By Nick Brandi, Samantha Garbarini, Deborah Skolnik, Gina Valentino, and Kevin Zawacki
Living in Westchester is expensive — and understandably so. The proximity to NYC, access to bucolic land, top-rated school districts, and other quality-of-life factors (arts institutions, healthcare, Michelin-rated restaurants, shopping, craft breweries, and more!) are just a few reasons why living here is desirable.
But astronomical property taxes (the highest in the nation), a median single-family home price of $655,000, and rising rents make living here a challenge for anyone who earns at or below the median household income of $92,758. (Crazy, we know.)
While an impressive 22% of Westchester households have a median income of more than $200,000, we got to thinking about the residents who aren’t freely toting designer bags and wallets stuffed with limitless cash. For the roughly 50% of households that earn less than $100,000, how can they live in Westchester when they don’t make a lot of money?
Westchester is one of the wealthiest suburbs in the country — and it’s reflected in our real estate costs. From Scarsdale’s grand Tudors to Tarrytown’s riverfront apartments, the region features spectacular housing, with price tags to match, and rents that can rival New York City. But having deep pockets isn’t always necessary to find quality housing. Across Westchester, affordable-housing options allow residents with differing budgets an opportunity to thrive.
“Housing is central to virtually every aspect of our lives: health, access to employment, access to transportation, safety, education, future earnings, wealth-building, and more,” says Marlene Zarfes, executive director of the nonprofit Westchester Residential Opportunities. “The ability to afford safe, fair, affordable, and accessible housing is critical to all of these aspects.”
In Westchester, affordable rental options span cities and sleepy suburbs alike, from Yonkers and New Rochelle to Chappaqua and Pleasantville, with hundreds of affordable units, some in towering luxury complexes, others tucked into cozy two-family residences.
To qualify, a resident’s household income usually needs to be between 50 and 60% of the area’s median income, as determined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. For Westchester in 2019, that figure was $60,150 to $72,200, based on a median income for the region of $120,300 for a household of four people. (Qualifications change based on the number of people in the household.)
So, what does affordable housing look like? In Montrose, the Round Top development features 91 affordable units, with one-bedroom rents at about $970 per month; two-bedroom units are about $1,150. In New Rochelle, RXR Realty’s new luxury high-rise 360 Huguenot has 280 units, 28 of which are considered affordable, with rents ranging from $1,670 (studio) to $2,140 (two bedroom).
Lofts on Main in downtown Peekskill offers affordable housing with a nuance: It’s reserved for creative types. Artists, who “practice one of the fine, design, graphic, musical, culinary, literary, computer, or performing arts,” according to the city, can rent a one-bedroom unit for about $890 per month.
Farther south, recently opened Chappaqua Crossing also features several affordable apartments. One-bedroom units rent for about $975 per month, while two-bedroom units rent for about $1,160. An added bonus: Residents have access to Chappaqua’s celebrated school district. As Zarfes says, affordable housing is about more than a lower rent; it’s about equal access to Westchester’s best amenities.
You may need to break out the sledgehammer and settle for some small spaces, but you’ll also be pleasantly surprised (in some cases) by what you can get at this low-for-Westchester price point. (Just hope you can afford the taxes.)
14 Truesdale Woods, South Salem
2 BR, 2 BA; 1,583 sq. ft.; .67 acres; $8,600 estimated taxes
Listed by Nelson Salazar, Coldwell Banker
Right at the half-million price point, this Colonial cottage boasts a light, airy floor plan; upgraded, open-concept kitchen; and low taxes on .67 acres. Some buyers may not like that the second bedroom is a loft space.
754 Warren Ave, Thornwood
4 BR, 2 BA; 1,700 sq. ft.; .28 acres; $13,993 estimated taxes
Listed by Rita Longo, Better Homes and Gardens Rand Realty
The desirable Mount Pleasant school district and central location are the big selling points for this spacious-for-the-price Cape Colonial — but be prepared to do some work. The very ’70s eat-in kitchen, bathrooms, and occasional wood-paneled wall could use some TLC.
32 Minkel Rd, Ossining
4 BR, 2.1 BA; 1,356 sq. ft.; .57 acres; $14,520 estimated taxes
Listed by Café Realty
Surprising bonuses that you’d expect from a larger house — like a sunroom and spacious walk-in closet in the master suite; bright, light-filled spaces; and move-in-ready (albeit a little dated) kitchen and baths — make this home a steal. The roof, water heater, and electric were upgraded or replaced within in the past two years.
9 Randolph Rd, White Plains
2 BR, 1.1 BA; 1,176 sq. ft.; .17 acres; $11,054 estimated taxes
Listed by Danielle Reese, Keller Williams NY Realty
Yes, it’s small, but for the price, you can’t expect to do much better in Westchester. Hardwood floors, a wood-burning fireplace, powder room, kitchen in decent shape, and moderate taxes mean there’s plenty to love here (and maybe even cash leftover to reno the bathrooms down the road).
Westchester’s property taxes consistently rank as the highest in the nation, but some residents may be overpaying. “The general theory is that a third of properties are properly assessed, a third are under-assessed, and a third are over-assessed,” explains David Ruzow, president of Granite Real Estate Tax Consultants in Pleasantville, who has been in the property-tax-reduction business for four decades.
When a property is over-assessed, Ruzow explains, its taxes are artificially high. This can happen for a number of reasons: Market conditions may have shifted. The last assessor might have incorrectly counted an extra bathroom or marked an unfinished basement as finished. Or, the house’s style — say, contemporary — may no longer be in vogue, reducing the property value.
So, what’s an overtaxed homeowner to do? “The first thing is determining the value of your house,” Ruzow explains. If the new appraisal is lower than the town’s appraisal, homeowners can “grieve” their taxes. This can be done individually, by filing a grievance form with your city or town, or with help from a company like Granite Real Estate Tax Consultants.
But, homeowners, beware: Westchester residents often feel they’re overpaying even when they’re not. “We get about 2,000 calls a year and end up with about 300 legitimate cases,” warns Ruzow. His advice to those other 1,700 homeowners? Buy a smaller house, move into a condo, “or move to South Carolina,” he jokes.
If it seems like healthcare costs are taking a growing bite out of your budget, you’re correct. Though lower than national spending, out-of-pocket expenses in New York rose by nearly 20% between 2013 and 2017 (the most recent available data), faster than almost anywhere else in the country, according to a report from the NYS Health Foundation. For those who can’t afford high healthcare fees, or don’t have health insurance at all, Formé Medical Center and Urgent Care (www.formemedicalcenter.com) in White Plains is a lifesaver — literally. The nearly 11,000 sq. ft. facility offers primary and urgent care, along with neurology, gynecology, podiatry, physical therapy, and cardiology services.
“We have created a medical membership to allow people to have access to affordable, high-quality care without breaking the bank,” says CEO Maria Trusa. Memberships can be purchased at either of two levels: $365 annually for unlimited urgent-care access alone or $730 yearly for both unlimited primary and urgent care. Unlike other health plans, Formé is not a major physician network; members are required to use the center and its doctors for their healthcare needs.
For members who require levels of care not found at the center, “we have negotiated with outside doctors, professionals, pharmacies, labs, and imaging [centers], so our patients are [charged] at Medicare or below-Medicare rates,” Trusa says. “Most people don’t know that anywhere you go, you’re being charged 300 to 400 percent of Medicare. When you go to the emergency room or hospital, it could be up to 700 or 800 percent of what Medicare actually paid.”
Hospital stays are not covered by the Formé membership. Occasionally, though, patients do need hospitalization. If their condition is life-threatening, Medicaid will pay for treatment, even if the patient is uninsured or undocumented.
For other hospital treatments or medications beyond a patient’s means, Trusa and Gina Cappelli, Formé’s founder and president, have established Promise to Aid, a nonprofit 501c3 that raises money for patients’ extraordinary medical expenses. “If they can’t afford to get surgery or they can’t afford medications, that’s what we’re here for,” Cappelli says. “A lot of these people are making $50,000 or $60,000 a year. They’re working just to provide for their family, to put a roof over their head and food on their table.”
We asked mayors and town supervisors throughout the county what they’re doing to make their towns more livable. Here are the most interesting things they said.
“The town funds numerous [recreation and cultural] programs that are not expensive to enhance the quality of life for residents. We have a policy that no one is denied the opportunity to participate in a program sponsored by the town if they can’t afford to pay.”
—Paul Feiner, Town Supervisor
“We offer one of the best parks-and-rec programs in the county. We have and continue to acquire more open space for our residents to enjoy for free. Friends of the Library puts on the nationally recognized Annual Outdoor Art Show — No. 2 in the country — which raises money to fund programs all year, including free concerts, plays, tickets to museums, self-help programs, et cetera.”
—Michael J. Schiliro, Town Supervisor
“White Plains has a long-standing commitment to affordable housing, [with a] program in place since 2003. We recently enhanced the program, requiring 12 percent affordable [housing] in all new projects and expanding eligibility. We are working to bring several 100-percent-affordable projects to the city.”
—Mayor Thomas Roach
“We are focused on creating workforce-development programs to create new skills and resources for residents to upscale their careers. Additionally, we are looking to create affordable-housing opportunities for people who are in the middle class. In Mount Vernon, there is a large group of people who make under $100,000 and are struggling to pay their rent. We are advocating for more housing options for families who fall in that $60-$80K AMI [Area Median Income] range.”
—Mayor Shawyn Patterson-Howard
“In Yorktown, we are trying to address the local tax structure, which puts unbearable pressure on homeowners, [who pay] 80 percent of our taxes. We are trying to shift this burden by expanding our commercial-tax base, reinvesting in our business districts, and attracting new employers to town.”
—Matthew Slater, Town Supervisor
“The Village squeezes every penny out of every tax dollar. We’ve had a zero percent tax-rate increase for four years while expanding services. We just added Sunday programming at the community center, making it a seven-day-a-week facility. And, this year Ossining will establish a youth bureau.”
