Brooklyn, N.Y. – DeKalb Avenue Apartments takes the bold step of blending supportive housing for people with special needs with straight affordable housing for working families.

The recently completed project is a joint venture between Dunn Development Corp., a private real estate developer, and Community Access, Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to serving people with psychiatric disabilities.

The joint venture attempts to serve not only as a unique model for bringing together different populations in one project, but a new model for development. The project grew out of a discussion between Martin Dunn, president of Dunn Development, and Steve Coe, executive director of Community Access. Coe, who has done much work with studio units for people with special needs, wanted to develop integrated, mainstream housing. Dunn shared a similar vision and believed that such a project could be created with existing funding sources.

Combining Community Access’ services and extensive knowledge about the mentally ill population with Dunn Development’s financing and construction experience, DeKalb Avenue Apartments was completed in 2004.

The 55,000-square-foot building contains 64 units. There are 37 studio units reserved for formerly homeless individuals with mental illness who have been referred by New York City’s homeless shelter system and have incomes no greater than 30% of  the area median income (AMI). There are also eight one-bedroom units and 19 two-bedroom units that are rented to families earning no more than 60% of AMI.

The project faced several obstacles, including community opposition to supportive housing and special-needs populations. Dunn Development also had to move beyond existing financing models for supportive housing, which generally result in 100% special-needs buildings or buildings with all studio apartments serving single adults. The initial reaction from some people was concern about housing adults with mental illness in a building with families.

To get government agencies and funders on board, the sponsors launched an education campaign about the needs of adults with mental illness and their ability to live independently in mainstream settings. They collaborated with Gov. George Pataki’s Interagency Task Force on Housing for Persons with Special Needs and the Most Integrated Setting Coordinating Council. Bank and government officials and neighborhood groups were given tours of the building to increase support and understanding.

“We built it first and then let people see how nice the building was,” Dunn said. One of the goals of the project, he said, is to change people’s perceptions about affordable housing.

There have been no problems in the building or outside in the neighborhood, according to Dunn. Instead, the project has been a catalyst for neighborhood revitalization. Several nearby buildings have since been renovated.

The development is also serving as a model for a second project by the same development team. Located in the Bronx, the 66-unit Franklin Avenue Apartments is nearing completion. Residents are expected to move in around January.

Special needs get attention

Named “project of the year” by the New York State Association for Affordable Housing, the DeKalb development shows that quality matters to the residents and the neighborhood, Dunn said.

“It’s important for affordable and supportive housing to raise the bar so we are welcomed when we do projects,” he said, noting that every poor project that is built hurts the industry.

Unique touches to the façade of the DeKalb project include a decorative cornice that is traditional to the neighborhood. Inside, high-end finishes were used, and the family units have a homework or desk area.

The project, including furnishings and capitalized reserves, cost about $10.4 million. It received low-income housing tax credits from the New York State Division of Housing and Community Renewal (DHCR). The Richman Group Affordable Housing Corp. syndicated the credits and provided roughly $8.4 million in equity. The tax credit investors were Citibank, JPMorgan Chase, Merrill Lynch, Freddie Mac and HSBC Bank.

The industry will likely see greater integration of special-needs populations within multifamily projects, said William Traylor, president of Richman Housing Resources, a member of the Richman Group. The firm has syndicated tax credits for many supportive projects.

The New York State Housing Trust Fund provided a $2 million permanent loan with a 30-year term and 1% interest-only debt-service payments, allowing the project to reach working families earning no more than 60% of AMI. Community Preservation Corp. provided a $2 million construction loan. This financing mix allowed the project to be competitive in tax credit scoring while integrating special-needs individuals and working families.

Essential services

“DeKalb Apartments is a leading example of the innovative affordable housing alternatives we have created, complete with critical services to meet the needs of special populations,” said DHCR Commissioner Judy Calogero. “There is a great demand for housing that integrates these two components while meeting superior design standards: That is what Dunn Development Corp. and Community Access, Inc. have fashioned in the neighborhood of Bedford Stuyvesant.”

Community Access’ on-site support-services staff includes a program director, three service coordinators, a job developer, a half-time substance-abuse specialist and a half-time recreation coordinator. Service staff is funded by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which in turn is funded by the New York State Office of Mental Health.

The building also has 24-hour front desk coverage that is provided through a contract with the New York City Department of Homeless Services.

The apartment building features generous common spaces and a beautiful rear garden. The first floor has a computer room, library and a large community room with adjoining kitchen that opens onto the garden. The architect was SLCE Architects of New York.

The entire building is served by a high-speed, wireless (WiFi) computer network, which is available free to all residents. This feature was installed in collaboration with NYCWireless, a nonprofit committed to giving low-income New Yorkers access to the Internet. The sponsors are arranging donations of computers and WiFi cards.