Is affordable housing in Westchester an oxymoron? Before you head off to Putnam or Rockland, check out what we found right here.
By Nancy Claus Giles
When I first moved to
Westchester from Manhattan 17 years ago, my No. 1 priority was an easy, civilized commute to my job in the city. Since a chauffeured limousine was out of the question, I drew the line at 30 minutes from Grand Central Terminal. Bronxville was our first stop.
“I don’t want to live in the Bronx,” my husband sniffed, until we found we couldn’t afford it anyway. The realtor gently steered us up-county a few miles and we instantly fell in love with Tuckahoe. The houses were adorable and affordable, we could walk to the train and shops and make it into Manhattan within my time constraints. We made an offer on the spot.
Since then, the real estate market in Westchester has skyrocketed—up 21.5 percent last year alone (making the median price of a home in the county a whopping $570,750). And while it is difficult to talk about “affordable” housing in the county with a straight face (everything is relative after all), there are still some gems out there, nestled in the countryside, tucked along the shores and hidden in our cities.
Westchester Magazine sent questionnaires to nearly 200 realtors in Westchester to hear their picks of the top towns in the county. The parameters? First, the town had to be in a good school district. Equally important, it had to have homes available to sell within the median price range for Westchester. The other factors were quality-of-life issues—proximity to major highways and mass transit, a variety of nearby shops and services and a sense of community within the town. The following 10 made our list.
Close to the City
Tucked between two of the most affluent communities in the county—Bronxville and Scarsdale—Tuckahoe has the distinction of being the only community in Westchester with two train stations (a commuter racing to the Crestwood station was immortalized by Norman Rockwell). In fact, a major draw to Tuckahoe is the ease of commuting—every resident is within half a mile of a train station, as well as in close proximity to shopping, the library and parks. You could just about get by without a car in this town. Only one square mile, Tuckahoe boasts both an uptown and downtown, loaded with shops and services, from basics like shoe repair and hardware to specialty shops, exercise and yoga studios and plenty of restaurants (Salerno’s and An American Bistro are two favorites). The town’s population is diverse, as is the housing stock—it has both affordable and luxury apartments (a one-bedroom at the new Rivervue complex rents for an eye-popping $2,500 a month), condos, single-family homes and duplexes.
My first house on Bella Vista Street—where all three of my daughters were born—recently sold for $550,000, more than twice what we paid in 1986. And the neighborhood is just as charming and convenient today. Neat Dutch Colonials and Tudors line the streets, canopied by red maples and flowering fruit trees. The Tuckahoe Beautification Committee, a group of 40 women, has raised $100,000 over the past 10 years to keep the town picturesque. They are responsible for the stately clocks at both ends of town, the hanging baskets of flowers, new lighting and signage, and have won a county award in the process for their efforts. They also finagled money from Metro-North to plant evergreens to soften the look of the fencing.
This is a community-oriented family town. Halloween is hugely popular, and out-of-towners routinely bring their children here to gawk at the spooky yard displays and join the hundreds of little princesses, goblins and ghosts running through the streets. Christmas carols, and progressive dinners are other community-wide events that draw residents close together.
Media Maven Haven
There are more reporters and
department heads from The New York Times living in Pelham than anywhere else in the county, according to Scott Stiefvater of Stiefvater Real Estate. And three of the journalists at President Bush’s State of the Union address hailed from Pelham: Tim Carney (Evans-Novak Political Report) Joe Klein (columnist for Time and author of Anonymous) and Nick Lemann (the Washington correspondent for The New Yorker). And that’s just the tip of the iceberg: The resident roster reads like a mailing list for Editor and Publisher magazine. The draw here? Two draws, really: the short commute (some residents complain that the 29 minutes into Grand Central doesn’t give them enough time to get through the Times) and the Blue Ribbon Schools (a New York State award of excellence), which are rated among the upper 15 percent of schools nationwide.
Pelham is the oldest town in Westchester, purchased in 1654 from the Siwanoy Indians. It comprises the Village of Pelham and the Village of Pelham Manor, and within its 2.4 square miles are stores, restaurants, the Pelham Picture House (the last single-screen theater showing first-run movies in the county), an arts center and, of course, the Long Island Sound. Victorian gingerbread houses abound, as do Colonials, Tudors, Queen Annes, Georgians and Mediterraneans, lovely examples of 1920s architecture.
This is a community that takes its Little League seriously. Last year, 1,100 Little Leaguers from kindergarten on up marched in the annual parade—nearly 10 percent of the town! And when the moms of the Junior League decided a new playground was needed, not only did they raise $100,000 in three months—they enlisted their husbands to install the new equipment. The men started at 7 a.m. one Saturday morning, and twelve hours later, Pelham had a new playground.
