.
The plan’s most-recent revision calls for 10,768 affordable units by 2015. By November, 2012, the county was still short of its goal by 7,005 units, according to a copy of the report submitted to the federal housing monitor that was obtained by Tax Watch. Greenburgh’s allocation was for 701 affordable units. The town has constructed 209 units, which leaves the town 492 units short of the county’s goal.
“They are still more than 7,000 units short of the county goal,” Hymen said.
The Greenburgh Town Board, meanwhile, still seemed intent on supporting the Ferncliff Manor plan, which offered the town $500,000 a year. The for-profit agency, which will form a non-profit to run the Greenburgh site, has mounted a lobbying campaign at the county Board of Legislators, appearing every two weeks at meetings to voice their support for moving their campus from Yonkers to Greenburgh.
I spoke with Feiner after the meeting, and he was insisting upon another meeting with the county Board of Legislators, to determine if the opposition had been softened up by the emotional pleas. The Legislature’s Democratic majority has been unequivocal in its opposition to the Ferncliff plan, which has picked up County Executive Rob Astorino’s endorsement.
Feiner had invited legislative leaders and Greenburgh legislators to the meeting, but only County Legislator Michael Smith, R-Greenburgh, who supports the Ferncliff plan, attended. Feiner was peeved that the Democratic legislators shunned his invitation.
“I don’t think the Town Board wants to back off Ferncliff unless the county tells us it won’t happen,” Feiner said. “I don’t understand why they won’t meet. It’s very frustrating. I’ve never dealt with Legislature that won’t even talk to you.”
Feiner’s last appearance before the Legislature ended in a shouting match between Feiner and legislators.
Tom Staudter, spokesman for the Legislature’s Democratic majority, said there was no reason for another meeting with Feiner.
“When the county granted control of WestHELP to the town, it was granted on one condition: that it be rented to low- and moderate-income tenants as provided in the original deed,” he said. “What else does he need to know?”
Smith was joined at the Town Board’s table by his wife, Marie, president of the Mayfair Knollwood Civic Association. She liked Ferncliff too.
Legislator Smith declared that WestHELP didn’t seem to be “state-of-the-art” for seniors and said the apartments, which are arrayed around a grassy courtyard, would not be appropriate for seniors because they would have to walk too far. He was also worried that 108 units of affordable housing would put a bigger strain on local emergency services than the Ferncliff plan.
“You need to look at the demand for municipal services,” he said. “Ferncliff wouldn’t require police, fire or emergency services.”
His wife said the neighborhood association, which has led the opposition to the project in the late 1980s, was concerned with property values, neighborhood safety, and its impact on the Valhalla school district. These were the same concerns raised in the late 1980s, which proved unfounded during WestHELP’s 20-year run as transitional housing for homeless families.
“We are concerned with the safety of our community,” she said. “You won’t be able to sell your homes. People won’t move into a neighborhood that’s not safe.”
She said Ferncliff’s clientele would not threaten the middle-class enclave of single-family homes. “Ferncliff would be perfect for us,” she said.
Roberts assured Mayfair Knollwood leader Smith that he would work with the neighborhood group, setting up an advisory committee and including the neighborhood organization in the planning process.
By meeting’s end, Marie Smith said she was open to Roberts’ senior housing proposal. “We’d rather have Ferncliff, but if it was seniors, we’d be fine with that,” she said. “We are open to talking.”
Photo: Affordable housing provider Alec Roberts, left, joins Greenburgh Supervisor Feiner, Mayfair Knowlwood Neighborhood Association Co-President Marie Smith, County Legislator Michael Smith, and Greenburgh Town Attorney Timothy Lewis at Greenburgh Town Hall. Housing consultant Richard Hyman, sits behind the Smiths. Photo/David McKay Wilson