While the administration of Gov. Andrew Cuomo considers the future of the WestHELP housing in Greenburgh, there are signs that the county Board of Legislators may be stiffening its resolve to save 108 units of affordable housing.
The town of Greenburgh, which has the right to collect rent through 2031 on the apartments if they are rented to low- and moderate-income tenants, has refused to lease them out because it wants to let a residential school for the disabled tear them down so it can build a new campus.
Legislator Judy Myers, D-Mamaroneck, told Tax Watch today that she supports preserving the much-need housing, which served the homeless from 1991 to 2011. She also encouraged the county to find another site for Ferncliff Manor for the Retarded, Inc., of Yonkers, the for-profit provider that has sought to raze the apartments.
“I’ve finally come to the conclusion that is should be left as affordable housing,” said Myers. “This particular site was supposed to be for affordable housing, and it should be kept as affordable housing.”
Myers’ statement puts her in the camp of Board of Legislators Chairman Ken Jenkins, D-Yonkers, who has led the campaign to save the housing, ever since Greenburgh Supervisor Paul Feiner announced a year ago that he wanted Ferncliff to redevelop the site.
Ten of the board’s 17 legislators support the demolition, but 12 votes are needed for the long-term lease. Jenkins is the only one to support the WestHELP housing among the three Democrats seeking the nomination for county executive, to oppose incumbent Rob Astorino, who supports the demolition plan. Both New Rochelle Mayor Noam Bramson and county Legislator Bill Ryan, D-White Plains, support letting Ferncliff raze the apartments.
Neither Bramson nor Ryan returned phone messages on Wednesday.
Minority Leader Jim Maisano, R-New Rochelle, said his priority remains to the Ferncliff students, of whom just 38 percent were Westchester residents, according to a January report.
“I can’t imagine something more important than to help these kids,” says Maisano.
But Mel Tanzman, executive director of Westchester Disabled on the Move, said affordable housing should not be sacrificed for the needs of the Ferncliff students.
“I’m concerned with the broader crisis,” he said. “There are few opportunities for affordable and accessible housing here.”
What the town of Greenburgh neglected to tell Ferncliff, when it sent out a request for proposals in 2012, was that the only reason it had control of the six-acre site was to rent it to low-and moderate income tenants. The town lacked permission to tear down the 108-unit complex that’s owned free-and-clear by the taxpayers of Westchester County.
Myers was outspoken at Tuesday’s meeting of the Committee on Government Operations, which was reviewing Astorino’s plan to give Ferncliff a 50-year lease on the property, with the option to renew it for an additional 50 years.
Astorino told Tax Watch in January that he believed that the apartments were never meant for permanent housing. But the agreement struck in 1990 between County Executive Andrew O’Rourke, Greenburgh Supervisor Tony Veteran and housing activist Andrew Cuomo was a 40-year deal, which called for the apartments to be turned into affordable housing after the homeless complex was vacated.
The Astorino administration terminated the agreement with WestHELP in September, 2011, and gave the keys to Greenburgh. Tearing down the apartments would satisfy Astorino’s political base in Mount Pleasant and the Mayfair-Knollwood neighborhood in Greenburgh, which opposed the housing when it was proposed in the late 1980s. The Mayfair Knollwood Civic Association, then headed by Astorino’s chief advisor, Ned McCormack, backed an extension of the WestHELP lease in 2001 after the county agreed to pay the town $1.2 million a year, with $650,000 a year going to the Valhalla school district. The school payments were later found to be illegal.
Greenburgh received the keys to the complex in October, 2011, and has since refused to rent them out. Conditions have deteriorated since then. A Tax Watch tour through the apartments last May found several units had the sinks removed from the units’ kitchens. Social service files were strewn about the administration building. Mold was detected in the units in November.
Just how much the units have deteriorated might be difficult to ascertain. Astorino spokeswoman Donna Greene said that the county officials made a visual inspection upon WestHELP’s departure in 2011. But the county failed to document the complex’s condition.
“There is no written report,” she said.
