SCHENECTADY -- Shameeka Harris and Roberta Eubanks have been neighbors for years.
They watch each other's kids and keep each other company.
When I met them, they were outside Harris' apartment at the Yates Village public housing complex, enjoying a sunny May afternoon.
The overall mood turned considerably darker when I asked them what they thought of the renovations planned for the development, located on Schenectady's Northside neighborhood off Van Vranken Avenue.
"We don't know where we're going to go," Harris, a 34-year-old single mother of four, told me. "This is my safe haven. My kids love it."
"We're like family," Roberta Eubanks, a 39-year-old mother of three, said.
The changes planned for Yates Village are significant, which is why residents are so anxious about them.
The entire complex will be given a much-overdue face-lift that will see the 300 units at Yates Village converted into town homes and garden apartments. But those upgrades will be accompanied by a fundamental shift in how Yates Village is run.
The development will transform from a traditional public housing development, owned and operated by the Schenectady Housing Authority, into a complex that is owned by a consortium.
This consortium will include the SHA, a Philadelphia-based company, Pennrose, that's been tapped to redevelop the property, and private investors. Though the number of affordable housing units will remain the same, they will be open only to Section 8 voucher holders. Under the federal Section 8 program, a housing subsidy is paid directly to the landlord on behalf of a low-income family.
The Yates Village residents I spoke with expressed concern over how the changes will be implemented, as well as the end result.
One big concern is the disruptive nature of the process.
During construction, residents will be relocated. The people I spoke with don't want to be uprooted from their homes.
"Where are they placing us?" 30-year-old Saysha Smith wondered. " ... There are certain areas [of Schenectady] that are not acceptable to me. I have a 5-year-old. I don't want to live on Hamilton Hill. I live over here for a reason."
Another big concern is the shift to a voucher system.
Residents wanted to know whether everyone who wants to return to Yates Village will receive the Section 8 voucher required to live there.
"It sounds like they want us out," Smith said.
When I heard about the Yates Village rehab, I shared residents' concerns.
I wondered whether some residents might end up in worse situations, displaced from their homes and unable to return.
Yates Village can appear rundown and shabby, but quality affordable housing is hard to find, and the residents I spoke with seemed happy, overall, with their living arrangements. Many of them have lived there for years.
After speaking to Schenectady Housing Authority Executive Director Rich Homenick, I'm much more comfortable with the Yates Village project.
Yes, it will be disruptive -- there's no getting around that.
But it won't necessarily be as disruptive as residents fear.
They will be assisted in their search for temporary housing by a professional relocation company, and their moving expenses will be covered.
If they wish to return to Yates Village, they will be given Section 8 vouchers and permitted to do so. Those who return will benefit from the renovations, which will leave Yates Village a nicer and more habitable place than it was before.
The first phase of the Yates Village project is expected to cost $24 million, with the state covering $9.3 million and private investors taking care of the rest. Those investors will be eligible for federal and state tax credits. One thing that won't change: The property will still be managed by the Schenectady Housing Authority.
Homenick told me that the public-private partnership was born of necessity.
"Most housing authorities are looking for an alternative to the traditional public housing model, and there's a bit reason for that," he explained. "[The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development] has slowly and purposefully been disinvesting from public housing for over a decade."
One can bemoan this trend, but it won't solve the problem of declining federal funding for affordable housing, or bring a halt to the steady deteriorating of the country's aging public housing infrastructure. These days, fixing up old public housing complexes requires getting creative.
"The goal is to create and preserve affordable housing," Homenick said. "It may not be done in the same way it's been over the past 70 years, but it will be done."
Which is a good thing.
There's a tremendous need for affordable housing, and it's good to know that Yates Village will continue to provide it. The development might not look like much from the outside. But for those who live there, it's stable, safe and comfortable.
"I like it down here because it's quiet," longtime resident Stephanie Newman told me. "It's like home."
Reach Sara Foss at [email protected] Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper's.