New Rochelle Mayor Noam Bramson, who wants to unseat County Executive Rob Astorino, won’t have to debate the incumbent over demolition of the county’s WestHELP apartments if he wins the Democratic nomination for the race.
Bramson, a Democrat, told Tax Watch on Thursday, that the needs of the developmentally disabled children served by Ferncliff Manor should come before the needs of Greenburgh residents who seek affordable housing. He agrees with Astorino that demolishing the 108 affordable apartments makes sense because the for-profit social service agency needs a new site.
“The specific, urgent needs confronting the vulnerable population at Ferncliff ought to be the primary consideration in resolving the issue,” Bramson said.
Ferncliff, which will form a non-profit subsidiary to operate its new campus, is under pressure from the Cuomo administration to build a new campus to replace its outdated facility in Yonkers. Its plan has been promoted by lobbyist Jim Cavanaugh, the former Eastchester supervisor. The agency has threatened to move from Westchester if the WestHELP deal falls through.
Challenging Bramson for the nomination is Board of Legislators Chairman Ken Jenkins, D-Yonkers, who earlier this week asked Astorino to hold Greenburgh in default of its lease, and take the apartments back under county control.
“Everybody wants to help Ferncliff, but not at the cost of tearing down affordable housing,” Jenkins said. “It’s not right to pit one group against another and ask one group to give up something we invested taxpayers’ money into building. There’s a huge public investment here.”
Bramson joins a growing list of Democrats who seeks to raze the affordable apartments built by housing advocate Andrew Cuomo, who now stands as the state’s leading Democrat, and governor. Others favoring demolition include Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, D-Scarsdale, Assemblyman Tom Abinanti, D-Mount Pleasant, County Legislator Mike Kaplowitz, D-Somers, and Greenburgh Supervisor Paul Feiner and his four Democratic Town Council members – Diana Jeuttner, Francis Sheehan, Ken Jones, and Kevin Morgan.
According to the agreement, which was promoted by Feiner when he served on the County Board of Legislators, Cuomo would get the WestHELP apartments to house the homeless for 10 years, and then the town of Greenburgh would rent them for low- and moderate-income for the ensuing 30 years. WestHELP won a second ten-year agreement, during which time Greenburgh was paid $12 million.
To mollify the Mayfair Knollwood Civic Association, the town agreed to pay the Valhalla school district $650,000 a year as a so-called “social dividend” for allowing the homeless shelter to operate, behind barbed wire, through the woods by their neighborhood. The state Comptroller found the payments illegal, and a state Supreme Court justice later concurred, with Valhalla ordered to repay Greenburgh $1.1 million.
WestHELP, valued at $20 million, is Westchester’s sole affordable housing asset, with the project owned free-and-clear. Kaplowitz said he would defer to the desires of the town of Greenburgh for what’s done with the property for the remaining 18 years of the 40-year WestHELP deal. Though the agreement states that Greenburgh must use the property for affordable housing, Kaplowitz said he’s looking to Greenburgh for what to do with the county asset.
“You need to look at the whole picture,” said Kaplowitz. “I love Ferncliff and I love housing. It’s like having two kids, and you love them both. There’s merit to both sides. Ferncliff, they deserve affordable housing. If Greenburgh sees it in their interest, and it’s in the best interest of Greenburgh, then I would look to that as guidance.”
He said that razing the apartments, valued at $20 million, would be mitigated by the fact that Ferncliff would be building a project that would replace it.
“I’m getting a county asset from Ferncliff that is just as great, or greater,” Kaplowitz said.