Since December, the Cuomo administration and the state Department of Education have analyzed the Ferncliff proposal. Ferncliff lobbyist Jim Cavanaugh told the legislators on Tuesday that he was optimistic because construction costs for the new buildings were estimated at $323 per square foot, which is similar to what the state has backed for similar Hudson Valley projects.
But the state calculation for the Ferncliff proposal does not take into consideration the lost value of the WestHELP apartments once they meet the wrecking ball. Alec Roberts, executive director of Community Housing Innovations, estimated the value of the buildings were $20 million, based on the annual income of $1.6 million received by the county between 2001 and 2011.
At the committee meeting, Edgemont civic leader Bob Bernstein said that giving the apartments to Ferncliff to demolish would amount to a gift of public property to the corporation, which he contended was prohibited by the state Constitution. He also said that that giving the asset to Ferncliff would be a considered county investment in public education, which is also prohibited under the state’s Municipal Home Rule statute.
“The housing is a gift, and that creates a problem, especially if it’s a gift to an entity that supports education,” Bernstein said.
Cavanaugh, however, warned the legislators that the state Department of Education had yet to raise the issue in its review.
“It’s far from settled,” he said.
Legislator MaryJane Shimsky, D-Greenburgh, said that the Board of Legislators must address the fact that the value of the county asset – the 108 affordable apartments – must be considered in the Ferncliff plan, which requires their demolition.
“We can’t sweep that under the rug,” she said. “That’s an asset with substantial value.”
Bernstein urged the legislators to declare Greenburgh in default of its lease – for failing to rent the apartments, and neglecting to upkeep the county property. The county could then terminate Greenburgh’s lease if it failed to act within 30 days, he said.
“You have a legal right to enforce the lease,” Bernstein said. “Give them notice of default, and give them 30 days to cure.”
Looming over the WestHELP issue is the county’s clash with the US Department of Housing and Urban Development involving the provision – and promotion – of fair housing in the county. Astorino inherited the 2009 settlement agreement signed by his predecessor, but has since wrangled with HUD over its implementation. HUD on March 24 told the county that its failure to provide an acceptable countywide analysis of how current zoning impedes the development affordable housing would lead to the loss of $7.4 million in federal aid if not rectified by April 25.
The Astorino administration has insisted the HUD settlement is unrelated to the WestHELP demolition because the accord calls for the construction of 750 units in 31 mostly white Westchester municipalities, of which Greenburgh is not one.
But Bernstein doubted the federal authorities, already perturbed at Westchester’s recalcitrance, would look favorably at the demolition of 108 housing units.
“It would turn the settlement on its head,” Bernstein said. “The county would be allowing the destruction of low- and moderate-income housing in a predominantly white neighborhood. It’s the elephant in the room.”
Joan Arnold, who chairs the Westchester Nonprofit Housing Coalition, has suggested a mixed-use development at the six-acre WestHELP site, with the affordable apartments rented out, and the Ferncliff’s residential buildings put up in open space by the administration building, which is planned for Ferncliff’s school.
Cavanaugh, though, doubted that plan would work. Ferncliff needs six acres for its campus, which would fill the barbed-wire ringed WestHELP site. There could also be problems with having the apartment dwellers in such close proximity to the Ferncliff school, which he said might compromise the “integrity” of the campus.
“There’s not enough room,” he said. “You’ve got 250 employees, and the families of the kids coming to visit. bYou can’t put anything there besides Ferncliff.”
Meanwhile, Legislator Michael Smith, R-Greenburgh, whose wife chairs the Mayfair-Knollwood Civic Association, is still waiting for the panel to address the particulars of the proposed Ferncliff lease, which would replace the pact forged by Cuomo two decades ago.
“I’m not sure when we’ll get to that part of the due diligence,” he said. “Lease terms can be changed. As long as all parties in a contract have a free mind, we can change it. That’s permissible.”
Photos, from top: Civic leader Bob Bernstein, center, addresses the Board of Legislators’ Commiteee on Government Operations on Tuesday. He is flanked by Ferncliff lobbyist Jim Cavanaugh, left, and Mel Tanzman, executive director of the Westchester Disabled on the Move.
WestHELP administration building, at the Knollwood Gate of Westchester Community College. Photos by David McKay Wilson.