Andrew Cuomo made a promise to Westchester County taxpayers in 1990 when, as a young housing advocate, he forged the bipartisan accord that brought construction of his WestHELP homeless complex at the Westchester Community College campus in Greenburgh.
Cuomo signed the agreement, with Westchester County Executive Andrew O’Rourke, and Greenburgh Supervisor Tony Veteran.
Let the organization I lead build a national model for transitional housing, and we’ll use the apartments for just 10 years, Cuomo told Westchester residents. In exchange for accepting the burden of housing those most in need of shelter, Westchester taxpayers will receive a complex of rental housing, to serve low- and moderate income tenants for an additional 30 years.
It was a good bargain for Westchester, which got built the housing it so sorely needed and now owns the 108 apartments, with the mortgage paid off. Housing advocates say the complex is valued for as much as $20 million. It was also a good deal for Andrew Cuomo, now New York’s governor, who parlayed his success at the HELP organization into a national profile in the housing field, which eventually led to his appointment in the Clinton cabinet as secretary of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The need for homeless housing here led to changes in Cuomo’s deal with Westchester County and the town of Greenburgh. WestHELP got an additional 10 years, during which time the town of Greenburgh received $12 million to extend the homeless lease. Then, in 2011, County Executive Rob Astorino declared WestHELP was no longer needed, so the complex came under control of the town, which had agreed in 1990 to rent it for low- and moderate income tenants for the ensuing 20 years.
The town has since worked to tear down the apartments in a plan promoted by Ferncliff Manor, a Yonkers agency that serves the disabled, which wants to build a campus on the six-acre parcel and provide a steady income stream to the cash-starved town. The disabled need housing too, Ferncliff advocates, proclaim. And infrastructure that serves the 108 apartments means we can build our campus far cheaper than if we developed vacant land.
Now it’s up to the former HUD secretary to decide whether he’ll honor the affordable-housing promise he made to Westchester taxpayers 22 years ago.
Several housing organizations this week proposed rehabilitating the apartments for senior citizens or families. One developer, Community Housing Innovations, proposed a project called Campus Gardens, which has the support of Westchester Community College President Joe Hankin, and would house active seniors in one-bedrooms that rent for $895 a month who could avail themselves of lifelong learning opportunities at the community college.
The Greenburgh Town Board likes Ferncliff because it provides it would provide the town with $500,000 a year in rent – $140,000 more than the highest bid from affordable housing operators.
Ferncliff Manor has asked the state for a written commitment for Greenburgh, in which the state would agree to pay the town $10 million over the next 20 years so it can tear down the apartments, fix up the WestHELP administration building, and build its campus where Cuomo promised that low- and moderate-income tenants would live.
The deal hinges on whether the Cuomo administration will issue the $10-million guarantee and countenance the destruction of 108 affordable apartments, without any plan to replace the units that will meet the wrecking ball.
Two Greenburgh county legislators – Mary Jane Shimsky and Alfreda Williams – say they need a written guarantee from the Cuomo administration to support the project. Their support would be crucial to winning the super-majority on the county Board of Legislators needed to approve Ferncliff’s 50-year lease.
“The children of Ferncliff need a new home, and it would be best for everyone concerned — children, staff, and families — if that home remains in Westchester County,” Shimsky and Williams wrote in a statement issued Tuesday. “On the other hand, the taxpayers of Greenburgh, who are also taxpayers in Westchester County, need protection as well. A lease with Ferncliff will entail the demolition of the county-owned residential buildings currently on the site, without a penny’s compensation; and, judging from the other RFP responses, those buildings are still eminently usable. If, on top of losing most of the fixed assets on the site, the State refuses to pay the $500,000 figure, those taxpayers will be all the poorer: a site that used to net the town over a million dollars in rent a year will result in no appreciable gain for town or county taxpayers.”
Lobbyist Jim Cavanaugh, who represents Ferncliff Manor, says the Yonkers agency needs an exception from state regulations to make the deal work.
Cavanaugh says Ferncliff, is under the gun to find a new home for its outdated Yonkers facility, and has been meeting monthly with three state agencies that govern, and finance its operation – the state Department of Education, which oversees education; the Office for People with Developmental Disabilities and the Office of Children and Family Services, which regulate and fund Ferncliff’s residential component.
To win state support for a new facility, Cavanaugh says Ferncliff needs to submit a plan, which would have the annual rental payment included. That plan would then be reviewed, and presumably approved, by the state.
But Greenburgh won’t agree to provide the site to Ferncliff until it gets the state’s $10 million guarantee. And it’s doubtful Greenburgh would win support from the county Board of Legislators without it.
“You have to have a site in order to develop a plan,” Cavanaugh wrote in a Tuesday email. “And you can’t get a site without offering rent. Ferncliff has been making the point that unless they knew what rental level the state would support, it is impossible to get site control since you don’t know what to offer. So several months ago, at one of the monthly meetings, the three agencies said that their normal formulas would support a combined rent of slightly more than $500,000 a year. But they also said they did not want to put that in writing, because that would mean they are making a commitment ahead of a submission. A bit of a Catch 22, and we are doing our best to deal with it. We understand Greenburgh’s need for comfort on the number, and hopefully the State will provide something that accomplishes it.”
Cavanaugh acknowledged that the agreement Cuomo inked in 1990 didn’t include housing for the disabled as one of the possible post-WestHELP uses. But societal needs can shift, he said.
“I well understand that when WestHELP was built, it was stated that eventually it would be used for affordable or senior housing,” he said.” If someone had included the disabled back then , I don’t think anyone would have objected. But 25 years ago disabled kids weren’t one anyone’s list. Times change. There are lots of places in Westchester to put affordable housing, but not so many places for affordable housing for disabled kids.”