Diocese, partners break ground for Cortland housing

The Catholic Sun
May 4, 2016
By Tom Maguire

While excavation equipment hummed in the background, Marie Walsh bubbled over the groundbreaking for an apartment complex in Cortland.

“Wow, this is a big day for us, a very big day for us,” Walsh, executive director of Catholic Charities of Cortland County, said on April 27 at the Riverview Project. “There were moments we wondered if we would ever get here. But we have.”

The 39-unit apartment complex will house a diverse population of people with low to middle incomes. Representatives of the property’s owners — Catholic Charities of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Syracuse, N.Y., Inc., d/b/a Catholic Charities of Cortland County; and  Christopher Community, Inc. — were among dozens of members of the action team who were celebrating.

“We knew there was a need. … This is a fun project,” said Fredrick Zolna, vice president of development for Christopher Community, a not-for-profit development and management company.

As Walsh spoke inside a tent set up next to the excavation, a cold west wind pushed against the plastic wall behind her. This was no tent revival; it was more like a town revival. The mood was warm and exultant.

A huge Caterpillar track machine gouged out a long trench that will serve as footing for the complex’s new walls. The machine swept away the dirt like a horizontal arm brushing the crumbs off a tabletop. The packed dirt and concrete particles from an old fishpond had no chance against the relentless power of the mechanical arm.

As powerful in their own way as the giant Caterpillar, the thinkers, funders, and planners could be thought of as the Riverview Regiment: They were dogged in bringing the $7.35 million project to this little side street, right next to Exit 11 on Interstate 81.

According to a release from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s office: The 17,306-square-foot building will have a total of 39 affordable apartments with 20 one-bedroom apartments designated for people with serious mental illness. Catholic Charities of Cortland County will provide wrap-around mental-health services to these residents.

Services can include case management, housing supports, peer supports, linkage to health home providers, and 24/7 emergency support. The remaining 19 affordable units will provide a housing option for low-income families. Residents will have off-street parking and beautiful community spaces, according to the governor’s office.

Applications for residency are available at Catholic Charities of Cortland County, or by mailing or downloading from the Christopher Community website, www.christopher-community.org.

The superintendent of the construction work, Rich Jarvis, of Rich & Gardner Construction Co., Inc., expects construction to be completed by Jan. 14. The complex will be ready for occupancy in early 2017.

Walsh explained how the property has evolved.

For many years, the property housed a licensed adult home, where many people who were living in poverty had peer support. Often they were mentally challenged in a variety of ways, and they lived there as elderly people for the duration of their lives.

When that adult home was sold around 1999, Michael Pisa, Walsh’s director of residential services, said, “Let’s look at that property; let’s see what we can do with that.” So they decided to independently buy the property and use it for a supported housing project. “We just went for it,” Walsh said.

After her agency bought the property, she said, it was used for individuals who needed housing.

“Many people who had been homeless,” she said, “who … had been through one episode of attempted recovery after another — jails, recovery, rehabs, hospitals, that whole cycle — came here to live; and because they had a stable living environment, with a tolerant landlord, and some supports, lived here, many of them, till the end of their lives.”

It was the relationship between Pisa and Joseph Slavik, president and CEO of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Syracuse, that led to the idea for the Riverview Project.

Slavik knew Pisa, and asked him to serve on the board of directors for Christopher Community.

Christopher Community President Douglas J. Reicher said the roots of his organization are in the Catholic faith, “and in that tradition, we serve people of all faiths and ethnicities.”

Reicher foresees the Riverview apartment complex as “a big place, a comfortable place, and a place that really respects the residents that are going to be here.”

Christopher Community and Catholic Charities are among the stars of the apartment project, said attorney Matthew V. Byrne, who helped with all the legal complexities. “Everybody wins with a project like this, because we are serving those in need,” Byrne said.

Bishop Robert J. Cunningham, who also attended the groundbreaking, agreed that Christopher Community has “a great track record of serving a need. Pope Francis, who’s captured the hearts of people the world over, is always interested … in providing housing. He doesn’t say it exactly that way, but, you know, welcoming the stranger, giving access to the refugee, encouraging government agencies and countries to reach out and to help people who are in need.

“In a small way that’s what we’re doing here in Cortland today. So I’m delighted to be with you in doing this.”

“The thing that I am most proud about with this project is the leadership role that the state of New York is taking,” attorney Byrne said.

Providing funding are New York State Homes and Community Renewal, the state Office of Mental Health, the Community Preservation Corp., and Enterprise Community Investment Group.

Slavik said Riverview is a new idea that has come up through the state ranks regarding mixed housing: “trying to integrate special-needs people with local-community people. I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for Catholic Charities and Christopher Community. It’s a great collaboration between the two agencies.

