WEST HARLEM, N.Y. JoAnne Page knew she could fill the affordable apartments at the Castle Gardens development even when others had their doubts.
Some people were skeptical, thinking the apartments would be a hard sell because residents would be sharing a building with formerly incarcerated individuals.
It turns out that Page was right. “We leased up in a minute,” says the president and CEO of The Fortune Society, a nonprofit that helps former prisoners transition back into the community.
More than 2,000 applications poured in for the 50 affordable units that are part of the group's new housing development. Castle Gardens also has 63 supportive-housing units for Fortune Society clients, all of whom used to be incarcerated and homeless. There's also a superintendent's unit that's home to a Fortune program graduate.
“If you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere, but sometimes you need a second chance to get your priorities back on track,” said Mayor Michael Bloomberg at the project opening.
In New York state, more than 15 percent of the people leaving prison are released to the shelters, says Page.
About 4,000 people a year come to The Fortune Society for various services.
Finding a place for them to live has been one of the toughest challenges.
That led her group to open the Fortune Academy, better known as the Castle, to serve 62 formerly incarcerated men and women in 2002. The success of the Castle paved the way for Castle Gardens next door.
If you give people something worthwhile, they will work hard to hold on to it, says Page. Her supporters say the project has had remarkable success.
The rate of people returning to city shelters is a low 3 percent, according to one estimate. Anecdotally, they've also heard that the parole officer who worked with Castle residents for several years had one of the lowest recidivism rates in his department.
“We've developed a strong culture," says Page. “People are told there's an absolute rule of no violence and no threat of violence."
Officials have also tried to make the Castle a part of the neighborhood, a community center. Some people who initially opposed the development have turned into staunch supporters, says Page.
When the organization began looking at building an adjacent housing development, members of a community advisory board made the case to include units for low-income residents in West Harlem.
“It resonated with us,” says Page. The team got behind the idea of making Castle Gardens a mixed-population building, believing it would be healthier to have a building that reflects the larger community.
The property also features a 20,000-square-foot service center that provides case management, counseling, and other programs. There's also a rooftop garden and other green features.
“If we hadn't had community support, we could not have done this project," says Page, explaining that key financing was contingent on the support.
The Fortune Society and co-developer Jonathan Rose Cos. worked on the latest deal for five years, so the financing was coming together as the financial markets were crashing. Page compares it to the scene in a science fiction movie when a big metal door starts to descend and the character slides underneath just before it closes.
“We got under just in time,” she says.
Funds for the $43 million project were raised in 18 months. The first money in was $5.5 million from the Homeless Housing and Assistance Program of the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance.
About $16 million was raised through low-income housing tax credits syndicated by Hudson Housing Capital. The investor was Capital One.
Castle Gardens also received $8.3 million from the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development under Mayor Bloomberg's New Housing Marketplace Plan.
Financing also came from the New York City Council, Manhattan Borough President's Office, Mayor's Fund to Advance New York City, New York State Homes and Community Renewal, New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, Federal Home Loan Bank of New York, Deutsche Bank Americas Foundation, Corporation for Supportive Housing, Enterprise Green Communities, and Carver Federal Savings Bank.
Not done yet
Page has spent much of her life aiding former prisoners. A graduate of Yale Law School, she planned to work in poverty law. But she's become a housing developer.
Although she doesn't have any plans for a new project, it's a good bet there will be one. “I'm itching,” she says. “The idea of housing is in my blood."
No one should doubt her.