Twenty-seven months after receiving the keys to the Westchester County’s WestHELP affordable housing complex, the town of Greenburgh appears no closer to winning approval to rent out its 108 efficiency apartments.
The latest obstacle comes from Westchester County, which advised the town that it wants just 54 apartments at the site – one-half the number contemplated by the town when it came up with a proposed long-term lease with Group MRH, a Greenwich, Ct- based company.
The town got the bad news last week, in the pre-submission conference between Greenburgh Town Attorney Tim Lewis and county officials. At the meeting, the town learned that the county was relying on documents from the project’s environmental review and environmental impact statement. In those documents, planners contemplated merging the 400-square foot efficiency apartments used for transitional housing for the homeless into 800-foot apartments that would provide permanent housing.
The county is also worried that the town’s preferred operator, Group MRH, will be unable to secure financing for the project rehabilitation because there would be only 17 years left on Greenburgh’s use of the facility.
“The town’s proposal calls for 108 units, when the SEQRA review and FEIS for it puts the maximum number at 54,” said county spokeswoman Elena Rogliano. “Questions have also been raised over whether the Town or its developer will be able to obtain financing for the project since the Town’s lease expires in 17 years and typically financing for these kinds of projects require leases of at least 20 years.”
Here’s what it says in the Greenburgh WestHELP Final Environmental Impact Statement, which was prepared by the county, and accepted by the town in 1989 when it approved the highly controversial plan to build the transitional house project on six acres in Greenburgh, on the grounds of the county’s owned Westchester Community College.
In exchange for approving the project, Greenburgh was granted the rights to the complex for 20 years to rent out as affordable housing.
‘ “Should the County and Town agree to a lease of the facility by the Town for affordable housing, two emergency shelter units would have to be combined to create one appropriately sized dwelling unit, or 54 dwelling units in all,” the report said. “Fewer units would mean at least half the number of residents, thereby decreasing impacts associated with census. Depending on the type of occupancy projected for the facility, additional parking might be required and some additional traffic expected.”
Greenburgh selected Group MRH in May. By October, the Town Board had approved a lease with Group MRH, which would renovate the 108 efficiency apartments and pay the town $500,000 a year. The lease allows Group MRH to back out of the deal if it’s not approved by Westchester by Dec. 31.
The county administration’s position has infuriated Greenburgh Supervisor Paul Feiner, who told Tax Watch that he has appealed to the county Board of Legislators to act in spite of the Astorino administration’s position.
“I know the County Executive is going to sit on it,” Feiner said. “They want to delay. We want affordable housing,”
Feiner’s latest push was criticized by Edgemont attorney Bob Bernstein, who had made Feiner’s stewardship of the WestHELP project a major piece of his unsuccessful bid to oust the incumbent in the September Democratic primary. He said Feiner should have known about the environmental studies cited by the county.
The complex brought $1.2 million in annual payments to the town from 2001 to 2011. The only income from the complex since then has been payments from the Valhalla school district, which were the result of Bernstein’s intervention in a lawsuit regarding the town’s payment of $650,000 from the WestHELP proceeds to the school district.
“This is a case of colossal incompetence by Feiner, which will cost taxpayers millions of dollars,” Bernstein said. “The supervisor is the town’s chief executive officer. He is supposed to know about this stuff. County Executive Astorino did his job. Our guy didn’t do his job.”
Stymied to Astorino, Feiner has sent off a flurry of emails to county legislators, attempting to spark them to action.
In a Dec. 9 email to county legislators Ken Jenkins, D-Yonkers, and Mary Jane Shimsky, D-Greenburgh, Feiner wrote: “I think that members of the County Legislature should recognize the reality that the County Executive’s office is not going to take any action to help turn WESTHELP into affordable housing. If you and the other Legislators really want affordable housing (which is what you said you wanted for months) approve the lease and let us prove to you that we’re serious about creating a quality affordable housing initiative. Don’t blame the County Executive’s office when legislators have the ability to overrule the administration if you want affordable housing to happen.”
But the Legislature hasn’t made it a priority, as it tries to discern the condition of the complex, which has deteriorated since it came under Greenburgh’s control in October, 2011. WestHELP has remained vacant since then. A tour of the property in September found that the town had yet to clean up the apartments since WestHELP’s departure, with garbage still left in some units.
Severe mold infestation was found as well.
“We cannot approve anything until we’re able to evaluate the condition of the property,” Shimsky told Feiner. “The BOL (Board of Legislators) does not legislate on fantasy.”
Chairman Jenkins was blunt as well.
“The BOL is waiting for the report on the status of the property from the Department of Public Works and a communication from the County Executive.There is nothing in front of us now.”
In late August, County Legislator Alfreda Williams, D-Greenburgh, asked the county Department of Public Works to conduct an inspection of the complex and report back to the board. There has been no urgency on the part of the Astorino administration to comply with her request.
Almost four months later, county spokeswoman Donna Greene said the inspection was done. But she said the county employees did not compile a written report for the legislators. She told Tax Watch: “I spoke with DPW and was told there is not a written report. They have met with Greenburgh officials.”
That has left the county legislators out of the loop.
“I want a verbal report or a written report or combination of both,” Williams said. “I’d like to know the extent of the mold infestation. I want to know exactly what needs to be done. I don’t see why it has been so long in coming.”
She said the delay symbolized the Astorino’s administration’s disinterest in making the apartments available to low- and moderate income tenants. Astorino’s chief advisor, Ned McCormack, chaired the Mayfair Knollwood Association, which had opposed the project before he became the group’s leader. During his tenure, the neighborhood association struck the deal – later proved illegal – to funnel WestHELP proceeds to the Valhalla school district.
“The plan seems to be delay, delay, delay in hopes that it will fall apart,” she said. “At some point it could become too costly to renovate and they would tear it down.”
Greene declined comment on the county’s intentions with the property.
Greenburgh Town Attorney Lewis said the county has also raised issued concerning the complex’s conformance with town zoning laws. It was built by Westchester County, which is exempt from local zoning rules, so the complex does not comply with the zoning code’s setback requirements from property lines nor does it have adequate parking.
Lewis said that Harris, of Group MRH, has agreed to remediate the mold problem. But he said that every month’s delay makes the investment less profitable for the Greenwich company.
“Every month that goes by jeopardizes the project,” Lewis said. “He just won’t have as much time to recoup his investment.”