By Abigail Savitch-Lew
City Limits, reporting from Citylimits.org
Almost 200 residents of East New York streamed into an underutilized New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) parking lot on Wednesday morning to celebrate the groundbreaking of Redwood Senior Living, a senior housing building that will hold 80 rental units.
Most of the attendees were members of St. Paul Community Baptist Church, across the street, and many lived in nearby NYCHA public housing complexes.
“We are critical of NYCHA when we have to be and when it's deserved, but today we give recognition even to NYCHA. They afforded us the land,” said Rev. David Brawley, the pastor of St. Paul Community Baptist Church and chair of East Brooklyn Congregations (EBC), the community organization leading the project.
The new apartment building, to be completed by the end of 2014, will include separate rooms for community activities, computers, library books, exercise facilities, laundry machines, and medical services. The building will also have elevators, a landscaped garden with seating areas and round-the-clock security, Brawley said. Common Ground, a nonprofit affordable housing development organization, will organize transportation and recreational activities and provide case management services, among other supports.
All units will be federally subsidized to peg rents to 30 percent of tenant income, said Deborah Widerkehr of Community Preservation Corporation Resources (CPC Resources), the developer of the project. A lottery for the units will be held next year, with at least 20 units allocated to current residents of NYCHA public housing, said EBC lead organizer Grant Lindsay.
The project could help NYCHA address its urgent need to move seniors whose children have moved away to smaller units to make space for new residents. The project may also help to address the citywide deficit of senior housing. And it tackles a more local problem: East New York seniors being priced out of their homes as the neighborhood begins to stabilize and attract investment.
East New York seniors experience high levels of poverty, with 39 percent at or below the poverty level, compared with 31.8 percent of seniors citywide, according to Department of Aging statistics. As Brooklyn gentrifies, low-income seniors find themselves in a bind: forced to live in deteriorating, understaffed public housing or leave their communities to move in with relatives outside the city.
“[Boulevard Houses] is an old building. I've been there over 35 years. It's not as clean as it used to be. The elevator is constantly out,” said Mary McCormick, a member of St. Paul's congregation. “I am hoping that this senior development will be more reasonable for seniors,” she said, adding that seniors often feel unsafe in NYCHA housing and that there is less maintenance staff than before. (Even with the city's additional $58 million allocation to NYCHA, the agency faces a budget shortfall this year of nearly $150 million as a result of the national sequester.)
“I am a senior citizen,” said Sarah Plowden of St. Paul's Congregation. “This Redwood Senior Citizen Housing affords me an opportunity to live near my church, to live in the same community and to go on with life in a quality that I've experienced all these years.”
New York City's elder population is expected to increase 50 percent by 2030, according to city statistics. Many baby boomers are looking for alternative models of care. They seek to “age in place,” which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines as aging “safely, independently, and comfortably” while living in one's own home and community.
The city faces skyrocketing demand for affordable senior housing and senior services. In 2011, the New York Times reported that New York city had the fewest number of retirement communities and assisted-living facilities per households with seniors when compared to other metro areas, according to the National Investment Center for the Seniors Housing and Care industry.
Five years ago, EBC and CPC Resources conducted a study and discovered that there were no affordable senior houses accepting applications for seniors in Brooklyn: “Some had closed their waiting lists and some had waiting lists 20 years long,” said Widerkehr of CPC Resources.
The Bloomberg administration recognized the need for senior affordable housing in “Friendly Aging NYC,” a 2009 report that announced 59 initiatives to better equip New York City for an aging population.
Affordable senior housing development is funded mostly through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) through the section 202 Supportive Housing Program, the report said. The federal program places a cap on the amount that can be spent per unit of senior housing, making it difficult for developers to do business in New York City.
To encourage developers to apply for federal funding, the city committed to supplementing federal money in a process called “gap-financing.” The city gap-financed 445 units of federally-funded affordable senior housing in 2010, 241 units in 2011, 242 units in 2012, and 180 units in 2013, according to the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD).
But EBC's Lindsay says the city is not financing projects at a pace that met the city's need.
“There's going to be 1.3 million seniors here in the near future and I don't think 100 or 400 units of housing [per year] is going to fit that need,” Lindsay says. He urges the city to make more efforts to fund affordable senior housing.
“We have a huge commitment to doing it, but we've faced a lot of challenges from the federal budget in making that happen,” says Jessica Catz, Assistant Commissioner of Special Needs Housing at HPD. The city suffered from federal budget cuts to HUD, and although the city made efforts to create its own senior housing program using NYCHA Section 8 vouchers, those vouchers are no longer available due to the national sequester, she says.
Despite limits to city and federal funding, some private developers are striving to meet the growing demand for senior housing in Brooklyn, which has the largest senior population of all the boroughs.
Redwood Senior Living will be financed through the federal Supportive Housing Program and will be supported by tax credits allocated by New York State Homes and Community Renewal (HCR) and by an energy conservation grant from the New York State Energy Resource and Development Authority (NYSERDA), said Widerkehr.
Shai Lauros, director of Community Development at the Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation says that despite private efforts, affordable senior housing development in East New York is “not to the point that it's making a significant dent in the need.”
It's not only that seniors need East New York. East New York needs its seniors, organizers said. James Meertens, Vice President of the Simeon Guild, a group of male seniors who assist the ministry at St. Paul Community Baptist Church, said seniors have wisdom to give back to the community, and they deserve to see the positive change coming to neighborhoods like East New York after so many years.
“Seniors have seen repair and regrowth … the return of East New York from being the murder capital to becoming a place of lively spiritual blessed vibrancy,” he said.
Addressing the gathering crowd, Brawley explained why the new building would be named after the redwood tree.
“Redwoods are the strongest and the tallest trees in the world – some towering some 400 feet in the sky. But what's so interesting about redwood trees is that their root system is only about 3 feet deep and some question, how is it that Redwoods almost never fall?”
Brawley said redwood trees survive because their roots join together, forming a massive, connected network. He saw redwoods as a metaphor for the community's new facility, which will allow seniors to support one another, connect them to resources, and keep seniors in East New York so they can help the rest of the community to flourish..
“Y'all people know our young people need our seniors in this city,” he said, and his words were greeted with a unanimous “Amen.”