Nathan Baker / The Citizen | Posted: Sunday, March 4, 2012
Residents in Cayuga County and Auburn may soon begin to hear the sounds of construction after a recent push for improved housing conditions.
One of the biggest winners locally in the first round of the state’s new regional economic development council grant program last year was the S.E. Payne Cornerstone project developed by Housing Visions Consultants.
With the $10.5 million project, the Syracuse-based nonprofit aims to demolish and rebuild 10 apartment houses and rehabilitate five others on Orchard, James, Washington and Benton streets in Auburn.
“We came into this project over a year ago when we partnered with Home Headquarters, the city of Auburn and Homsite Development Corp. to look at the Orchard Street neighborhood,” Benjamin Lockwood, Housing Visions’ director of development said. “We put together the Orchard Street Neighborhood Revitalization Plan.”
During the first stages of the plan, four houses on Orchard Street were purchased by Homsite. The 29 Orchard St. home was completely rehabilitated and the three houses next door were torn down and replaced with two new constructions that are now awaiting buyers.
But Lockwood said the city wanted to widen the scope of the project and put out a request for proposals.
“We responded to that and worked with the city to put together a larger plan to construct and manage 35 units of quality, affordable housing in the neighborhood,” he said.
The new apartments will replace 41 previously existing units and one building that housed a commercial business.
The name of the project comes from a building at the corner of Orchard and James streets, built near the turn of the 19th century by former Congressman Sereno Elisha Payne.
The three-story building will be rehabbed and converted to four one-bedroom apartments.
Although the project was awarded $3.17 million through the regional development council and $600,000 from the city’s Community Development Block Grant, Lockwood said a majority of the funding, about $6 million, comes from the federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program.
“The project is fully funded,” he said. “We’re planning to start in May 2013 and keep rolling until all the buildings are done, probably in the fall.”
Lockwood said when the construction is finished, tenants will be required to undergo an extensive screening process before moving in.
“We’re looking for families below 60 percent of the area median income,” he said. “We do a credit check, check the sex offender registry, require references and then do in-home site visits after they move in.”
He said a property manager located in Auburn will work to keep the building from falling into disrepair.
“We want to build 100-year houses and make sure they’re kept up,” he said. “We’ve budgeted the appropriate resources to do that.”
Stephen Selvek, city Planning and Economic Development program manager, said the Orchard Street neighborhood was chosen as a focal point for the rehabilitation efforts after being identified as one of the neighborhoods in the city with the greatest need.
“A lot of this goes back to the fact that it is one of the most distressed neighborhoods,” Selvek said. “It’s in a lower-income area that is very dense in terms of residential makeup and a lot of the homes have fallen into disrepair.”
Selvek said the upcoming project will fix up many of the houses and decrease the density by reducing the number of housing units in the area.
“Basically, right now it’s beyond the capacity of what was originally intended,” he said. “Many of the houses there are single- or two-family houses that have been turned into multiple apartments. What that does is overtax the city’s roads, sewers and water system.
“By reducing the density, we can get back to a more reasonable number so the city can provide services, and it creates an environment that is pleasant to live in.”
Selvek said a previous rehabilitation effort by Housing Visions in the Westlake Avenue neighborhood had positive results.
“In that part of the neighborhood we’ve seen a dramatic increase in property value and significantly reduced calls to the Auburn Police Department,” he said. “It’s a fairly desirable neighborhood now.”
Arlene Ryan, who has lived on Orchard Street for nearly 40 years, said the neighborhood has started to show signs of its upcoming rebirth.
“Right now they’re just buying all the buildings for the project,” she said. “When they buy one, they board all the windows up, so when we see one of them get boarded up we know it’s all set to go.”
Ryan said she hopes the increase of attention Orchard Street is getting helps to get her beloved neighborhood back on track.
“Now we’ve got people, companies and organizations, interested in doing something about that,” she said. “It might initiate private owners to want to do something. If your neighbor doesn’t take care of things, sometimes you might think it’s not worth it, but if things start getting fixed up they might be interested in putting some more work into it.”
Ryan said Homsite’s new construction has already had a positive change on the neighborhood.
“It’s great that they’ve taken the area under their wing,” she said. “It’s been looking better, much better.”
But the blossoming neighborhood has caused growing pains for some.
