“This abandoned homeless shelter” is how Supervisor Paul Feiner describes the 108-unit WestHELP apartments in a particularly insightful email sent Oct. 18 to four county legislators, County Executive Rob Astorino, the Greenburgh Town Board, and the housing professionals Greenburgh has selected to operate the complex.
Feiner’s description is telling because he’s the public official who has abandoned WestHELP.
He has left the award-winning complex to rot.
For two years, the town has left it vacant, with no heat in the winter, and no cooling in the summer. Garbage left behind from the homeless center still litters the apartments. I saw one apartment in which all the walls and ceilings were covered with mold. I got a headache after walking around the apartment for 10 minutes.
The mold infestation is so bad at WestHELP that the county was in discussions with the town this week regarding what kind of protective clothing would be required by county employees who were preparing to conduct an inspection of the deteriorating county housing asset.
On Friday, New Rochelle Mayor Noam Bramson, who is challenging Astorino in the Nov. 5 election, charged that the administration had neglected its responsibilities at WestHELP, as it had in other pressing county issues.
“As with safe drinking, our obligations to the Department of Transportation, our obligations under the housing settlement, and even our obligations at Playland, this administration’s neglect of its basic responsibilities at WestHelp has proven costly and transformed challenges into crises,” Bramson said.
When asked what Bramson would do to protect the housing asset, and get it rented, Bramson spokesman Barry Caro said a new administration would take a more proactive approach.
“At this point, there is probably no silver bullet,” said Caro. “But there were basic oversight responsibilities that stem from the fact that, at the end of the day, WestHELP is a County asset. The Astorino administration seems to have completely ignored WestHELP in every manner until it became obvious that it was already in crisis. We need to be taking a proactive approach, rather than simply waiting for situations to deteriorate as they have here.”
Astorino campaign spokesman Bill O’Reilly did not return a phone message seeking comment.
County press spokeswoman Donna Greene said Wednesday that the administration was reviewing the proposed lease and hoped to inspect the apartments this week.
Two years ago, the town received the keys to WestHELP, as Westchester County made good on the deal struck in 1990, to give the town the right to rent out the apartments for 20 years if it would allow the county – and then-housing advocate Andrew Cuomo – to build the housing from the county’s burgeoning homeless population.
For the first 17 months, Greenburgh tried to tear down the apartments so Ferncliff Manor could build a campus for developmentally disabled children. Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino backed Feiner’s plan, as did his chief advisor Ned McCormack, who led the neighborhood association that tried to secede from the town – before McCormack’s tenure – to stop the housing from being built.
But the demolition plan needed the support of New York state; the administration of Andrew Cuomo rejected it in April.
Since then, the town in early May selected Group MRH, a Greenwich, Ct. company with no experience in affordable housing, to renovate and rent the apartments. But the town and Group MRH have yet to sign the18-year lease, which is now under review by County Executive Rob Astorino’s administration.
Impatient with the county’s review, Feiner last week announced he’d like a 100-year lease with the county – 82 years more than allowed by the 1990 deal. In that arrangement, the county and town would share in the rental income.
My interview with Feiner came on Oct. 18, the same day he was writing to the county legislators, Astorino and the housing folks, complaining about the county administration’s slow movement on the proposed lease.
Wrote Feiner: A number of weeks ago the members of the Town Board forwarded a lease agreement to the county to turn WESTHELP into affordable housing. We have a good agreement = the affordable component is being overseen by a respected affordable housing organization.
I would appreciate it if the members of the Board of Legislators will expedite the review process so we can take the next steps putting this asset to good use–affordable housing.
Please advise what actions steps the County Legislature will be taking to help move this forward. Are any meetings being scheduled to review our request? When? Would you like to invite town representatives to the meeting?
Board of Legislators Chairman Ken Jenkins wants the county to find Greenburgh in default of its lease so the county can take back the property.
He responded to Feiner that there was nothing before the board to act upon because the Astorino administration was still analyzing it.