—Mayor Victoria Gearity
Parents, listen up. Nationally, the yearly cost for in-state tuition and fees for a public college or university is, on average, more than $10,000 — and nearly $37,000 for a private one. So, here’s great news: Through NYS’ Excelsior Scholarship program, eligible undergraduate students can attend a SUNY (or CUNY) school tuition-free. Governor Cuomo first proposed this groundbreaking program in 2017, to make college affordable for middle- and working-class families, and it was enacted in the 2017-18 state budget.
Excelsior covers up to $5,500 in tuition costs after federal and other state financial aid, such as the Tuition Assistance Program award, are applied. (The average SUNY tuition is $7,070, with a reported 75% of students receiving financial aid.) To qualify, you must be a New York State resident and U.S. citizen or eligible non-citizen. Your family household federal adjusted gross income cannot exceed $125,000, and you must have graduated from a U.S. high school, earned a high-school equivalency diploma, or passed a federally approved “Ability to Benefit” test.
Students won’t just be getting a bargain education; they’ll be getting a high-value one, too. Last year, U.S. News & World Report, which compiles its list of “best colleges” based on factors like graduation rates and social mobility, ranked the University at Albany, Binghamton University, the University at Buffalo, Stony Brook University, and the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry among the best institutions in the nation.
Eleven other SUNY colleges were ranked among the best regional universities, including Geneseo, SUNY Polytechnic Institute, Oneonta, Oswego, Fredonia, and Cortland. Closer to home, Purchase College was ranked one of the top ten public colleges in the “National Liberal Arts Colleges” report by U.S. News & World Report, while The Princeton Review counted Purchase among the “Top 385 Colleges” in the nation.
Laura Schenk, 34
“I currently reside in Yonkers in a multifamily home. I rent the first floor. I am a secretary at a landscaping company in Scarsdale. One entire paycheck [a month] goes directly to my rent. Thank God I have all utilities included, because I wouldn’t be able to afford ConEd. I’m probably left with about $400 for gas, groceries, savings, and going out — for one whole month; that’s my spending cash. It’s very difficult. My mom paid my cellphone bill until recently, when I told her I thought I could handle it on my own. I have to penny-pinch. I often decline going out with my girlfriends. I don’t go out as much as I would like to, because I cannot afford to. I may want to go spend $50 on dinner, but then I need gas in my car. I don’t compromise on going to Taco Tuesday, because it’s happy hour and tacos are a dollar, so that’s something cheap and fun I can do. And, I have to have Netflix and Amazon Prime.”
Charise Burt-Miller, 29
“I work in Scarsdale full-time, doing sales and customer service. My husband [Javier] works part-time as a school-bus driver. I grew up bouncing from shelter to shelter with my mom. Struggling is nothing new for me; I think it’s new for my husband. We rent the first floor of a home in Mount Vernon. We don’t pay for gas or electric, which really helps. His parents sometimes help us out. We have good communication when it comes to finances and who’s paying what. New York State of Health helps pay part of [our health] insurance. We have the most basic [plan], which doesn’t pay for anything, and our deductible is $4,000 each. I love to shop, but I don’t like spending. Even if a shirt is $9, it has to be worth spending an hour of my life to buy that shirt. I’m finishing school to become a nurse; I would like to go full-time. We don’t have kids right now because we can’t afford them.”
Veronica Fernandez, 30
“I am a hair stylist at Supercuts. [My partner] Vincent is a supervisor. We have a 21-month-old daughter [with another baby due in May]. I’m very lucky that I was able to breastfeed my daughter. I can’t imagine if I had to buy formula. We live in a one-bedroom apartment in Peekskill. My sister watches my daughter three days a week. I’m not paying daycare prices, but I’m still paying her. We have looked into moving elsewhere, but then I wouldn’t have access to my family anymore, and we wouldn’t be able to afford it. I’m [applying] for state assistance with paying for daycare. I do feel like we struggle. Whenever we get to a point where we are even the slightest bit comfortable, my car breaks or something like that.”
Let’s face facts: With the highest property taxes in the nation, an aging infrastructure, chronically snarled highways (to the point that we might be more aptly named Congestchester), and just the right dose of snooty, the best strategy for the middle-income person or family may be to vamoose this county as quickly as the Lime bikes just did from Yonkers and White Plains.
According to the Hudson Gateway Association of Realtors, the single-family median home price in Westchester for 2019 was $655,000, compared with $358,500 and $455,000 for the same period in Putnam and Rockland Counties, respectively (with significantly lower taxes, too). For many of us middle-incomers, paying twice as much money for basically the same digs is a luxury we just can’t afford (and why should we even want to?). Besides, with all that saved cash, you can buy yourself that boat you’ve always dreamed of, travel the world, or get a Herculean head start on your kids’ college tuition.
Meanwhile, consider this: A direct train from Brewster to Grand Central on Metro-North’s Harlem Line takes 90 minutes. In that time, you can catch up on office work, chat with your besties, listen to an audiobook, or just slip effortlessly into your Zen while smiling at the financial stress you’ve left behind.