“Dobbs Ferry doesn’t have airs,” says Bernice Gottlieb of Hudson Shores Realtors, and a Dobbs Ferry resident for the past 42 years. “There is a working class element here along with the CEOs of major corporations. There is an understated wealth about Dobbs Ferry.”
The big draw here is the Hudson River and the accompanying sunsets. “Sometimes the river looks like a raging ocean, sometimes like a lake,” Gottleib says. Like the artisans drawn to the Hudson in the 1800s, Dobbs Ferry still hosts a large artistic crowd. “There are so many theater personalities that the Rivertowns are often called Hollywood East,” she says, ticking off the names of former residents: Julie Harris, Carol Baker and her daughter Blanche Van Dusen. Another popular feature is the Croton Aquaduct, a “magic place,” Gottleib says, for walking and biking, especially in the spring.
“Dobbs Ferry is very friendly,” says Sarah Lang, a former resident who is moving back. “It’s not your typical suburb where all the houses look the same—it is picturesque with the river and all the different styles of houses. It feels more like living in a small town.”
A strong community spirit runs through the town made up mostly of families with children. “People look for any excuse to have a barbecue down by the river,” Gottleib says. “For eighteen years, our family lived on Southlawn, overlooking the river, and each year, we would close down the street to hold a lawn festival. They still do today. It is part of the fabric of the community. But if you want privacy, you can have it too.”
While there are the exquisite but pricey historic estates in the toney Teatown area of town, you can still find a two- or three-bedroom house in the village of Croton-on-Hudson in the $300,000 price range, according to Cynthia Lippolis of River Towns GMAC Real Estate. The river location and the woodsy environs have drawn a large contingent of theater people and other artsy types to the area: Blinn Road is named after the actor Holbrook Blinn; another road, Journey’s End, was named after the play Blinn is best known for (and where, alledgedly, he met his death falling from a horse). Other theatrical residents have included Fay Bainter and Jose Ferrer.
The Village is hard at work revitalizing one of its biggest assets: the riverfront. An old asphalt plant was recently converted into a 30-acre waterfront park. Nearby is Discovery Cove, a new, gated development on the Hudson with townhouses starting in the $600 thousands. Next door, resale condos at Half Moon Bay with a river view are selling in the high $500 thousands.
Outside the village, woodsy areas and water properties are plentiful. The Croton Dam and River (great for kayaking), the Senasqua Park on the Hudson (with the nearby Croton Sailing School) and Silver Lake at the end of the reservoir offer
a number of recreational possibilities. But the jewel
of Croton-on-Hudson is Teatown Reservation. Driving down Spring Valley Road to the reserve, a long, winding drive with an extremely dense canopy of trees, makes one wonder if strewn bread crumbs might be necessary to find one’s way out. This 730-acre nature preserve and education center covers all the scenic bases: a 33-acre lake with an island wildflower garden, streams, a gorge, hardwood swamps, mixed forests, meadows, hemlock and laurel groves criss-crossed with more than 14 miles of hiking trails.
Living Up to Its Name
Everything about this town is
pleasant—the neatly kept Victorian and Colonial houses with their rocking-chair porches looking out on tree-lined streets, the shops and restaurants in town, the welcome given to newcomers, the potluck suppers, caroling and barbecues. “People pull off the Saw Mill and drop into my office and ask, ‘Where am I?’” says Rosemary D’Addato of Century 21 Haviland Real Estate. It is that inviting. And once folks get drawn in, they tend to set down roots.
“Everyone gets involved here,” declares Philip McGrath, owner of the popular Iron Horse Grill and a 12-year resident of the Village. “They’ve either been a Little League coach or a member of the PTA, Rotary or Lion’s clubs.” And they certainly look after each other.
When a resident spotted me and a photographer shooting photos in the village, she immediately called the local cable station, Pleasantville Community Television. Before we could dismantle the tri-pod, one of PCTV’s hosts ran out to greet us.
Recently, the town has hipped up its image with the addition of the Jacob Burns Film Center, a community resource that offers art films and lectures and that many believe was a catalyst for the town’s revitalization. McGrath noted that when he opened his restaurant there were seven or eight empty storefronts on the street—now there is nearly 100 percent occupancy. The town is only 1.9 square miles, and most residents can walk to town and the train station.
