SCHENECTADY — Phase I is now complete, Phase II is ready to start, and the contrast between old and new is striking.
Northside Village, the redeveloped portion of the Yates Village public housing complex, made its official debut Wednesday, about a month after the last of 64 new and 25 renovated apartments were filled with families.
The townhouse-style design, balconies, grassy courtyards and softer tones are the polar opposite of the mid-20th century public housing projects that still dot the landscape.
Among those is the rest of Yates Village, which was built of red brick in 1948, resembles a military barracks, and is showing its age.
The new section fronts onto Van Vranken Avenue and faces across a narrow lane at the old section.
The public-private partnership behind the $27 million Phase I has all necessary approvals in place to start Phase II and hopes by September to lock in the roughly $80 million in financing it will need to make the plans a reality.
Phase I demolition began in September 2019, placing the heart of the project amid the disruptions of COVID-19
Mayor Gary McCarthy remarked on the difficulty of pulling it altogether.
“This is not a simple project, there’s a lot of moving parts,” he said. “It’s lining up financing, it’s moving people out of here.”
Phase I resulted in the demolition or rehabilitation of two of the eight apartment blocks in Yates Village, so the residents of the 75 apartments within those buildings had to be relocated.
It’s more than a challenge of logistics, it’s stress and uncertainty for the families being displaced.
Tiffany Barnhill and her four children had to leave one of the two buildings targeted for replacement, and they were among the first to move back in when Phase I was ready for occupancy.
“It’s a big difference, qualitywise,” she said. “There’s two bathrooms in my apartment and it’s an open space, the living room and the kitchen, separated by an island. It’s very nice. And we have central air, which helps in the summer. And the playground’s right here.”
In the yearlong interim between her old and new apartments, she moved to another apartment within the Yates complex, so a stressful period wasn’t as bad as it could have been.
“It was such a struggle because of coronavirus, and then I had to move two times, but then once we got in here it was worth it.”
Richard Homenick, executive director of the Schenectady Municipal Housing Authority, expressed appreciation for the tenants. “I know how difficult it was,” he said.
Only 12 families displaced from old apartments in Yates Village returned to new apartments in Northside Village, Homenick said.
That was not unexpected, he said, and not out of line with similar projects elsewhere.
Those displaced from Yates could get Section 8 vouchers for private housing, Homenick explained, which are very attractive because they are portable — not limited to Schenectady.
“Of the families that left here with a voucher, many of them have chosen to keep the voucher for purposes of the mobility, the housing choice,” he said.
PAST AND FUTURE
Yates Village was built to address the housing shortage after World War II and consisted of eight U-shaped, two-story buildings with a combined 300 apartments.
Two of the eight have been demolished or rehabilitated to the point of being unrecognizable as their former selves. A community center also was constructed as part of Phase I.
The same fate awaits the other six buildings in Phase II. Homenick said the Housing Authority has already begun relocating the residents of the six remaining old buildings, 75 families at a time, so as not to flood the apartment market by sending them out all at once when work on Phase II is about to begin.
The project is being undertaken by the Schenectady Municipal Housing Authority and two private companies: Pennrose and Duvernay + Brooks.
The public-private model is increasingly common in affordable housing development, and it relies on a web of funding sources including tax credits to make the finances attractive to investors.
Darren Scott of New York State Homes and Community Renewal noted that local government and agencies are part of the solution to the statewide need for affordable housing, approving tax breaks to help cut costs.
The Schenectady County Metroplex Development Authority has been involved from the start of the project and awarded such a break for Phase I. Metroplex Chairman Ray Gillen noted Yates sits at an entrance to the city.
“What an impact this has had,” he said. “This is a gateway to Schenectady and we’re so pleased to see the look and the feel and the spirit in this community.”
Gillen added that the public-private Northside will be going onto the tax rolls, something Yates never did as a strictly public housing complex.
The Housing Authority has 5,000 to 6,000 people on its waiting list at any given time. Residency at Northside is limited to those earning no more than 80% of area median income, and the sliding rent scale is based on income. Eighteen units in Phase I are reserved for tenants with special needs and veterans.
Homenick said there’s more work to do after Phase II. Steinmetz Apartments is probably next in line for an overhaul, he said, but all SMHA housing is pretty old.
“Based on the waiting list, you can tell there’s quite an unmet need.”