Five Questions With Wilson Kimball, President & CEO, Municipal Housing Authority for the City of Yonkers
A transformation is taking place in the City of Yonkers that is radically changing its public/affordable housing stock. Under the guidance of the administration of Yonkers Mayor Mike Spano and the president and CEO of the Municipal Housing Authority for the City of Yonkers Wilson Kimball, nearly three quarters of a billion dollars is being spent to reimagine what it is like to live in subsidized/affordable housing in this city.
In this month’s Five Questions With feature, Kimball discusses MHACY’s initiatives to reimagine public housing by undertaking new construction, massive renovations to existing housing stock and introducing green elements that takes the city’s public housing “out of the dark ages” and transforms the properties into vibrant communities that fit into the new development taking place in the city.
Kimball was appointed MHACY President and CEO in April 2020 after serving as Commissioner of Planning and Development for the City of Yonkers since 2013. Kimball succeeded Joseph Shuldiner who retired after having served as MHACY Executive Director for the past 13 years.
Under her leadership as Commissioner of Planning, the city has benefitted from more than $4 billion in private investment, more than 10,000 renovated, rehabbed or new apartments including more than 3,000 affordable units and more than 500 new hotel rooms. Yonkers has also won 26 grants valued at more than $20.7 million for crucial capital projects such as the Saw Mill River Daylighting Phase 1, 2 and 3, the Ashburton Avenue corridor and Putnam Rail Trail. Prior to her tenure as Yonkers Planning Commissioner, she served as Senior Vice President of Operations for the Hugh L. Carey Battery Park City Authority in New York City.
Real Estate In-Depth: The ongoing Municipal Housing Authority’s Rental Assistance Demonstration or RAD Program has rehabilitated approximately 1,700 housing units throughout the city. Through this more than $500-milllion program and others is the authority and the City of Yonkers looking to change what has been the stereotypical substandard public housing apartment in a crime-ridden area into an attractive modern residence located in a vibrant sustainable community?
Kimball: The short answer of course is Yes. The number of units is approximately 1,762 and the actual total for the RAD conversion of all of those units is more than $744 million. So, that’s a lot of money and that kind of investment—three quarters of a billion dollars—absolutely (signifies) our intention to turn the image of public housing around and make it fit into the community as the City of Yonkers is developing and has developed over the past nine years of Mayor (Mike) Spano’s leadership and into a more vibrant community and out of the dark ages when renovations weren’t done and units were abandoned. We had a whole floor at Palisades Towers, which was formerly known as Schlobohm at Schroder Street where the Municipal Housing Authority had an office but they abandoned it in the 1980s or early 1990s and it was a whole floor of apartments and office space that was just abandoned. So, the renovations at Palisades (Towers) converted them from an abandoned office to housing and brought more affordable housing online. So, that is definitely our intention.
I think (the housing authority’s capital investment and programs to change affordable housing) provides a sense of place that is better and tells people that live in that housing that you are not forgotten and this is not some throw-away housing of last resort, that we value you and value your family. We value you if you are a senior and have lived your whole life in Yonkers. I think people have a misconception of public housing or now we call it affordable housing, people have a misconception that I think was driven by images in the 80s, in my opinion, of a welfare cheat mother with a lot of children and they were sort of milking the system. That is 100% inaccurate, but exactly what people think. Sixty percent of our (MHACY) population is Hispanic, all of them have jobs. Every last tenant has some kind of job. Mostly, they are underemployed and some of our seniors are pensioners. They were 456 Teamsters or whatever, and they did an honest job for an honest living their whole lives and this is now where they live.
Real Estate In-Depth: Last year, MHACY continued work on the $236-million transformation of Cottage Gardens and closed on the financing of 178 Warburton at The Ridgeway, a new $56-million mixed-income residential complex being developed by MHACY and The Community Builders. That project is the fifth of six phases of this initiative that will eventually improve 500 units of housing. Can you give us an update on the sixth and final phase and why is the Cottage Gardens project so important to the authority and the city?
Kimball: The terms of the sixth phase of Cottage Gardens is currently under negotiation with MHACY and Community Builders, which is the developer that has done all of the other phases. It has been slated to be 92 units. We are in the very, very beginning stages of negotiating that relationship. In fact, just now we are scheduling appointments to talk to the architects who responded to the RFP for that project… So, it is moving along and the 172 Warburton (project), which was phase four is having a lottery on June 1, so that building is coming online and the lottery will give preference to former residents of Cottage Gardens and our other properties, like (Ross F.) Calcagno (Homes), that are currently under construction through the RAD program. With the fifth phase, we are working on the outdoor space that the county gave us HIF money for and so that is all coming together this summer. That fifth phase has really been a New York State, Westchester County, City of Yonkers, MHACY and the Community Builders partnership to get that all together because there has been money from all of those sources. And that is what we always point to as the best of public-private partnerships.
