Development Model Integrates Affordable Housing for People with Mental Illness

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December 13, 2015; Rochester Democrat & Chronicle

A story in the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle discusses how two nonprofits are partnering to create an affordable housing development where people recovering from mental illness will live alongside families who make 60 percent or less of the area’s median income.

The rehabilitation agency East House will partner with PathStone Development Corp. to build a three-story, 60-unit apartment building at 175 Alexander St. in Rochester, N.Y., in what is now a parking area behind East House’s headquarters and across the street from Monroe High School. Half of these Alexander Street Apartments will be dedicated to people who are recovering from mental illness and the other half to low-income residents, said Monica McCullough, senior vice president of housing at PathStone.

This project represents a new housing development strategy promoted by Enterprise Community Partners (ECP) and other nonprofit developers in the wake of the recent Supreme Court decision in Texas v. Inclusive Communities. Many nonprofit developers were stung by the accusation that they were perpetuating segregation by preserving low-income housing in low-income neighborhoods.

In response, nonprofit developers have promoted a “both/and” strategy that calls for locating projects in low-poverty areas as well as working in areas of high need. For some, “both/and” sounds a bit like a moral balance sheet: preserve some projects where people live now, while creating others in higher-opportunity areas. Skeptics argue that “both/and” only makes sense if integration and opportunities for mobility take place in some form in every project from now on. The Alexander Street Apartments seems to be an effort to make a workable “both/and” project.

The property will be located near downtown Rochester in an area that has seen residential reinvestment in recent years. Persons with a mental health disability will live in the same building as families benefiting from affordable rents, in a neighborhood with newly renovated market-rate housing. Both social service providers and housing developers have traditionally preferred concentrations of assisted housing. The former benefit from economies of scale when they can deliver services to a single location. That latter can construct housing at a single site, reducing development and operating costs. But federal policy for both social service and housing developers is flowing in the opposite direction — favoring deconcentration and integration.

Another Supreme Court decision comes into play in this story. In their 1999 Olmstead v. L.C. decision, the justices required that states provide services to disabled persons in the least-restrictive settings possible. By moving treatment facilities into a residential community that is integrated with nondisabled tenants, PathStone has found a way to address the Olmstead mandate.

Many more experiments such as the Alexander Street Apartments are needed to help flesh out how a “both/and” strategy can work in a single development project. One idea is to pair a property in a low-income neighborhood with a property in a service-rich community. The developer can next move tenants from a “traditional” low-income building and offer to relocate them into the partner facility. Clearly, social-service and housing providers have challenges to meet their client’s social needs as well as their individual and economic needs in designing these new projects.—Spencer Wells