Donna Lockett, who purchased the rehabilitated property at 29 Orchard in June, said she was caught in a frustrating situation when she discovered foundation issues in her new home.
“Water leaks into the cellar, there’s standing water down there every time it rains,” she said. “The estimate I got was $11,000 for repairs, and I don’t have the money to remedy that. It’s really put me into a bind.”
As a requirement to purchase the house, Lockett had to prove that she was a low-income earner.
To discourage an immediate turnover of the property, Homsite Development Corp. also required her to sign a contract agreeing to retain ownership of the house for at least 10 years. If she sells it before the term is up, she faces a $10,000 penalty.
“I was very excited when I was approved to get this house,” she said. “I was living in Moravia in this old Victorian house that needed a ton of work I couldn’t afford. This house was in my price range and I needed a new home.”
Lockett, who receives disability assistance, said now she can’t afford to move and can’t afford to stay.
“I know they put a ton of money into the house, and I hate to badmouth Homsite, but it’s put me into a really difficult place.”
Tom Falicchio, Homsite’s executive director, said he has spoken with Lockett, and Homsite is committed to ensure the quality of its work.
“We looked at her leakage problem, and what we think happened was all the construction work next door caused a different drainage pattern,” he said. “We’re planning to install a French drain that we hope will keep that water out of there.”
He said Lockett’s experience is out of the ordinary, and most of those served by Homsite are pleased with their homes.
“For all the money we spend, we have a pretty good track record,” he said. “If people have problems like this, usually they’ll call us and most of the work is under warrantee. Unfortunately, because her house was on the market for so long, the warrantees have expired, but we do have some funding that we can utilize to make repairs.”
Falicchio’s Homsite is also overseeing a separate housing program outside Auburn, tackling often-overlooked units – mobile homes.
With a $324,000 grant awarded through the regional economic development council, Homsite hopes to help homeowners in Cayuga County replace a number of dilapidated mobile homes.
“There is really a tremendous need for this,” Homsite executive director Tom Falicchio said. “Once you get outside the city – to the north in places like Cato and Sterling – there are just so many mobile homes on lots that just need a lot of work.
“Many of the people who live in them are great people, but they just can’t afford or aren’t able to do the work that needs to be done, and many of the homes have gotten to the point where they aren’t safe electrically and are in such disrepair that they really need to just be replaced.”
Falicchio said with the grant, combined with another Homsite program, mobile homeowners can get up to $70,000 toward a new home.
“For people who are severely in need, they could almost get a new home with that,” the director said. “It’s a huge help for somebody who doesn’t have the resources to do it on their own.”
The money will be awarded through an application process based on need, Falicchio said. Residents of the targeted mobile homes must own the lot the home occupies.
Two other state grant to Homsite have a wider scope, one providing $700,000 for the rehabilitation of aging homes in both Auburn and the county and the other freeing up $75,000 for emergency repair needs on the homes of seniors in the county.
“It’s basically just to bring the homes up to code by doing repair work,” Falicchio said of the larger grant. “It’s for income-eligible homeowners who have to go through an application process and a visit to the building.”
Falicchio said the construction work will be put out to bid and the lowest qualified bidder will be awarded the project.
“We have a real interest in getting local contractors to work on this, adding jobs throughout the county,” he said.
The smaller grant was awarded through the Division of Housing and Community Renewal’s RESTORE program.
“It’s for emergency repairs for seniors who need a hot water heater or a patch on their roof,” Falicchio said. “If there’s something imminent that’s wrong with the house, we can go in quickly and do that.”
Falicchio said all of Homsite’s programs are meted out after an application process to determine need.
Staff writer Nathan Baker can be reached at 282-2238 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at CitizenBaker.
Who is s.e. payne?
Sereno Elisha Payne was born in Madison County on June 26, 1843. He attended the Auburn Academy and graduated from the University of Rochester in 1864.
After being admitted to the bar in 1866, he opened a law practice in Auburn, became city clerk in 1867, supervisor in 1871 and Cayuga County district attorney in 1873.
After serving as the president of the board of education of Auburn from 1879 to 1882, the Republican was elected in 1883 to the 48th Congress.
He served on twelve successive Congresses from 1889 to 1914, when he died in office in Washington, D.C.
His grave site is in Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn.