On a recent weekend afternoon in downtown Peekskill, a small group of protesters gathered across from city hall and hoisted homemade signs. One protester led the group in a call-and-response chant: “I say inclusive; you say housing!” Nearby, someone scrawled a message on the sidewalk in chalk: “Honk for housing justice.”
The protesters chanted; several cars honked.
Just a few days prior, at a Peekskill City Council meeting, residents had raised concerns about the soaring price of market-rate rentals in the city and the need for more affordable options. Residents were languishing on long waiting lists, one speaker said, and sometimes had to settle for affordable housing in other municipalities.
The events in Peekskill aren’t unique to this Northern Westchester city. They’re representative of a problem nearly every municipality in the county is facing.
“I don’t think the public understands how broad and deep an issue this is,” explains Richard Nightingale, president & CEO of Westhab, a Yonkers-based nonprofit that builds affordable housing in Westchester. “There has been a lot of progress, but the reality is we are still falling immensely short. It’s fair to say nearly half our community is having trouble living here.”
Nightingale is referring to Westchester County’s Housing Needs Assessment, a sprawling report published in late 2019 in order to “establish a data-based foundation for the creation and preservation of affordable housing in Westchester,” according to the report’s summary. The report suggests Westchester needs more than 11,000 new affordable-housing units to meet demand.
Westchester County Executive George Latimer says the county is working to meet these needs but has encountered challenges. “You have to accept that COVID has thrown us all off our game plan,” he explains. “We’ve made decent progress, but we’re not where we could be.”
A key part of addressing this issue is developers who pri-oritize affordable projects. One of those developers is Wilder Balter Partners (WBP), a Chappaqua-based firm that does everything from development to construction to management.
“[The WBP founders] built our company primarily on affordable housing,” explains James Wendling, a vice president with the firm. “It’s always been a part of our work.” The firm began doing more market-rate work in the early 2000s, but the 2008 financial crisis compelled WBP to supplement that work by refocusing on its roots in affordable and workforce housing.
Today, there’s a similar crisis. “Housing prices are skyrocketing, especially over the past 24 months,” Wendling says. “There’s a national need, a regional need, a local need for affordable housing — particularly in Westchester County.”
“There has been a lot of progress, but the reality is we are still falling immensely short. It’s fair to say nearly half our community is having trouble living here.”
— Rich Nightingale President & CEO, Westhab
One of WBP’s current projects is 645 Main Street in Peekskill, which caters to households with 40% to 80% of the area median income. “We’re taking advantage of income averaging, providing affordable workforce housing, and creating a pocket park, as well as a more direct pedestrian route from the central business district to the waterfront and the MTA,” Wendling says.
Westhab is also building affordable projects, “from transitional homeless shelters to permanent affordable housing to permanent housing for special needs groups, like seniors and veterans,” explains Nightingale. One of those projects is Dayspring Campus in southwest Yonkers, a six-story building featuring 63 units and access to a sprawling and newly renovated community center. The project recently won accolades from New York’s newly minted chief executive: “This project, along with many others underway across the state, are helping to forge a bright, healthy future for New York,” said Governor Kathy Hochul in a September press release.
Another potent tool for increasing affordable housing is policy — rules and regulations that ensure major new developments in Westchester have at least some affordable units. At the county level, Westchester lawmakers are using capital funds to acquire land and then sell it to affordable-housing developers. “In the past two years, we set aside $10 million each year to contribute to buying land, so affordable housing could be placed on it,” Latimer says. “This year, we’re going to expand that dollar amount.”
The county also sets money aside for infrastructure improvements — like sewer main connections and traffic lights — that can lighten the burden for developers.
On a more local level, “Most municipalities in Westchester now have some kind of mandatory affordable-housing ordinance,” Nightingale explains. “If a developer wants to build a large-scale development, they’re typically required to dedicate at least 10 percent of those units to people earning 60 percent of the area median income or less.”
Passing these ordinances can often be a controversial process. In Yonkers this year, lawmakers spent several months debating whether to increase the affordable-housing requirement for new developments from 10% to 20%. (The requirement would have only applied to projects with 100 or more units.) Yonkers mayor Mike Spano vetoed the ordinance; the City Council could have overturned that veto this October, but voted to uphold it.
But even when ambitious ordinances pass, they don’t always solve the problem. Because Westchester municipalities can have such high median incomes, “affordable” prices that are 60% of that income can still be too high for some. “Our market is a luxury market,” Nightingale explains.
As affordable-housing advocates continue their work, one trend has been encouraging: Westchester residents’ apprehension about affordable housing is diminishing. “There’s been some thawing of the traditional NIMBY sentiment,” Nightingale says. “There are communities that really resisted change and stigmatized what affordable housing was all about. But in all corners of our county, there is more understanding of the value of diversity and providing opportunities for people.”
Still, there’s major work ahead, which “doesn’t necessarily equate to a piece of land being developed to be housing,” Nightingale adds. “Affordable housing actually has to get built. We have a longer way to go than most of our communities think.”
In this environment, developers like Nightingale celebrate one victory at a time. “Every unit of affordable housing that’s built is someone’s home,” he says.