County Legislator Bernice Spreckman, the leading voice for seniors on the Westchester County Legislature, said yesterday the WestHELP apartments should be razed because the units “are not suitable for seniors.”
Spreckman, R-Yonkers, made her comments in response to questions from Tax Watch, about her support for the plan by Ferncliff Manor to tear down the affordable apartments and build a residential school for developmentally disabled students now housed at an outdated Yonkers facility.
The housing was put up in 1991 as part of a deal struck by former County Executive Andrew O’Rourke, housing advocate Andrew Cuomo, and Greenburgh Supervisor Tony Veteran. According to the agreement, Cuomo would get the apartments for 10 years, and then Greenburgh would have the apartments for 30 years as rental housing for low- and moderate-income tenants, preferably seniors or municipal workers.
Cuomo’s HELP organization housed the homeless for an additional years, and then closed the facility in September, 2011.
Greenburgh has refused to rent the apartments since the keys were handed over in October, 2011, as officials have worked with Ferncliff on the plan to tear down the apartments and build its campus and use the WestHELP administration building for classrooms.
Spreckman, in a written statement, said the WestHELP apartments were inadequate for senior citizens because the buildings are two stories, with stairs that go up to second-floor apartments instead of elevators. She said there were also not in compliance with the Universal Design standards for affordable housing, enacted by the Board of Legislature in 2011.
“The buildings are two stories and have outdoor stairs with no elevators,” she said. “The size of the units is smaller than the county’s minimum standards for affordable housing and the units are not compliant with the Universal Design Legislation specifications that I fought to get passed here in Westchester.”
Matt Richter, a spokesman for the Legislature’s Republicans, said the entrance to the first-floor apartments could also prove problematic as could the kitchens.
“The primary problem is the access,” he said. “UD standards dictate that there be no steps from the ground to the main entrance. Another issue may be with the kitchen appliances. They are supposed to have an open space next to each appliance to allow someone in a wheelchair to be able to approach the appliance by allowing their legs and the front of the wheelchair to be alongside the appliance.
According to the legislation, the design standards would be applicable to new construction that was funded by Westchester County’s fair and affordable housing programs. However, none of the proposals by five affordable housing companies looking to rehab, and rent the apartments, seek county funding for the renovations they have proposed, according to presentations made to the Greenburgh Town Council.
The proposals to renovate the apartments range from combining some apartments to make bigger units, to modest renovations that would create 450-square foot apartments that would rent for $895 a month. Most of the plans call for renting the apartments to seniors, as contemplated by the 1990 agreement. Westchester Community College President Joe Hankin supports proposals to rent to seniors, who could avail themselves of WCC lifelong learning courses.
Spreckman said Westchester can do better for its seniors than having them live at WestHELP, which is located in the woods on the entrance to Westchester Community College on Knollwood Road.
“I have always been and will continue to be an advocate for senior housing but I’m not willing to “warehouse” seniors in inadequate housing that they will not be able to safely get in or out of just to satisfy some perceived quota,” she said. “We can do better for our seniors than the facility that currently exists in Greenburgh.”
The town of Greenburgh has failed to meet its goal for affordable housing, under the Westchester Housing Opportunity Commission’s Housing Allocation Plan, developed by Rutgers University, which called for about 10,000 affordable units by 2015. Westchester has build about 3,000, with Greenburgh falling almost 500 units short of its allocation. Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino told Tax Watch earlier this month that he no longer considers the plan the county’s policy.
Edgemont civic leader Bob Bernstein said applying that Universal Design standard retroactively to affordable housing that’s already been build could lead to the diminution of Westchester’s low-cost housing stock.
“By her logic, we’d destroy anything that didn’t meet the standard,” Bernstein said. “And it’s far-fetched to say that seniors living at WestHELP would be warehoused. Nobody spoke of warehousing the homeless when they lived there for 20 years.”
Proponents for preserving the WestHELP housing have questioned how those who want to demolish the apartments would replace the public asset, which is owned, free-and-clear by Westchester County taxpayers.
Spreckman said allowing Ferncliff Manor, a private agency, to build its campus on the county land, would suffice.
“The Ferncliff project will replace the existing units which I know are not in the good condition you claim they are in,” she wrote. “Ferncliff’s plan will use the existing community building adding a big addition. It will replace the mold-infested and inadequate dorm-style housing with brand new housing for a segment of our population that has an immediate need that we cannot in good conscience ignore. The new housing will last for at least 50 years, which is a generation beyond the temporary housing that is currently there. The new housing will also be a county asset equal to or greater in value than what is there.”
But Bernstein, who has suggested that a taxpayer sue Westchester if those units are razed with adequate compensation, said letting Ferncliff build its campus for 50 years would not compensate county taxpayers for the loss of the WestHELP apartments, which have been valued to be worth as much as $20 million.
“It wouldn’t be a county asset, it would be an asset for a private school, albeit to be used for a public purpose,” he said. “After 50 years, the county will be left with a building too old to be used for anything.”