White Plains-based Community Housing Innovations (CHI) accommodates 1,000 families every night in homeless shelters and residential units throughout Westchester, Suffolk, Nassau, Dutchess, and Orange counties. That alone is huge, but CHI, a nonprofit with $22 million in revenues—most of which comes from government contracts—does more, working tirelessly to make the recipients of its services self-sufficient. It requires residents to sign a self-sufficiency contract whereby, in exchange for CHI’s assistance, they agree to help themselves, by attaining more education, for example, or treating an addiction.
“We’ve been successful in getting thousands of individuals on the road to self-sufficiency,” says Executive Director Alexander Roberts, who co-founded the nonprofit in 1991. Roberts, who was a television reporter in the late 1970s and early 1980s covering the homeless crisis of those decades, launched CHI in Suffolk County, deploying unconventional strategies to tackle a host of issues related to unaffordable housing and homelessness.
Instead of grouping homeless families into one large building, for example, CHI places families in existing apartments scattered throughout residential zones. “The families in Westchester are in a normal home environment rather than an institutional shelter,” says Roberts. “They cook for themselves, budget for themselves, and have a relationship with their case manager to help them get where they need to be.”
In 1997, CHI began providing education services (eight hours of home-buying counseling) and down-payment assistance (up to $25,000 in grant money) to first-time homebuyers. “We have very, very few foreclosures, even though we deal with low-income home buyers,” says Roberts. “We give them high-quality counseling, and don’t allow them to go into subprime mortgages.” To date, CHI has provided 500 families in Westchester and Long Island with $12 million worth of down-payment assistance.
Today, CHI continues to innovate to tackle the lack of affordable housing in Westchester. “The county does an excellent job with providing services to the homeless,” says Roberts. “On the other hand, due to restrictive zoning, local municipalities are doing a terrible job of providing affordable housing, which creates the [homelessness] problem.” So CHI, which has 24 employees in Westchester, is raising awareness about “snob zoning,” which favors single-family (read: expensive) developments, and has even partnered with municipalities like Ardsley to erect an affordable housing complex.