Why is it (Cottage Gardens) so important? That whole development has really redefined Warburton Avenue and the structure and the beauty of that whole neighborhood. So many of those properties overlook the Hudson River and it’s been a monumental change in the entrance and exit as you go into certain neighborhoods using Warburton as a north-south corridor or Ashburton Avenue as an east-west corridor. You really see the change and the vitality of those new buildings. And it’s funny because the City of Yonkers did drone footage for us of the whole neighborhood and how it has changed and one of our development partners was watching it and said, “Oh, this is the Community Builders project, that’s our Cottage Place replacement”… and gave a whole beautiful speech about it, but it actually turned out that they were pointing to the Avalon Bay apartments and they had gotten confused because the Avalon Bay apartments and our apartments are indistinguishable, except Avalon Bay is right on the water. But, that is how nice those buildings look. I mean, to be mistaken for Avalon Bay I think is somewhat of a credit to the amount of effort TCB (The Community Builders) has put into making these units look more modern. They have a lot of more modern amenities, like day care centers and education space and that kind of thing.
Real Estate In-Depth: Last year, the authority renovated a total of 1,336 affordable housing units and had 425 additional units under construction. Is there a shortage of affordable housing in the city and how many new units are you hoping to add in 2021? Also, the city is looking to partner with landlords on Section 8 housing. Please explain?
Kimball: So, the short answer again on whether there is a shortage of affordable housing is Yes. We believe there is a shortage of affordable housing in the city. The county did a study in November 2019 that found the county as a whole was short about 11,000 units of affordable housing and if you talk to Norma Drummond, who is the Planning Commissioner for Westchester County, she will tell you most of the prospective residents of affordable housing want to live in the lower county cities of Yonkers, Mount Vernon and New Rochelle. So, we definitely have a shortage and we are hoping to bring on probably a couple of hundred units in 2021 through renovation or building new, so that would be TCB or our own RAD conversions…
So, one of the ways we are looking at to grow is through providing Section 8 vouchers to private developers and through that end we issued an RFP and we are going to issue another RFP and so far, we have been very happy with the results. We have worked with groups like Westhab, Conifer and Trinity who are looking at projects in different areas. Westhab has projects in the Nodine Hill area, like Elm Street. Conifer has a project where they are building three separate buildings on Ravine and Point streets and Trinity is looking on McLean Avenue. So, we are really happy about the diversity of sectors we are dealing with and the fact that we are dealing with multiple developers because it is never good to put all your eggs in one basket. And we are hoping that more private developers will come forward to work with us. Also, we are looking at property that is city surplus. I also just got out of a meeting with a community leader about developing a home ownership program. So, we have a lot of exciting things happening, so we just need to get the time and the days and the resources to pull it all together…
Real Estate In-Depth: MHACY has embraced the concept of green technology to create efficiencies and cost savings. One of the avenues the authority is considering is Passive House for example. Can you detail MHACY’s efforts in the green arena?
Kimball: We are working with Groundwork Hudson Valley. First, we paid for them to do a feasibility study of our properties and that was on issues such as rainwater runoff, bioswales, local non-evasive plantings and different ways to address different issues at each property. So, for instance at Calcagno and Palisade Tower where there are big parking lots, we see a high temperature, so it is a ‘heat island effect’ and we are talking to Groundwork about doing everything like from painting the roofs white to adding tree cover so we would have a tree canopy to bring down the heat because there are a number of studies that indicate that people who live in affordable housing and are subjected to high temperature levels have harder issues learning, higher rates of asthma, and that kind of thing. So, we are working with them on those properties with certain specific things, whereas at (Kris) Kristensen (Homes), which is in the Hollow, we have flooding problems, so we are trying to mitigate the flooding and at (Joseph F.) Loehr Court we have some runoff issues so we are going to look at bioswales. In all cases, we are working with Groundwork and I was very specific that we want local plants that are easy to maintain by our staff, that are non-invasive and that don’t provide homes for unwanted pests…
Editor’s Note: Kimball discussed a host of other initiatives at other properties including the introduction of community gardens, and other means where residents can have more of a varied green space, rather than just existing grass and concrete.
Real Estate In-Depth: In that vein, recently, the City of Yonkers, Robert Martin Co., G&S Solar, Community Solar, MHACY and others announced a major solar initiative. Can you explain MHACY’s involvement and how it could benefit tenants?
Kimball: We signed up to be a partner agency with Sustainable Westchester, Groundwork Hudson Valley and Robert Martin. Robert Martin puts the solar panels on their roofs and then they sell it back to the grid and allow low-income or affordable housing tenants to utilize savings from that production of energy. So, it can drop your energy bill by 10 cents (per kilowatt hour) to $1 every month. What a lot of people don’t understand is that some tenants in affordable housing, and certainly in our affordable housing, pay their own electric and gas. We have 100 residents who are seniors in Martinelli (Manor) and (Msgr. Cajetan J.) Troy (Manor) who pay their own electric and we have over 200 residents that live in what we call our seven townhouse developments that pay their own electric and gas and this would help those individuals achieve savings. And in many cases, they are seniors who are on a fixed income.
Last summer, when it was hot and there was COVID, people couldn’t go to cooling centers and in fact, many tenants were stuck at home with air conditioning and for people who are on fixed income and are trying to figure out how to save $1 or $5, this is really important to them, not to mention it is the right thing to do for the environment.