Dr. P.V. Viswanath
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WestHELP Wins Approval For Sites in White Plains
June 10, 1990, New York Times
LEAD: THE Board of Legislators reached a milestone last week as it approved the last of the three Westhelp housing projects that County Executive Andrew P. O'Rourke had hoped would serve as a catalyst for community assistance to the homeless.
THE Board of Legislators reached a milestone last week as it approved the last of the three Westhelp housing projects that County Executive Andrew P. O'Rourke had hoped would serve as a catalyst for community assistance to the homeless.
Only three municipalities - Mount Vernon, White Plains and the town of Greenburgh - participated in the program, which was conceived by Andrew M. Cuomo to help homeless families rejoin society while providing shelter for them. But neither proponent saw the Westhelp effort as anything but an unqualified success.
''What we sought to do with Westhelp was establish a model and to dispel the myth that local communities wouldn't cooperate,'' said Mr. Cuomo, the son of Gov. Mario M. Cuomo. ''We challenged the conventional wisdom that no government would come forward because nobody wanted housing in their communities. We found there are local officials who will accept the homeless if they are presented with an intelligent and workable plan.''
Long-Term Benefits Praised
Mr. O'Rourke said that as the Westhelp units ''come on line, they will be seen by local officials as replacing other types of housing that used to be available'' through Federal programs. He added that these new apartments ''will help improve long-term housing stock because the Westhelp units revert to the communities.''
One of Westhelp's selling points is that the host community pays nothing for construction of the U-shaped complex of two-story garden apartments, although the land may be municipally owned. Then after 15 years, the complexes are turned over to the municipality for use by elderly residents or city employees, who often cannot afford typical rents in Westchester.
Even as the spotlight began to shift from Westhelp's two-year struggle to provide interim relief for the county's homeless, the stage began to fill with other proposed solutions, moving from the transitional housing model to the more persistent problem of permanent affordable housing.
New Ideas Are Proposed
The new ideas are diverse, from an experimental program that places the homeless in permanent housing under closely monitored circumstances, to the county's filing a lawsuit against the state for failing to establish reasonable allowances for shelter.
Perhaps the most ambitious plan to help solve the homeless problem will be unveiled this week, when Mr. O'Rourke announces the makeup of a Housing Implementation Commission, a 15-member group of experts with experience in building. Mr. O'Rourke will also outline the tasks he wants them to fulfill, including the consturuction of 1,000 transitional units and 5,000 additional units of permanent affordable housing, not necessarily limited to the homeless.
''The new thrust is action, implementing what the Homeless Commission came up with in its studies,'' Mr. O'Rourke said. The disbanded commission cited faults in county government, including an unwillingness at several levels to deal with homelessness. ''There will be some rehab, some new construction, and we will be designating county land for some of the housing. The fact that Westchester is producing 300 units under the Westhelp program is a remarkable accomplishment.''
Westhelp's first completed venture, a 46-apartment complex on a quiet street in Mount Vernon, opened last December and has placed 16 families in permanent housing so far. The second complex, for 108 apartments in a wooded area of Greenburgh, has been approved by the Board of Legislators and construction is under way.
The final project, approved last Monday, is the most elaborate in the program, consisting of two structures. One is the purchase and renovation of the Coachman Hotel in downtown White Plains to accommodate 110 homeless families, according to Mr. O'Rourke.
36 Families on Mamaroneck Avenue
The other is the construction of a more typical Westhelp complex, this one for 36 families, on busy Mamaroneck Avenue, also in White Plains. The Coachman, a once-stylish hotel on the Post Road, one block from Mamaroneck Avenue, already serves as a homeless shelter.
The debate that led to final passage of the White Plains proposals extended over a period of weeks and underlined the frustration that both supporters and opponents of housing plans for the homeless have come to express in dealing with the problem.
4,500 Homeless in County
Westchester's homeless population is estimated to be 900 families, including 1,800 children, or a total of 4,500 individuals, many of them simply unable to pay prevailing rents, according to social service officials. The opposition of Legislator Edward J. Brady, the Thornwood Republican, to the Greenburgh Westhelp project led to an internal struggle that ended in his ouster as chairman of the Board. In the debate over the Coachman proposal, he said he had voted for the White Plains project last year ''when Mr. Cuomo said we could buy it for $4 million or $5 million.''
''Now we're told it will cost $24 million,'' Mr. Brady said. ''England had its Great Train Robbery, the Federal Government has its savings and loan scandal and Westchester has its Coachman affair. Are we going to buy a hotel that an entrepreneur bought not many years ago for $800,000, and put only $80,000 down?''
''And what are we going to do with this choice piece of real estate?'' Mr. Brady asked. ''We're going to give it to the city of White Plains in 15 years. At the same time we're looking for space for this expanding government.'' Why not use the Coachman as a county government building? he asked.
