By: Kevin Oklobzija, Rochester Business Journal | October 25, 2019
Tired of the mold, the poor plumbing and the general state of disrepair at Southeast Towers, Pam Owens decided to go to the top.
Owens posted photos on Mayor Lovely Warren’s Facebook page of the distressing conditions within the apartment complex she called home. She wasn’t just trying to nudge City Hall; she was driving a bulldozer, which was also pretty much what she believes is needed for the 45-year-old twin towers.
“The building is a dump,” Owens said.
Warren empathized with Owens as soon as she saw the photos.
“There were a number of pictures; of mold, of roofs falling in, of apartments in disarray,” the mayor said. “No one should have to live in unsafe conditions.”
Tim Fournier, CEO and chairman of the board at Conifer Realty LLC, agrees. When he first became fixated on a restoration, his firm didn’t even own the buildings. But he was determined to do for the residents of Southeast Towers what Conifer had done along Mount Hope Avenue earlier this decade with the former River Park Commons.
He was so committed that, even before purchase on Dec. 21, 2017, he kept photos of Southeast Towers in his office, providing a constant reminder of what needed to be done.
“I said to my team, ‘We will find a way to fix this; the community deserves better,’ ” Fournier said.
The solution has been found and a massive $118 million project is underway on the 45-year-old buildings. Conifer worked with the city and the New York State Homes and Community Renewal agency as well as private financing partners, to secure financing. All 376 units will be rehabilitated in the two towers that sit next to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Park at Manhattan Square.
The project received approval under the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Rental Assistance Demonstration program. Funding sources include Federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credit Equity from Red Stone Equity Partners, tax-exempt bonds and subsidy loans from the New York State Housing Finance Agency, credit enhancement from Citi Community Capital, and a HOME Loan from the city.
Kitchens and baths will be redone and new lighting fixtures installed. The water and plumbing systems will be replaced as will the elevators systems. There also will be extensive exterior work as well as the creation of community rooms.
When completed, between 302 and 336 units will be affordable housing, available to qualifying residents with rent capped at not more than 30 percent of their income.
“No matter who you are, no matter where you live, no matter your income, you are important,” Warren said. “We are making a concerted effort that we are providing affordable housing for all.”
The refurbishing of the towers is quite similar to Conifer’s Erie Harbor project. The old River Park Commons buildings — one high rise as well as low-rise apartments that sat along the Genesee River and stretched from Alexander Street to Ford Street — were neglected and in serious need of rehab. They didn’t enhance the neighborhood, they dragged it down.
But where area residents saw urban decay, Conifer’s team saw hope. They created the Erie Harbor housing community — a mix of market rate and affordable units — where the low-rise apartments once stood. They also refurbished the tower, now called The Hamilton.
The magnitude of the project, as well as its success, is why Leonard Skrill, assistant commissioner of Homes and Community Renewal, believes Conifer is right for Southeast Towers.
“The work that Conifer did on Erie Harbor and The Hamilton was remarkable; it changed the fabric of the South Wedge,” Skrill said. “That was the convincing factor for me in saying Conifer should be the developer for the Southeast Towers.”
Conifer is a for-profit firm that specializes in the creation of, and operation of, affordable housing across New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland. Lisa Kaseman, regional vice president for Conifer, is overseeing the project and worked with city and state officials, as well as lenders and accountants, to bring the pieces of the financing puzzle together.
The project will take three years to complete.
“Yes, it’s about keeping housing affordable, but it goes way beyond that,” Fournier said. “It’s about developing a home.”