Big City, Low Taxes
While our other top 10 selections are aptly characterized as quaint and homey, White Plains is much more than that. It is a growing, vibrant city that shows no signs of slowing down. “It’s the best of all worlds—a city with a wonderful sense of community,” boasts Kevin O’Shea of American Classic Homes. “It’s the center of the action, with low taxes and downtown culture,” offers Greg Rand of Prudential Rand Realty. So, what makes it so great?
“First, you have a low tax base because of all the business,” says J.P. Endres of David Endres Realty Group. “You can get a great house here with half the taxes of neighboring towns.” Though many people only think of White Plains as a business district, there are many wonderful family neighborhoods tucked away—close to the action, but quiet and private.
And there is broad cultural diversity here—you can find an orthodox temple, a mosque and churches of all denominations. And unlike many towns in Westchester, there is no excuse for a teenager to claim boredom. There are movie theaters, the City Dance Center, Frozen Ropes batting range, an outdoor skating rink and, of course, lots of shopping, including the upscale Westchester Mall. “White Plains has not hit its peak yet,” predicts Endres. “It keeps getting better and will be the hot place to be.”
Quaint Hamlet, Rolling Hills,
And Lots and Lots of Art
“Living in Katonah has spoiled me
for living anywhere else,” says Roselyn Harburger, long time resident and branch manager of Houlihan Lawrence Real Estate Center. “My husband wants to get a vacation home, but I can’t imagine why. There is no place I’d rather be than Katonah.”
It’s a sentiment shared by many of its residents. “If they don’t have it in Katonah, I probably don’t need it,” says Marianne Shearer, who lives and works in the town (and refuses on principle to shop outside its boundaries).
Katonah was designed by noted New York City landscape architects G.S. and B.S. Olmstead more than 100 years ago. Today, its wide streets are still fronted with the same vintage Queen Anne, Shingle Style and Colonial Revival homes with grassy medians running through the center. The hamlet contains within its borders just about everything a community could want: a bustling library, the Katonah Art Museum, the Caramoor Center for the Arts and Music, and a lovely downtown free of chain stores.
David Hochberg moved to Katonah from New York City a year ago, looking for a big contrast in lifestyles. He found it. “Most of Westchester is suburban, but Katonah has a totally different feel. When I turn up the dirt road to my house, it has the ambiance of Vermont or Maine. I don’t garden, so I love the wildlife, the deer, coyotes and otters in my pond. This morning I was late for work waiting for a flock of guinea hens to cross the road.
“Yet, when you want your
city dose,” he notes, “it’s just an hour away.”
The Charm of a Village,
The Sophistication of a City
The flip side of Katonah with
its aversion to chain stores is Mt. Kisco, whose main drag resembles a bustling outdoor shopping mall: Banana Republic, Borders, Sam Goody, The Gap, Victoria’s Secret, Starbucks. Of course, there are lots of wonderful non-mall stores as well: Curiouser and Curiouser for kids and teen clothing, Golden Oldies for antiques and accessories, Fairground Attraction for gifts. Mt. Kisco is considered both the commercial and culinary mecca of Northern Westchester, with more than 40 restaurants. Some favorites: Café Antico, the Flying Pig Café, 17 Main, Lexington Square Café, Restaurant Luna, the Taj and La Camelia.
The Manufacturer’s Outlet Mall is finally getting a long-overdue facelift, with Target and a new Super A&P grocery coming, to the delight of most residents. The 18,000 square-foot Boys and Girls Club with its eight-lane indoor pool at the south end of town and the Northern Westchester Center for the Arts at the other end offer a huge variety of classes and activities for all age groups, from pre-school and up, nearly every day of the year. A tiny multiplex (some wags suggest their home screens are larger) offers first-run movies. A farmers’ market is open summer months by the train station; the rest of the year you can count on Mount Kisco Farm for the freshest fruits, veggies and flowers.
This is a town that has seen some hard times, but always manages to bounce back. Right before Thanksgiving 1995, a fire devasted the downtown area, including the brand new Mt. Kisco Book Company. The entire town pitched in to help clean up the mess, create a fund for out-of-work employees and help relocate the burned out businesses. Then, in August 2000, a landmark bridal boutique burned to the ground. Again, the support from the town helped keep the store afloat, and the new Elephant’s Trunk will soon be rebuilt on the very same spot.
The three pyramids of IBM’s office building, designed by I. M. Pei, are visible from I-684 as you travel north towards Somers. But the residents don’t mind this incongruous mix of rural and business. The presence of IBM and PepsiCo adds tax dollars to the town without adding children to educate. It’s a happy combination—beautiful homes, open meadows, the Lasdon Park Arboretum (with summertime open air concerts), Muscoot farm (a 19th-century gentleman’s farm, with animals, hay rides and hiking trails) and two major shopping centers: Somers Town Center on Route 100 and Somers Commons in Baldwin Place.
