Affordable housing with a twist: Faith-based backing

LOHUD The Journal News | August 23, 2016

MOUNT VERNON – A new 10-story building bringing 66 affordable rental apartments to South Fifth Avenue comes with an unusual twist: Faith.

The residential tower, to be known as Grace Terrace, was built through a partnership between Mountco Construction and Development Corp. and Grace Baptist Church — making Mount Vernon a place where the county’s religious leaders are doing more than supporting the idea of more affordable housing, and moving on to creating it.

“For me, this is a perfect model. It’s not an experimental model. It’s well-received by the congregation,” said Rev. W. Franklyn Richardson, the church’s senior pastor, referring to a 15-year working relationship with Mountco. “It gives the church credibility as an institution that’s making a difference and transforming the landscape of the community.”

Richardson’s leadership led to the establishment of the Grace Community Development Corporation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, in 1997. The partnership has has built two other affordable housing buildings with Mountco in the city over more than a decade.

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“I always tell the reverend, we’re the hammer and the nails that make his and the community’s visions happen,” said Joel Mounty, Mountco’s president. “As a builder-developer, we’re always going into a community with a local person or a local group because they are the most knowledgeable about what’s needed. They help us guide what’s needed to build in the community.”

The apartments on the .36 acre lot replace an old, two-story structure that most recently housed a daycare. They are for income-eligible people who are 55 years and older and are set to open this fall.

Mountco has also worked with other nonprofits to build or rehabilitate affordable housing. The company last year finished renovating the aging Rye Manor senior affordable housing, under the guidance of Rye Interfaith Housing Corp, a nonprofit. The 100-unit complex, which was developed by Rye Interfaith in 1987, required a significant makeover to continue serving low-income seniors.

Teaming up with nonprofits gives a developer an edge when competing for public financing, Mounty added.

Prior to its partnership with Mountco, Grace Baptist, along with the National Baptist Convention, helped develop the 98-unit Grace House affordable senior complex on South Seventh Avenue, funded by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Partnership

The first collaboration between the Grace CDC and Mountco resulted in a senior housing community at the corner of South Fifth Avenue and West Third Street. Completed in 2006, the nine-story Grace Plaza, also known as Richard Dixon Tower, offers 82 one-bedrooms for low-income seniors.

The second project was a 132-unit affordable rental building at 20 E. Third St., known as Randy A. Daniels Towers, completed in 2010. The building consists of 44 one-bedrooms and 88 two-bedrooms that are available for families earning less than 60 percent of Westchester’s area median income, which is $107,800 in 2016 for a four-person household.

“A lot of people in this community suffer from low income, ” Richardson said, noting that many elderly people in that situation are forced to live in substandard, overcrowded places. “Stabilizing their living conditions  — especially for seniors — really makes a difference in their lives.”

One of the senior residents at Grace Plaza, Rosalee Davis, said she was grateful to find a new home about 10 years ago and is “very satisfied” with her current living arrangement.

“There was stairs, and I had difficulties of climbing up the stairs,” Davis said of her old apartment, where she lived alone. “And after the new owner took over my landlord, my rent went up, and I couldn’t afford it anymore.”

Moving into an affordable unit six years ago was a life changer, said Michele Sampson, 41, who lives in a two-bedroom corner unit at Randy A. Daniels Towers with her 23-year-old son.

Sampson, a Bronx native, was living in Georgia when she was involved in a car accident and suffered a spinal injury. She wanted to move back to New York to be close to her family while going through rehabilitation, but finding an affordable apartment wasn’t easy, she recalled.

“I had tried so hard, applied for so many apartments in New York,” Sampson said.

She couldn’t have been happier when she found out that she had been accepted for a unit at the newly-opened Mount Vernon building, she said. Her current monthly rent is $1,149.

“My bedroom has a lot of windows and window seats. I have a dishwasher …. to have that in New York is a pleasure,” said Sampson, who has since fully recovered and is returning to the marketing field as a freelancer.

Too few, or too many

A total 865 applications — or 13 times more than the available 66 units — were filed for Grace Terrace before the June deadline. A lottery was held to select prospective residents, and the winners’ eligibility is currently being reviewed.

Among 66 one-bedrooms at Grace Terrace, 21 would be rented for $535 a month for those people who earn more than $19,040 but less than 30 percent of the area median income; another 21 units would be rented for $730 to those who earn more than $26,800 but less than 40 percent of the area median income; and 16 units for $925 to those people who earn more than $34,600 but 50 percent of area median income. The remaining eight units will be set aside for those people whose income does not meet the minimum requirement.

The $17.2 million development is financed through a variety of sources, including federal law income housing tax credit equity, a New York State Housing Trust Fund loan, and conventional construction and permanent loans. The project was also subsidized by Westchester County, which purchased the land for $900,000 on behalf of the development.

Still, building affordable housing in Westchester still can be a thorny issue, and Mount Vernon isn’t an exception.

“In Mount Vernon, we have more than our share. We have way too much of it,” resident Bill Cappello, 64, said of affordable housing. “I’m against it especially because as a taxpayer, those developments are not paying any taxes, and they are bringing in more people that are going to burden our city, especially emergency services.”

The Rev. Troy DeCohen, chairman of the Interfaith Clergy for Social Action, said Grace Baptist’s efforts are commendable, but affordable housing “just can’t be only in Mount Vernon.”

“This has to be in New Castle. This has to be in Ossining. This has to be in Harrison. This has to be in Eastchester. This has to be in other communities,” he said. “It just can’t be concentrated within the Mount Vernon, Yonkers and Peekskill communities.”

Akiko Matsuda, lohud

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