Ellen Kelly is Executive Vice President of Site Development for the Kimmel Housing Development Foundation, a not-for-profit housing developer based in Westbury on Long Island. The first building developed by the Kimmel Foundation, Apex I, opened in 2003 on a site bordering the Village of Westbury and hamlet of New Cassel. A second building, Apex II, opened in 2009 on an adjoining lot. Apex I and II provide affordable housing for seniors, working families, veterans, and people with disabilities. We spoke about the Foundation’s work in summer 2014.
When the Kimmel Foundation developed your first building, Apex I, the local civic association initially worried about property values and the prospective tenants. Yet civic association members later congratulated Kimmel on the new development. How did you win them over?
Ellen Kelly: The best way to win people over is with honest communication and with the reality of a successful project. Apex I replaced an overcrowded and unsafe old building on a blighted corner long known for drug dealing and crime.Our two buildings have markedly improved the immediate area, as indicated both by the crime statistics and by the comfort and safety our residents feel.
We’re recognized as good neighbors. When Superstorm Sandy hit and power went out across our neighborhood, we had a back-up generator that restored power to our elevator and common areas. So all our residents had a place to gather for television, hot coffee, and companionship until power was restored to their apartments. But our Superintendent also ran an extension cord and power strip to an area outside where the local homeowners could come to recharge their cellphones and laptops.
Our buildings are a short walk to Westbury’s Main Street business district, Post Avenue, where the Village has actively supported new multi-unit development in the decade since Apex I was opened. Westbury is now recognized as a destination for young workers to find rental housing. New Cassel has also invested in revitalization along its Prospect Avenue corridor about a half mile east of our buildings, with affordable housing an important component of their efforts. In both communities, these efforts have been applauded by the residents who own single-family homes.
One of your residents had no kitchen in the home she lived in before moving to Apex I; in her prior home, she would cook on a hotplate and wash dishes in the bathtub. Are there more stories like hers?
Kelly: There are several dramatic stories I’ve learned about from residents. There is such a shortage of affordable rental housing on Long Island that the options available to people with limited incomes can be horrifying. The building that Apex I replaced had 2 bathrooms for its 40 residents. Apex I and II help prevent homelessness in our most vulnerable population.
The Kimmel Foundation “believes that housing is more than bricks and mortar.” Can you explain what this means?
Kelly: Our founder and Chairman Emeritus, Howard Kimmel, would tell you that the Foundation aims not only to improve the communities where the buildings are located, but to develop and maintain a spirit of community within the buildings themselves, in order to enhance the quality of life for residents, especially those who want to age in place with independence and dignity. His own constant interest in and advocacy for the residents helped to create this spirit, and we’ve been exceptionally fortunate to have a Superintendent couple, Wilfredo and Martha Amaya, who have served the residents of both our buildings since the doors opened. The open terrace on the roof of Apex I is the scene of traditional Memorial Day and Labor Day parties for both buildings, with Wilfredo at the grill. In recent seasons, Wilfredo and the Foundation staff contributed to greening the Apex I terrace with pots of tomatoes, peppers, and herbs for residents to harvest, and some perennials to add color.
Are supportive services provided for your tenants?
Kelly: From the beginning, our buildings have been planned to include [professionals providing] social work services, who can collaborate with our housing managers on tenant selection, dispute resolution, and linking residents to necessary medical, government, or service agency contacts when the need arises. This supportive services component has been important to our buildings’ success and will become even more important in future development. In fact, I think it’s absolutely essential to be planning in the 21st century with supportive services integrated into any new affordable development, so that people can get the help they need and live independently for as long as possible.
What other initiatives is the Kimmel Foundation working on?
Kelly: We are always looking for new sites. Right now, we’re evaluating two possible sites in the Town of Hempstead. Nassau County is as challenging as any locality in the United States in terms of availability of land appropriate for affordable housing, but we are encouraged by the work the Long Island Index did highlighting the amount of land currently vacant or used only for parking and located near transit hubs and traditional downtowns. Those acres represent a real opportunity for more buildings like ours, which are within an easy walk of both a Long Island Rail Road station and downtown shopping. The model that the two Apex buildings represent is really specific to a suburban setting, respecting the scale and character of the existing community, and designed to enhance and not overwhelm the neighborhood.
We are also excited to be working with Selfhelp Community Services on bringing one of their most innovative new programs, the Virtual Senior Center (VSC), to homebound Long Island seniors. The Kimmel Foundation received a planning grant from the Long Island Community Foundation to work with Selfhelp on expanding this program, building partnerships with local agencies and organizations to provide content and support specific to Long Island. The VSC program combines computer, video, and Internet technology—in seniors’ homes and at their local senior center—to create an interactive experience that reduces social isolation, promotes wellness, and provides better access to community services. We hope to have a pilot project underway before the end of the year.
Long Island’s population is aging—our 55-plus population is growing by more than 2 percent per year, more than 6 times the region’s overall rate of population growth. What do you think are the best solutions for housing our aging population?
Kelly: Independence and mobility have always been part of the suburban dream, and almost all of us want to maintain that independence as long as possible. I see the kind of housing we have provided—and want to expand—as one of the best solutions possible to allow “aging in place” in your own community, even if you’re no longer in your own single-family home. There are a growing number of age-restricted (“Golden Age”) projects to meet the increasing need you describe on Long Island. But too many of them assume reliance on a car to get to basic goods and services, and do not address accessibility and affordability. Even fewer are designed to have appropriate supportive services available. I mentioned the experience of our residents during Superstorm Sandy earlier. Thinking of older storm victims without power and isolated in their single-family homes, and contrasting that image with the mutual support and security our residents had, brought home to me the advantages of living in a multi-family residence. And those advantages need to be available to all Long Islanders, not just those at the top end of the income spectrum.
Interview has been condensed and edited.