Wrote Jenkins: The County Board is currently waiting an analysis on the current state of the County’s property that Greenburgh is currently responsible for maintaining requested several months ago by the County Board from the Administration. I suspect that report would be the cause of any delay in the Administration sending anything down to the County Board as there would be an expectation that those items will be addressed in the Town’s request.
The information available seems to suggest that there is somewhere around $3 million dollars worth of work needed to return the property to previous levels.
I would suggest you check in with the Administration to determine status.
Undaunted, Feiner suggested the 100-year option. He wants a groundbreaking by the December holidays.
Wrote Feiner: I am hopeful that the affordable housing initiative won’t get bogged down in another fight between the town, county and school district. Speaking personally – I would be willing to discuss with the county the possibility of extending the lease agreement to 100 years with the county and town sharing the proceeds, beginning immediately. The negatives to the town: We would generate less money up front. The positives: Something will happen–and WESTHELP will be converted into an affordable housing apartment complex, something we all feel is needed. The county would generate some revenue immediately–money that could be used to keep your county taxes down. And, we would all work cooperatively to address renovation issues. Because—we all have a stake in its immediate success.
No need for more delays. No need for finger pointing. No need for excuses by anyone why this property can’t be converted into affordable housing. I believe that we can turn this abandoned homeless shelter into a county asset –a quality affordable housing apartment complex. I suggest that we all sit in a room, close the door and not leave until we have an agreement. And, we do it soon.
It would be great if ground breaking for the affordable housing complex could take place before the holiday season begins. Many people who need affordable housing would be extremely grateful.
I published a Tax Watch post on Wednesday, in which I explored Feiner’s 100-year option.
On Thursday, Feiner wrote another email to the officials, saying he didn’t really mean it. He still backed the 18-lease now before the county.
An article in lohud.com by David Wilson creates the inaccurate impression that I am willing to scrap the lease agreement we have with MRH to turn WESTHELP into affordable housing. Although I suggested a 100 year option (The 100 year option is still an option), I would support the original lease agreement that the Town Board approved. My preference: the original lease.
If the county won’t approve the original lease which we submitted to you a few weeks ago, the 100 year option compromise is a suggestion.
My goal—and the goal of the Town Board: We want to turn the WESTHELP units into affordable housing as soon as possible. I hope that the county cooperates and lets the town proceed with plans to turn the complex into affordable housing.
To which I replied:
It was very odd that you have proposed extending the lease by 80 years – and creating a whole new deal – when your current proposal is under review by the county.
Why would you do that if you believed so strongly in the deal that’s on the table?
And why would the county want to give Greenburgh another 80 years with the WestHELP apartments when you have kept it vacant for two of the 20 years it was legally yours? Why would the county give you another 80 years when you have allowed the valuable county asset to deteriorate during the two years it has been under the town’s control?
Undaunted, Feiner replied.
I have one goal– to turn WESTHELP into affordable housing. I’d be happy if the county would approve the lease we submitted to them earlier this year. If county officials are reluctant to do so – to make it more acceptable I offered a compromise proposal that would enable lawmakers to generate immediate revenue from the property–along with the town. A side benefit to a longer term lease: the developer would be more likely to spend additional funds to make the housing even nicer–because they will have a long term asset–the building will still be affordable housing in 20,30,40 years.
No one wins when everyone is fighting each other. I am hoping that the county/town/Harris and all parties could work together.
At the county Legislature, Legislator Michael Smith, R-Greenburgh, is supporting the town of Greenburgh’s plan to levy property taxes on the public housing project. Smith, the former president of the Valhalla Board of Education, says such an action will ensure that the district will have funding in case any families with children move into the 400-square foot efficiency apartments.
County Legislator Alfreda Williams, D-Greenburgh, meanwhile, dismissed Feiner’s latest gambit to expand the town’s involvement in WestHELP for 100 years.
“It’s preposterous that Feiner would ask for 100 years,” she said. “He has left it to rot and ruin for two years. It’s a mess, and I’m firmly convinced the plan is to let WestHELP rot away.”