How the Money Breaks Down
Payments to Universal Hotels, owner of the Coachman, begin with $1.1 million the first year and increase by 5 percent each year for 15 years, making a total of $23.9 million, according to a chart provided by the staff of the Board of Legislators.
''The total purchase price for the hotel, in present dollars, is about $10 million,'' Mr. Cuomo said. ''You have to do the valuation in terms of the present value of the money, taking into account the cost of inflation and the value of money in the 15th year.
''If somebody offered you a contract giving you $50,000 this year and $50,000 in year 15, you'd say, 'Hold it; $50,000 in year 15 won't be worth what it's worth today. You'd have to pay me, say, $250,000 in year 15 to make it worth what it's worth today.'''
''So you do what's called the present value of the money,'' Mr. Cuomo said. ''The present value of the lease of the Coachman is $10 million, and the county currently spends $5 million a year to rent it; they've done so for five or six years.''
Renovations and Services
Westhelp will make $1.9 million worth of renovations, including the installation of a kitchen in each apartment, and the county will pay Westhelp $1.7 million a year for such services as job training, day care and assistance in finding permanent housing, none of which is available now to the homeless families staying at the hotel.
Mr. Cuomo said the yearly cost of operating the Coachman ''would be about $30,000 a year,'' per family ''compared to $39,000 for welfare hotels.''
The hotel, Mr. Cuomo said, is the ''worst illustration of homeless care in Westchester County.''
''It's unsafe, unsanitary, debilitating and absurdly expensive,'' he continued. Those sentiments and worse were expressed by some legislators before they approved the proposal by a wide margin.
Herman Keith, a Yonkers Democrat, saw some unsettling images in the security arrangements for Westhelp projects, which bar visits by outsiders to apartments and permit socialization only in common rooms. ''Are we building units where people can live, or are we building concentration camps?'' Mr. Keith asked.
Comparison With South Africa
''Four years ago, Ernie Davis and I held a press conference,'' he said, referring to a fellow legislator, Ernest D. Davis, a Mount Vernon Democrat. ''We know the majority of homeless came from Mount Vernon and Yonkers; we also know the majority are people of color.''
''We're asking the homeless to submit quietly to what I consider to be a South African type Bantustan - a homeless homeland. It's better than what they have, yes, but it's not the best we can do. We need housing for people who can't afford housing,'' he said. ''The Coachman is a project of dubious distinction.''
Mr. Davis, who joined Mr. Keith and Mr. Brady in opposing the White Plains plan, said that ''transitional housing is not transitional at all.''
''It presumes there is permanent affordable housing,'' he said, ''but if there is, why is it necessary for us to have transitional housing?''
He saw an irony in the county filling the Coachman with the homeless, and thereby creating its value: ''The Coachman has very little value if you use it as a hotel. That's why it's been used for the homeless. The county should pull the homeless out, then see how much it would cost.''
'No Other Option'
Timothy S. Carey, a Republican from Montrose, described the Coachman purchase as ''stupid'' and ''insane,'' and laid the blame for Westchester's homeless at Governor Cuomo's door in Albany.
''His son is helping to solve the problem his father helped to create,'' Mr. Carey said, noting that the present state government ''has not built one unit of housing in Westchester County in eight years.
Nevertheless, he said, ''Right now this Board can do but one thing: vote for this project, because as Mr. Delfino said, we've got no other legitimate option.'' Joseph M. Delfino, a Republican Legislator, is a former White Plains Common Council member.
The effort by Westchester to force the state to increase shelter allowances is based on a recent Court of Appeals opinion that a suit can be brought against the state if the cost of housing bears ''no reasonable relation'' to the shelter amount set by the State Commissioner of Social Services, Cesar Perales.
Michael D. Hampden, executive director of Westchester Legal Services, which brought a class-action suit on behalf of two homeless Westchester residents, said ''60 percent of Westchester's 4,500 homeless residents became homeless because of evictions.''
Working With the Landlord
Meanwhile, Westchester Residential Opportunities Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to finding housing for members of minority groups and people with low incomes, reported last week that it had completed the first year of a Housing Demonstration Program in which permanent housing is financed for homeless families.
Stanley Schear said he ''solicits landlords'' to participate in the program. ''We've placed 145 homeless persons in 35 units of permanent housing,'' he said, ''and have commitments from 22 other landlords for 75 homeless persons.''
He suggested that his group's success was based on ''our close monitoring'' of the tenants and ''bonuses of $1,500 to $7,000 to landlords to help fix the place up.''
''We tell the landlord that the client,'' or homeless family, ''is our total responsibility,'' Mr. Schear said. ''We pay the rent, make sure the property is in good repair and that the tenant is acting appropriately. After six months, if everyone is satisfied, we sign a Section 8 lease'' - the Federal subsidy program for low-income tenants.
The demonstration program costs $12,640 a year per family to operate, according to its sponsors, who estimate the costs of comparable options to be $18,250 for an emergency apartment, $30,000 for a Westhelp unit and $36,000 for motels and hotels.