“Based on the success of this,” he added, “we’d love to be able to model this elsewhere in the diocese, especially in the rural communities, if possible.”

Christopher Community’s Reicher marveled at the complexity of the project: two owners, four funders, seven consultants and many staff people, and hundreds of hours of effort.

The state showed its support for Riverview with groundbreaking attendees Daniel Buyer, assistant commissioner of New York State Homes & Community Renewal, and Sharon Frisbie, housing specialist with the Office of Mental Health.

Frisbie said Mental Health provided a $3.5 million construction loan for the apartment complex. “Riverview Apartments will allow Catholic Charities to extend their continuum of care to include affordable and supportive housing to the Cortland community,” she said.

Assistant Commissioner Buyer said, “The project complements the Central New York Region blueprint for economic growth, Central New York Rising.”

The Community Preservation Corp.’s regional director for Central and Western New York, Nicholas V. Petragnani, Jr., said his agency is providing the construction financing as well as permanent financing.

Petragnani’s colleague Andrew J. D’Agostino, vice president and mortgage officer, said CPC’s round number for the construction loan is $2.5 million. The permanent loan is for $3,520,000.

“We’re a not-for-profit mortgage lender,” D’Agostino said. “Our mission is to stabilize and enhance neighborhoods through deployment of our capital. And so, we’re able to fulfill mission needs by creating new quality affordable housing.”

Another of the financial contributors, Enterprise Community Investment, was founded over 30 years ago to tackle homelessness. Beth Graham, underwriter with Enterprise, believes in the idea of bringing mental health and housing together.

“Many people have to make a choice between whether they pay the rent or whether they buy medicine,” she said, “whether they pay rent, or whether they buy food. Many people pay over half of their income every month on housing expenses.

“And it never allowed people to advance; it never allows people to feel secure. And that instability can lead to poor health outcomes, as we’re seeing more and more evidence of: poor outcomes for children, poor outcomes for seniors, and certainly for those with chronic conditions like those working to address mental health issues.”

Groundbreaking day was filled with optimism, blessings, and an air of promise.

Bishop Cunningham offered the blessings, thinking ahead to the day when people will eventually occupy this modern housing complex, which will have green elements, such as Energy Star appliances.

“Let us remember that we are in the holy presence of God,” the bishop said. “Lord, we ask you to be close to your servants who will live here on this property. … This facility will be a shelter for them when they are home. Be their companion when they are away; and their welcome guest, when they return. We ask, Lord, that you receive them into the loving place you have prepared for them now and in the years to come.”

It was the day’s master of ceremonies, Christopher Community’s Reicher, who offered a promise:

“Christopher Community is committed not to just building housing, but to build people’s homes, and as part of our commitment to our funding community, we will be operating this building and maintaining this building for at least the next half century.”

About an hour after the ceremony ended in the Riverview Avenue lot filled with 10-foot-high mounds of excavated dirt, one cluster of red, green, and white balloons with a white streamer broke free. It sailed high into the sky, quickly.

The day, it seemed, was about a community on the rise.

Neighbors welcome apartment complex in Cortland

Rick Hollenbeck stood virtually motionless, transfixed, in his yard on April 27 in Cortland. He was looking across Riverview Avenue, over the 3-foot-high red temporary fencing, and past the tethered balloons that were bouncing in the breeze.

Hollenbeck’s eyes were locked on the methodical craftsmanship of excavator Stan Covert, who was at the controls of a giant Caterpillar track machine.

“He’s good,” Hollenbeck said, and he should know: He used to be a construction man himself. “They’re just going at it,” he added.

Hollenbeck knew something was up that morning: He saw the tent for dignitaries being set up. The dignitaries would arrive later in the afternoon for the groundbreaking of the Riverview Project, which will provide 39 housing units for a diverse population in the low- to middle-income range.

Hollenbeck has been observing life in Cortland for his entire 60 years. He doesn’t miss much. “I’m a little fixture out here on the lawn,” he said.

He welcomes the construction. “I kept waiting and waiting, and finally it happened,” Hollenbeck said. “It’s good. Definitely going to make the neighborhood look different, there’s no doubt about that. I think it’s going to be nice seeing a new structure.”

Hollenbeck remembers when Catholic Charities had two houses at the excavation site. An even bigger excavation machine than the one Hollenbeck was watching knocked them down recently: Both came down in only four hours.

“If they want to build a new unit and stuff, fine,” he said. “Catholic Charities has always maintained everything. … Catholic Charities does help out the community.”

Hollenbeck figures that the new apartment complex is going to look nice. “I’m not disappointed a bit,” he said. “I’m not disappointed a bit. … Even my wife [Mary Ellen] gets a kick out if it –she can’t believe how fast it’s going in.”