There is a wide mix of housing in Somers: a Tara look-alike next to a development of McMansions next to more modest Colonials, capes and contemporaries. But the country feel permeates it all, and homes here are “a touch lower in price compared to towns to the south and east,” according to Richard Mishkin of Coldwell Banker.
“Somers is very spread out, very rural,” says Somers resident and realtor Catherine Imperatrice. “There are no strip malls, and only two gas stations.” Despite the wide-open spaces, there is a strong sense of community, she says. Hundreds of children show up at Bailey Park for the annual Halloween parade. This Memorial Day, Somers is hosting a soccer tournament at Reis Park for 500 enthusiasts.
A Diverse Community
“This is a great place to raise a family,” says Kelley McVetty of Century 21 Mulvey Real Estate from her office in a landmark building in the center of town. “We’ve got great schools, just about every religion is represented here, and the recreation department offers winter and summer sports.” Over roughly 40 square miles, Yorktown has seven parks for outdoor activities including the FDR State Park.
Yorktown is made up of the hamlets of Jefferson Valley, Shrub Oak, Yorktown Heights and Mohegan Lake. Cindy Beer-Fouhy remembers when her parents bought a small summer cottage in Mohegan Colony in the 1950s. “We lived in the middle of the woods, surrounded by skyscraper-sized pine trees,” she says. “We had no driveway or phone, and our electrical system wouldn’t support a TV. All we could do was play in nature, sit and think. I think that’s where I became a poet.”
Politically, the area was unique as well. “Mohegan Colony was more of a socialist colony—at day camp we learned songs like Talkin’ Union Blues and spent our time putting on plays by Edward Albee and going to meetings about humanitarian ideals.”
Of course the Colony, like the rest of Yorktown, has grown up, built out and become modernized, and if there are any commies, er, left, they keep it under their caps. It is certainly a capitalist’s dream now—within Yorktown, you can buy a car, outfit your office, remodel your bath and just about everything in-between. “It’s large enough here to have choices in shopping, restaurants and services,” McVetty says. Turco’s is a favorite spot, often called the Zabar’s of Westchester without Zabar’s prices. Who needs to cook when you can pick up their gourmet dishes, sushi, pizza and deli items. For pies, head straight to Grandma’s.
Reality check here. For those not already
With an equity stake in Westchester, coming up with a 20-percent down payment of $114,000 for a median priced home may be impossible. Is there a better way to break into the market without busting your budget?
How about a two-bedroom, two-bath unit for less than your monthly rent that will quite likely appreciate in value? Co-ops, out of favor in the early ’90s, are now a popular option and make up nearly a quarter of the county’s housing stock. The median sale price last year was $100,000, up 20 percent from the previous year and more than 50 percent from 1999.
“Co-ops are a sound housing alternative for young professionals and families who want to build equity instead of paying rent every month,” says Patricia Cunningham, broker and owner of Cunningham & Schneider Realty in White Plains. “Co-ops serve the needs of a cross section of people, from kids just out of college, to newlyweds to those downsizing and seniors who may not want to deal with maintaining a house any more.”
The difference between condos and co-ops (aside from cost—condos are getting as pricey as single- family homes) is that with co-ops, you own shares of the corporation, not the unit itself. Therefore Cunningham advises that you make sure the building you’re considering is in both good physical and good fiscal shape. And if you are buying a co-op as an investment, be aware that there are often limitations on subletting the apartments to anyone other than family members.
working the numbers
The average rental price for a two-bedroom, two-bath apartment in Westchester is between $1,300 and $1,800 a month, with no tax advantages. But if you bought the same type of unit as a co-op for $100,000, put 10 percent down and mortgaged the balance for 30 years at 6 percent, the monthly payment would be $540, 80 percent of which is tax deductible. Adding monthly maintenance of $700 (usually 50 percent deductible) makes your total monthly payment less than rent, with the added bonus of reducing your overall tax bite. And co-ops are expected to continue to appreciate in value at a healthy rate.
Case in point: Last November, a nurse purchased a co-op in Mamaroneck Gardens for $95,000. Today, the same type of unit is going for $108,900. Cunningham predicts that northwest Yonkers, where all the waterfront revitalization is going on, may be the “hot spot” of tomorrow. “Recently,” she says, “it has been going crazy. At Hudson Court, a co-op development, a nice sized one-bedroom with a terrace overlooking the river and the Palisades is going for $72,000. It is only a couple of miles from the train station—just 30 minutes from Manhattan.”