By Peggy Taylor
“We did it!” exulted Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine as he joined other elected officials, community leaders, public agencies, and private partners on Tuesday at the dedication of a spanking-new, state-of-the-art, affordable-housing complex for low-income and homeless seniors on West 108th Street between Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues.
Called WSFSSH at 108th Street, the complex actually opened last November, but its dedication was delayed due to COVID and seniors’ vulnerability to it. It features 110 beds in its shelter section and, in its residential section, 79 units for low-income households, and 119 supportive studios for formerly homeless residents, most of whom are over 55 and living with serious mental illness and/or substance-use disorder, or require assistance with activities of daily living.
There is also a federally qualified health center, operated by the Institute for Family Health, offering primary care and specialized services at low or no cost to both residents and the entire Upper West Side community. And there are: a parking lot for the Central Park Medical Unit’s ambulances; community meeting spaces; and a public restroom for the adjacent Anibal Aviles playground.
Calling it an “affordable housing eco system that elevates everyone,” the Borough President hailed the complex as “one of the most important affordable housing projects in the city today,” noting: “We overcame political obstacles, financial obstacles and logistical obstacles to accomplish this, but in the end, we transformed this block.” He stressed that the project, which faced stiff opposition, came to fruition “thanks to the sheer number of groups who supported it.”
Paul R. Freitag, executive director of WSFSSH, the West Side Federation for Senior and Supportive Housing, which spearheaded the project, struggled to contain joyful tears as he asked the audience to indulge him as he praised his staff and recited the names of all the organizations who made the complex a reality “during an incredibly difficult time.” He said it was “wonderful to celebrate something positive and hopeful after so many arduous years. We recognize that how we care for our elders is a mark of our civic well-being.”
“We never see a crowd this big for a project like this,” said Jessica Katz, Chief Housing Officer of New York City, as she addressed the 200-plus standing-room-only audience, who packed the glass-walled dining room of the shelter section. She called it one of the city’s most important affordable housing projects and “a community effort and asset.”
Adolfo Carrion, Jr, Housing Preservation and Development Commissioner, uttered “Wow,” repeatedly as he contemplated the facility which he also praised as “amazing, beautiful, and inspiring.” “This is a project which needs to be multiplied many times over the City,”he said. But acknowledging the recent Bruckner Throgs Neck and Edgemere Far Rockaway zoning battles, he cautioned that “nothing of value comes easy, it’s not pretty sausage-making,” and that, given the low housing vacancy rate, especially for low-income, fixed-income seniors, replicating such projects was “going to require fights.”
Other dignitaries who spoke included Sheldon Fine, President of the WSFSSH Board, Liza Fitzpatrick, Human Resources Administration Administrator, Joslyn Carter, Department of Homeless Services Administrator, and Jane Silverman, Executive Director, Community Development Banking, Chase.
Lynette Spencer, a resident who transferred from the shelter to the residential section and has been living there since last November, expressed gratitude for her “huge studio” and described how the facility had helped her recover from the double blow of losing her job when she lost her husband from COVID. “The people here are beautiful,” she said. “I feel safe, they keep the complex clean, everybody is helpful, they make sure you get your packages, and they provided me with a therapist when I was traumatized.”
A shelter resident, whom I interviewed but who didn’t want to be named, called the facility, the “Taj Mahal.”
After the dedication, we toured the residential section of the “Taj Mahal,” and were impressed with its well-appointed studios, community rooms, playroom, (children live in the complex), laundry room, offices, garden, and terrace overlooking the park next door, the soccer field across the street and the midtown skyline in the distance.
One of the delights of the tour was discovering that a former New York City tour guide and colleague of mine, French-born Beatrice Coron, was the artist who created the facility’s charming cut metal tree guards, window guards, fences, and gates and whose theme is “Roots and Seasons.” “It’s about the way both human beings and trees adapt to the change of seasons,” she said. Her work, which depicts birds, rabbits, squirrels, and butterflies, is a “big hit with the kids,” and features the “strength and flexibility of the oak tree, which is a metaphor for this construction for the West Side Federation for Senior and Supportive Housing,” she said.
WSFSSH at West 108 features a multitude of on-site social services for its residents, including case management, service coordination, crisis intervention, counseling, transportation services, money management classes, nutrition services, meals for its Valley Lodge residence, and recreational activities, according to a press release.
Social services staff offer programming such as art classes in the building’s activity rooms and outdoor exercise and recreational activities in the building’s backyard and elevated terrace.
The development’s funding comes from a mix of sources including the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development, New York City Housing Development Corporation, NYS Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance’s Homeless Housing and Assistance Program, Chase, National Equity Fund, UMB Bank, Capital One, and Deutsche Bank.