KINGSBURY — Officials at the agency proposing a 29-unit apartment complex on Cooper Street in Glens Falls for the homeless and mentally ill say their project will save taxpayers money by housing people who the counties would otherwise have to pay to put up in a motel.
The Warren-Washington Association for Mental Health is proposing to a build a new facility at 47-50 Cooper St.
John Farrell, director of facilities for the agency, said the county is required to pay 79 percent of the cost of an emergency shelter. In the off-season, that could cost $89 per day or $350 a week for a single person.
He cited statistics in a fact sheet stating that the Warren County Department of Social Services reported that 660 people said they were homeless in 2018.
“Obviously, we’re not going to be able to help every one of them. We’re hopefully able to help some of the most vulnerable and needy of them,” he said.
And some of them are able to graduate from these facilities and move on to independent living.
“Some people need a helping hand to get back on their feet,” said Matthew Ryan, supportive housing coordinator for the agency’s Housing First program, during a tour of its 18-unit apartment building in Kingsbury.
The facility at 3043 Route 4 opened in 2009 based upon community need, according to Chief Executive Officer Andrea Deepe.
The facility is staffed 24 hours a day. There is a common area with a television, books and comfortable chairs. Ryan organizes regular movie and TV nights.
“They have their shows they like to watch,” he said.
In the backyard, the residents plant small gardens and hang hammocks in the trees. It is a nice relaxation spot, according to Ryan.
There is also a game room, which was a fitness center originally. Ryan said the facility tries to adapt to the needs of its residents. Ryan said they want it to feel like home.
“We have some individuals who will be here for the rest of their life,” he said.
The tenants pay rent that is equivalent to 30 percent of their adjusted gross income, Ryan said.
The average length of stays is just 53 months — about 4 1/2 years, according to Ryan. In 2018, five people left. Some of them go on to subsidized housing in the community or some type of independent living in an apartment or home.
Deepe said people go on to jobs or back to college.
“It’s all about getting people back to what they envision their life to be,” she said.
Ryan said one difference between the Kingsbury facility and the proposed Glens Falls complex is that the Kingsbury facility has a fully equipped kitchen and serves dinner in the dining area, but the residents in Glens Falls would have their own kitchen facilities in their apartments.
Farrell said the agency did not want the Kingsbury apartments to feel like an institutional building. People with mental illness sometime struggle with daily living. When they are facing challenge, they can come across as angry.
“Unfortunately, that alienates them from their neighbor. That alienates them for their landlord and most landlords say they don’t want to deal with it,” Farrell said.
Glens Falls proposal
The Cooper Street apartment complex will have 14 of the 29 units set aside for people dealing with mental illness. There would be four set aside for survivors of domestic violence, six for the chronic homeless and four family units. One unit will be set aside as a transitional unit for a short-term stay.
Each homeless person is on a waiting list. The agency will be taking the most vulnerable person on the list. Priority is given to Warren and Washington county residents and then it is based upon who are most vulnerable.
Farrell tried to respond to some of the other criticisms from the Glens Falls community on the agency’s Cooper Street plans. One concern of neighbors is stormwater running off the site and exacerbating flooding in basements during rain storms.
The agency decided to decrease the overall footprint of the building, Farrell said. An earlier version had a mostly two-story building with a section containing the multi-family housing that was one story. Farrell said the agency decided to make the entire building two stories to allow for more green space and a greater area to capture stormwater.
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In addition, the project will be before the Glens Falls Zoning Board of Appeals on May 20 to seek variances to push the building another 20 to 30 feet toward Cooper Street and away from the back of the residents on Leonard Street.
“We’re just trying to be conscious and offer more of a buffer in the back,” he said.
In addition, Deepe said the smaller footprint would allow more room for firetrucks to turn around in the back of the property.
Another criticism is whether this is the best use of an industrially zoned property, even though multifamily housing is permitted.
Choosing the site
Farrell said the Warren-Washington Association for Mental Health was looking around for a site. He had a conversation with then-Mayor Jack Diamond about purchasing the property at 222 Maple St., which is across the street from its Glens Falls office.
However, Farrell said he asked the mayor if the city would be open to granting variances for the site from the significant setback requirements. The mayor said he would not be willing to give any assurances.
“That taught me that I needed to find a piece of property that didn’t need any variances,” he said.
That property was subsequently sold to Dan Girard for $75,000.
Farrell said he discovered the Cooper Street property, formerly the site of Mullen Iron Works, by driving around and seeing a “for sale” sign.
He consulted with the architect, who said it would not require any variances, and he had a discussion with the owner and they agreed to the asking price.
“It was the free market. Nobody said: ‘Don’t you buy it. It belongs to us,’” he said.
Farrell sat down with the owner of the property.
“If anybody was willing to pay her asking price, they could have bought it at any time,” he said.
Some people have said there is environmental contamination at the site. Farrell said the agency has brought in its own professionals and the city has done its own tests. The conclusion was that there was some materials found on the property but not any more so than could be found anywhere in the community.
A lot of the property was cleaned up.
People have also brought up questions about what would happen if grant funding for operational expenses to the agency for the project ran out.
The Warren-Washington Association for Mental Health has received a $5.8 million grant from the state Homeless Housing and Assistance Program to build the facility and a $3.4 million grant to fund operations.
He said that this is a state-funded program with funding for five years. There is an annual review to make sure that the agency does what it is expected to be doing.
“It’s not about them looking not to fund us,” he said.
Farrell said he did not want to respond to hypothetical possibilities involving some future state officials drastically cutting funding.
“The reality is we deal with what we have in front of us,” he said.
Farrell cited the fact that the agency was awarded a $5.8 million grant, about 10 percent of the total amount of grants the state awarded that year, which he said is a testament to the quality of the organization.
Farrell pointed out that there was no community pushback when the facility was proposed for Kingsbury. There has been a positive reception.
“I’ve been asked a few times when are we going to do another one here,” he said.