Also at the scene April 27 were Adam Rundell, 36, of Maple Avenue in Cortland, and his sons Tallon, 10, and Ascher, 7. They were passing by on their way to do some fishing.

Rundell has no problem with the Riverview Project, as long as it helps local people.

“Bring in people that are already living in hotels around here,” he said, “that have kids, and are low income, sure. But don’t import more people from Syracuse, Binghamton, Vestal, Rochester.”

Rundell definitely sees the need for affordable housing in Cortland.

He lives with his wife and their four children in a two-bedroom apartment. The rent is $500, plus utilities. “You want three or four bedrooms? … $100 a bedroom,” he said.

“We can’t get an apartment with more than three bedrooms for less than $800 a month,” Rundell said, “because, No. 1, they’re all taken for students, or No. 2, we don’t qualify because there’s too much money coming into the household, or, there’s not enough money coming into the household.

“So, it’s one of those things where, you want to build it? By all means, it’s going to help drastic numbers of people, but make it local people, make it local people.”

While the neighbors were commenting on the Riverview Project, Rich Jarvis was supervising the excavation for Rich & Gardner Construction Company, Inc., of Syracuse. The worker at the controls, Covert, works for Cunningham Excavation of Cazenovia.

As Jarvis spoke, Covert’s Caterpillar machine kept grinding away. It scooped up everything: concrete chunks from the old fishpond, buried rags and wood, and pieces of the old driveway.

An observer was dazzled by the machine, but Jarvis said, “That’s the small one.”

He recalled that an even bigger machine ripped tall trees out of the site as if they were twigs.

Two days after the groundbreaking, Jarvis reported that the excavation was going well. He hoped to get all the footing for the walls poured –800 feet of concrete –by midweek this week.

Jarvis thinks the apartment complex is a good idea: “They’ve got to have a place to go.”

“The neighbors like it too,” he said.

Nuggets from a Groundbreaking

Providing “shelter and housing for people is certainly part of the Corporal Works of Mercy that Pope Francis is calling us to be aware of during this year.” – Bishop Robert J. Cunningham, Diocese of Syracuse

“I think it’s tremendous. I think it’s only one of three [such projects] in the state being developed. … Based on the success of this, we’d love to be able to model this elsewhere in the diocese, especially in the rural communities, if possible.” – Joseph Slavik, president/CEO, Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Syracuse

“It’s a fun project.” — Fredrick Zolna, vice president of development for Christopher Community, Inc., the housing arm of the Diocese of Syracuse Catholic Diocese

“There’s even studies that show that doing altruistic activities is actually beneficial and healthy. … This is just part of making sure a little bit at a time, one step at a time, one building at a time, one street at a time, that we can just make the world a better place.” — Douglas J. Reicher, president, Christopher Community, Inc.

“The roots of our organizations are in the Catholic faith, and in that tradition, we serve people of all faiths and ethnicities.” — Reicher

“When you think about altruism, Beth Graham, from Enterprise Community Investment — that’s what their mission is, and that’s what the mission of CPC (Community Preservation Corp.) is: Let’s end homelessness. Why? Because it’s good for all of us.” — Attorney Matthew V. Byrne, Costello & Pickard, P.C.

“The opportunity for new construction in a city that’s built out doesn’t come along very often. But watching the partnership between Christopher Community and Catholic Charities coming together for this has been very impressive. … We’re very appreciative.” – Cortland Mayor Brian Tobin

“Individuals recover more quickly when integrated into a welcoming community.” –Sharon Frisbie, housing specialist, New York State Office of Mental Health

“Thanks, Christopher Community and Catholic Charities, for really showing some dedication.” – Andrew D’Agostino, vice president and mortgage officer, Community Preservation Corporation

“Christopher Community was in right from the git-go. Fabulous people to work with; we’ve been a team since the very start.” – Marie Walsh, executive director, Catholic Charities of Cortland County

“This model is cost effective for the state, and more importantly, it serves people in an environment that’s integrated and inclusive. The tenants who live here will be neighbors, and they will be a part of life here in Cortland as this city grows and prospers.” –Daniel Buyer, assistant commissioner, New York State Homes & Community Renewal

‘Coach Byrne’ calls the legal plays for Riverview Project

Every team has to have a coach, and Doug Reicher votes for Matt Byrne. The team not only hit a home run in its first at-bat, it might even have grooved the perfect swing for grand slams in the future.

Reicher’s housing charity, Christopher Community, Inc., put together a squad of experts who brainstormed ways to finalize the Riverview Project for low- to moderate-income families in Cortland. Byrne, of Byrne, Costello & Pickard, P.C., helped the project through all its legal complexities. “This project presented many,” Reicher said April 27 at the apartment complex’s groundbreaking.

