By Eileen Gallagher
“Affordable Housing” is the buzz phrase these days, and with it debate taking place in our town, throughout Westchester, and, in fact, across the country. Briefly, New Castle is in the midst of a legal maelstrom involving Conifer, a real estate company specializing in the construction of affordable housing units. The merits of affordable housing are not in question, however. As real estate agents would say, it’s all about location.
Many New Castle residents have personal opinions about 54 Hunts Place, the location chosen by then-Supervisor Barbara Gerrard and Conifer to place a 28 unit apartment building. Where is this address, you might ask? It’s quite easy to locate, though tricky to get to. As you enter town via the Quaker Street bridge, look to your left at the tract of contaminated dirt bound on three sides by the Metro North tracks, Saw Mill River Parkway, and the bridge you are spanning.
If you recall, the housing discrimination lawsuit filed by Craig Gurian and subsequently settled by then County Executive Andy Spano in 2009 stipulated that the affordable housing units built in Westchester should adhere to several qualifications, including the seamless integration of the units into a neighborhood, the avoidance of an isolated location, or the stigmatizing of the units as affordable housing. The idea is to provide housing opportunities for those of much more modest income levels.
As a member of the community organization “Chappaqua for Responsible Affordable Housing”, or CFRAH, I have been in attendance at several state and county hearings regarding 54 Hunts Place. These hearings are related to the funding approval of the county and the requirement of several variances from the state before the property can be developed. In December, I took a step away from the myriad of analyses, finances, stipulations, regulations, and accusations, and wrote a letter from my heart. The letter was addressed to the members of the Westchester County Board of Legislators, but was meant for all. I wanted to put back into the complicated equation the factor that has been missing for so long — the people.
You see, after all the dust settles and the final shingles are in place, there will be people living in these units. Husbands and wives, moms and dads, children of all ages. People with the same fragility and sensitivity as anyone else. People whose needs extend beyond four walls and a roof. People who, as some in this process have put it, would fight for the chance to live anywhere in Chappaqua.
Members of CFRAH have been working for years now to have wonderfully located and planned units in our town, and have met with resistance from previous town supervisors. The lot had been chosen, the die had been cast. Conifer stands to receive over two million dollars for 54 Hunts Place. What would the residents get? Life in a cramped apartment with triple pane windows to fend off noise and fumes of trains and traffic. Their neighbors? A stone bridge, steel train tracks, and speeding cars.
Here is my letter:
It is with a heavy heart that I write to you as you decide the fate of the dangerously located and ultimately isolating and stigmatizing building known as 54 Hunts Place.
I have attended meetings and watched in sorrow as the developers and their legal representatives virtually salivate over the windfall they anticipate. I refuse to throw my hands up in despair, however, as I ask you to think not about budgets and dollars, but about the families who would desperately apply to live in affordable housing. All of us, whether legislator or represented, old or young, deserve to reside in the comfort and safety of the place we call home.
I have heard the argument that too much time and money has been invested already in this site. We have to stop, and strip away the safety of mere figures on paper. If you truly represent all people of Westchester, present and future, please see that this is not in the best interest, or any level of interest, of their safety and well-being.
I was an accountant in a big eight firm many years ago, before I returned to earn my Masters in Education. I went from analyzing numbers on a spreadsheet in a sterile office environment to working in a poor section of Queens with the most challenging yet rewarding group of children I could ever meet. Quite an about-face for me, yet I learned more in those four years than fifty years of accounting could have taught me. Looking in the eyes of another person, there is no hiding. No rationalizing. No words to utter. Only true caring.
Please consider that there are much better, safer, healthier and viable options in New Castle. I recall the words of the prayer that (then) Chairman Jenkins speaks before each meeting:
“Almighty God, give us the strength courage and wisdom to always act in the interest of the people of Westchester while we are in this chamber. Let us keep in mind that every decision that we make impacts upon the life, health, and safety of all of our great county residents. Amen.”
If these words are sincere, which I believe in my heart they are, I cannot think of how the decision to allow this unsafe building closely confined by a railroad, highway, and bridge and sitting atop contaminated property could be made.
Thank you sincerely for your consideration.