At former Westchester County Executive Andrew O’Rourke’s last public appearance in May, 2012, I asked him about the future of the WestHELP apartments he built in 1990, in a grand deal with housing advocate Andrew Cuomo and Greenburgh Supervisor Tony Veteran.
“We wanted them for seniors,” O’Rourke said. “Those are good solid apartments. They weren’t just thrown up.”
But O’Rourke vision, spelled out in the tripartite lease agreement struck that year, is in serious peril, as a bipartisan alliance of state, county and municipal leaders say housing for seniors aged 55 and older should be shelved in favor of a plan to serve disabled children, a majority of which hail from outside of Westchester. The 40-year agreement called for rental housing for low- and moderate- income tenants, preferably seniors or municipal workers.
It cost $12.5 million to build the 108 apartments in 1990. Replacing 108 affordable apartments could cost at least $20 million, based on the costs of affordable housing developments across Westchester County.
Five developers say they’d rehabilitate the apartments to serve either seniors or families. Some proposals tap into federal assistance with the Low-Income Tax Credit program while others would obtain private bank loans to renovate the units.
The senior community has been largely silent on preserving the housing in Greenburgh. So far, supporters of the housing have included the NAACP’s White Plains/Greenburgh chapter, and two affordable housing non-profits, Mount Vernon United Tenants, and Community Housing Inc. of White Plains. CHI has a proposed to borrow $3 million to renovate the 108 efficiency apartments into 108 one-bedroom apartments for seniors.
“You cannot import a school onto county-owned property for the purpose of excluding low- and moderate income families under the guise of helping disabled children,” NAACP Branch President Lena Anderson told the county Board of Legislators on Monday. “It’s a disingenuous betrayal of the taxpayers.”
AARP, the nation’s largest advocacy group, with 2.7 million in New York, including thousands in Westchester, was involved in 2011 in developing Westchester’s affordable housing policy. The group was instrumental in backing the universal design standards legislation that requires new affordable housing or renovations built with Westchester County funding make accommodations for elder residents.
But Will Stoner, associate state director for Livable Communities, who is AARP’s representative in Westchester, said AARP has yet to take stand on the West HELP apartments.
“Affordable housing is an issue we care about, but we haven’t heard any specific complaints about these units,” he said.
I’ve spoken with several elected officials over the past several weeks to learn why they are opposed to living up to the agreement struck for senior citizens in 1990.
Board of Legislators Minority Leader Jim Maisano, R-New Rochelle, says he supports building affordable housing for seniors elsewhere in Westchester. He thinks keeping Fern cliff’s jobs in Westchester – and finding a new site for 64 developmentally disabled students – trumps the housing plan.
“I think that Fern cliff is perfect for that site,” Maisano said. “Having Fern cliff leave Westchester County would be terrible.”
Seniors will get to live in other projects that he will support elsewhere.
“We can continue to create senior housing around the county,” he said.
Legislator Michael Smith, R-Greenburg, and Bernice Specimen, R-Yonkers, say the apartments aren’t worth saving for seniors because they do not comply with the universal design standards. Specimen says she would oppose any plan to “warehouse” seniors in what she sees as inferior housing units.
The standards call for elevators for second-floor apartments, no steps up to first-floor units, and accommodations for wheelchairs in kitchens.
AARP’s Stoner, whose group backed the standards, says they should not be used to bar the usage of buildings that are already constructed. He said it was clear that the standards apply only to new construction or rehabilitation, funded by county taxpayers.
“It wouldn’t apply to the WestHELP apartments,” said Stoner. “It wouldn’t come under the law.”
Greenburgh Supervisor Paul Feiner said he is troubled by the fact that the WestHELP site, which is located on the campus of Westchester Community College, is not served by a sidewalk on Knollwood Road.
“Will the county fund sidewalks for the seniors?” said Feiner. “There are no sidewalks on Knollwood Road. I doubt the senior housing would have its own independent bus service.”
Westchester Community College, however, is served by the county’s Beeline bus system, with four buses stopping at the campus: 1-C, 15, 40 & 41 c. There’s a bus stop at the WestHELP complex.