SCHENECTADY — Demolition has started on a long-planned overhaul of one of the city’s largest public housing projects.
Crews are expected to resume razing at Yates Village on Monday.
The first phase will reshape the stretch of buildings along Van Vranken Avenue in the city’s Goose Hill neighborhood.
Two brick barracks-style buildings will be partially torn down as part of the $24 million effort.
Redevelopment will include the rehabilitation of 25 apartments and the demolition and new construction of eight buildings totaling 89 apartments.
Fifty of the 75 units will be demolished with the remainder converted into town homes and garden apartments.
A 12,000-square-foot community service facility will also be constructed.
The project will open up the 20-acre site, which the Schenectady Municipal Housing Authority (SMHA) believes suffers from “physical and social isolation” from the surrounding community owing to its ”super-block” layout with internal streets and enclosed courtyards.
Jalesa Giglio, 19, said the demolitions were bittersweet.
“I’m hoping it’s going to be more advanced than what it is now,” said Giglio, who has lived at Yates Village since she was 6.
Yates Village, built in 1948, is one of seven properties managed by the housing authority and houses 720 people in 312 units.
But the aging public housing complex has reached the end of its lifespan.
“It’s really at a state of obsolescence,” said Rich Homenick, executive director of the SMHA, which is working with Philadelphia-based developer Pennrose and Duvernay + Brooks, LLC on the project.
The state has provided $9.3 million in low-income housing tax credits for the first phase.
“New York state has been incredibly responsive of public housing following disinvestment at the federal level,” Homenick said.
An additional funding piece fell into place last week with a $1.7 million grant from the Federal Home Loan Bank of New York.
The remainder will be cobbled together with the help of private investors as part of a new model emerging with the shift in how public housing projects nationwide are funded.
While the Trump administration has zeroed out funds for capital improvements for public housing — proposed cuts that Congress has later restored — the financial shortages pre-date the current leadership:
Only twice since 2004 has Congress allocated 100 percent of SMHA’s funding requests.
As of 2017, the seven complexes run by the authority collectively required $10.5 million in capital improvements. But capital grant funds only allocated $1.4 million, resulting in a significant shortfall.
Nationwide, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) estimated the public housing capital needs backlog at almost $26 billion in 2010, with costs predicted to grow at around $3.5 billion annually.
Unlike local governments, SMHA does not have taxing authority and must dip into reserves to fund improvements.
The chronically-underfunded agency is beginning to exhaust its resources, which presents a slow-burning problem as the housing becomes obsolete and authorities run the risk of losing apartment units.
As a solution, HUD is allowing municipal housing authorities nationwide to gradually convert to different funding models in order to keep their programs sustainable.
The long-term goal, Homenick said, is to wean themselves away from programming solely reliant on taxpayer dollars and replace it with a more sustainable model financed, in part, by the private sector.
For SMHA, that includes bringing in developers, who will benefit from a variety of federal and state tax credits that will give investors “dollar for dollar” reductions in tax liability, Homenick said.
Metroplex Development Authority Chairman Ray Gillen said it’s a system of “layered financing,” in which the developer will monetize the tax credits by converting them to cash they can use to build the project.
Pennrose's involvement will allow the property to be put on the tax rolls for the first time.
“They’ll pay taxes for the first time ever since Yates Village was built,” said Gillen, who estimated revenues would be $100,000 annually and would increase by 2 percent each year.
As part of the first phase, 75 families have been relocated. Slightly fewer than half have opted to stay within the public housing system, while 16 have moved to other units within the same complex.
All but three families have continued to reside in the city, Homenick said.
Most worked with SMHA-provided specialists to find apartments and services that met their needs, including schooling, and many were given subsidized federal housing vouchers through the Section 8 program.
Homenick expects construction to be completed in December of 2020, with the units going online several months later.
He acknowledged the project is a big change for residents, but said it was unavoidable.
Returning tenants will be assisted through Section 8. But because of the private component, the formula may be slightly different, said Homenick, who urged residents to “trust the process.”
“People have concerns they will not be invited back,” he said. “But everybody has the right of first refusal. Any family that lived here before can return.”
Homenick also said it is SMHA’s “full intention” to continue on as long-term property managers once the project is completed.
For the proposed second phase, which does not have a timeline, the housing authority will utilize the same process and notices will be issued to residents at least 90 days before the relocation deadline.
Some tenants criticized the process as unpredictable.
“It was stressful and disorganized,” said Chanel Buckner, who relocated to a rental apartment in Hamilton Hill with her husband and three children.
Bucker said the timeline was disruptive to her children — they moved at the tail-end of the school year — and she said she often didn’t have enough clarity on reimbursement costs for moving and utility payments.
She hopes to return once construction is completed.
Others said while they are unaffected, they hoped the changes would improve their lives.
“I think the renovations will be good,” Tisha Vandal. “But I think they need more stores.”
Homenick acknowledged the process is difficult.
“I would never try to downplay it — it’s disruptive, and I understand that’s that difficult,” he said. “It’s the one part of the process I wish we didn’t have to do.”
Early cost estimates for the next phase clock in at $74 million, he said.
“It’s all based on how much money we can bring in from the state and other sources,” Homenick said. “That’s definitely the next step now that we have construction started on the first phase.”
His vision is a long-term one, and salient as the housing authority continues to serve a large population:
Citywide, 2,500 families live in public housing stock that will only further deteriorate, and existing needs continue to be unmet.
Altogether, SMHA administers 1,241 Section 8 vouchers in the city alone. As of last week, an additional 262 people were actively searching for housing opportunities using those vouchers.
It typically takes 2 to 4 months to find a suitable apartment because appropriate housing stock is becoming increasingly scarce, he said.
“I’m all about stopping the bleeding that disinvestment is causing us,” Homenick said. “If we do nothing, the obsolete properties are just going to fold into the ground."