“I have to tell you,” Reicher said, “Matt’s solution to some of these problems was to draw diagrams. So it was not uncommon for Matt to call and suggest, ‘I need to meet with you.’

“So we’d come over, … and we’d huddle around the table, and Coach Byrne would proceed to show us he’s got the play.”

As Reicher recalls it, Byrne would say, “ ‘Well, this is going to go here, and this one’s going that way, and ownership’s going here. And so we thank Coach Byrne for this and showing us along the way; it’s been very helpful.”

“Matt was wonderful,” added Joseph Slavik, president and CEO of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Syracuse.

“I’m telling you, the guy did monstrous work on this thing,” Slavik said. Legal binders that Byrne prepared for Riverview spread a foot and a half wide on a shelf in Slavik’s office.

The project, Reicher said, had two owners, four funders, seven consultants and many staff people to reach this point.

Byrne thinks the collaboration of all those entities might indeed serve as a model for any future endeavors like Riverview, where the superintendent of the job expects completion to be done by Jan. 14. The complex will be ready for occupancy in early 2017.

In a telephone interview after last week’s groundbreaking, Byrne gave a historical perspective on how a huge project like this can even exist today.

He said President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and state governments were heavily involved in financing or funding housing developments for those in need.

But the federal budget is much different now than it was then. The government isn’t really in the housing business anymore, so it becomes a challenge for Christopher Community, the housing corporation that was developed by Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Syracuse, to find the sources of money that it needs to develop a new project.

Whether there has been a change in professional philosophy or whether the money is just not available, Byrne said, “there are no longer facilities being built for inpatient treatment of individuals who have mental health conditions.”

Such projects in the past involved dealing with one state agency. In the Riverview case, four agencies are involved. “This is probably the model going forward in the future,” Byrne said. “We will be dealing with several different funding sources in order to get the money that’s needed.”

For example, Byrne noted that Riverview’s collaborators include the Community Preservation Corporation, Enterprise Community Investment, Inc., the state Office of Mental Health, and New York State Homes & Community Renewal.

“And their legal and financial people are incredibly smart and incredibly skilled,” Byrne said. It took a while to put the pieces together, he said, but “those professionals made it happen very-very quickly.”

Byrne thinks of Riverview as an Office of Mental Health project because, No. 1, OMH is providing $3.5 million in financing and, No. 2, OMH is committing for the next 30 years to subsidize the rent for the OMH clients of the 39-unit project. Twenty of the units are earmarked at least initially for OMH clients. In addition, Byrne said, the first priority will be OMH clients who are veterans.

Perhaps the veterans served in Afghanistan or Iran and they now have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and are homeless. “So here’s a project which has those 20 beds specifically earmarked for them,” Byrne said.

Also, OMH is committed to paying a rent subsidy for each of those clients for the next 30 years, and the agency has also agreed to pay a subsidy for mental-health services to those 20 clients.

“So OMH is making a real, real serious commitment to people from this state who suffer from mentally handicapping conditions,” Byrne said. The idea is to get them into clean, safe, affordable housing “where they can treated with dignity and live out their lives with dignity.”

The state’s commitment to the project is not just good from an altruistic standpoint, Byrne said; he also sees the practical benefits.

He noted that very often, people with low incomes or individuals with mentally handicapping conditions don’t have a personal physician. So when they need medical assistance, they go to the emergency room at a local hospital. But that is very expensive.

So New York State Homes & Community Renewal put money into Riverview along with OMH. As a result, those OMH clients will be able to get treatment where they live, when it’s still not a crisis, rather than waiting until a crisis develops and requires emergency-room treatment.

The Homes & Community Renewal money is intended to save taxpayers money that would otherwise have to be paid through the Medicaid program.

Byrne noted that Catholic Charities will have a person on staff 24 hours a day to help the OMH clients  with not only their daily needs but also any emergency needs. With Catholic Charities providing services in the apartment building, the client will not need to go to the emergency room. “That saves us all money,” Byrne noted.

There will be other savings to society, as well, he said.

If people with a mental handicap, such as veterans with PTSD, are living on the street, society has to pay the cost for policing, for taking them in if they get in trouble, for transporting them to the ER, and for treating them in the ER.

“There are any number of expenses that hopefully will be able to be alleviated with a project like this,” Byrne said.

Byrne also mentioned Catholic Charities and Christopher Community as stars of the Riverview Project. “It is their mission to serve those in need,” he said. They both “do an excellent, excellent job.”

Byrne’s office created Christopher Community about 45 years ago, and it was Fred Zolna of Christopher Community who approached Byrne about helping with the Riverview Project. Other law firms have worked with Christopher Community in the past, and Matt Byrne’s brother, Mike, has also assisted with legal matters.

“Everybody wins with a project like this,” Matt said, “because we are serving those in need.”