Student Housing: Converting Dorms Into Affordable Housing

By MARCELLE S. FISCHLER for the New York Times

USUALLY it’s neither easy nor swift to win approval to develop new affordable multifamily rental housing on Long Island. Just consider the $100 million AvalonBay Huntington Station project voted down by the Huntington Town Board in September.

In a project here in Hempstead, the Community Development Corporation of Long Island, a nonprofit housing agency, and Conifer, a developer based in Rochester, were able to avoid taking AvalonBay’s approach to the approval process.

Instead of seeking rezoning and getting tangled in the red tape that can ensue, they are repurposing two former off-campus dormitories — a property called Twin Oaks, recently bought from Hofstra University — as 94 affordable rental apartments. With site plan approval quickly obtained from Hempstead Village, the transformation, costing more than $30 million, is to be completed next fall.

“This is what you call looking for opportunities to do affordable housing,” said Marianne Garvin, the president and chief executive of the Community Development Corporation, at a recent “revitalization kickoff” for the project. Since Nassau County is nearly 100 percent developed and lacks vacant land, she added, “it is almost impossible to get rezoning through for family housing.”

Ms. Garvin’s strategy is to “do preservation.” Through a neighborhood stabilization program, her agency buys single-family foreclosed properties, rehabilitates them, and then sells or rents to qualified buyers or tenants; it also seeks out vacant lots and commercial space that could be transformed into affordable housing. When she learned that the dormitories had become surplus housing, she seized the opportunity, even though “redevelopment ends up being more expensive than building on virgin land.” The buildings needed an overhaul but were structurally sound.

Occupying two three-story structures separated by a verdant courtyard, the Twin Oaks Apartments were built as multifamily residential units in the early 1960s. When Hofstra took over the complex three decades ago for student use, the apartments were partitioned to accommodate greater numbers. Walls that went three-quarters of the way to the ceiling transformed dining areas into bedrooms, and the units were stocked with beds, desks and chests of drawers.

According to Timothy D. Fournier, the president and chief executive of Conifer, the buildings have been empty for two years. He said the plan was to reconfigure them as 58 two-bedroom and 36 one-bedroom units, with a few balconies. Asbestos abatement is under way.

The deal also includes converting and leasing out a former Hofstra library across the parking lot as office space.

The option to rent will be limited to families that earn a maximum of $62,000 — 60 percent or less of the median income for four in Nassau County. Monthly rent for nearly all the one-bedrooms will be $1,135; for comparison, a current market-rate rental nearby is $1,282. Most two-bedrooms will cost $1,128, versus $1,586 for a market-rate rental.

Mr. Fournier said the conversion to a multifamily community would put the property “back on the tax rolls,” as well as temporarily creating 100 construction jobs.

Fire escapes will be taken off the outside of the building and sprinklers installed inside. New windows, air-conditioning and heating systems are part of the plan, and $441,800 in weatherization funds will be spent to make the complex more energy-efficient. A computer lab, a fitness room and a community room will be built in the basement of one of the buildings, Ms. Garvin said.

Allen Handelman, the project director for Conifer, said that when completed, the buildings “won’t look like student housing anymore.” The lobby will be refurbished with a ceramic tile floor; hallways will be carpeted; new doors with wood veneers installed for each apartment, to provide “a softer, more residential tone.”

Institutional lighting and elevator cabs will be replaced, and kitchens will include dishwashers among the new Energy Star appliances. A design firm will be called in to banish the drab and “get the colors right,” Mr. Handelman said. Additionally, each building will have its own laundry facilities.

A new “elegant gatehouse” will be built at the entrance for security reasons, and the courtyard landscaping will given a fresh look, he added.

Brian Lawlor, the state commissioner of Housing and Community Renewal, described the project as the first multifamily rental to receive “simultaneous approval” from several “newly integrated housing agencies.” Money sources include $15.6 million in tax exempt bond financing; a “Homes for Working Families” loan of $2.5 million; and the $440,000 weatherization grant. Nassau County also contributed $1 million.

“It is unusual that a multifamily development such as this becomes available in Nassau,” Mr. Lawlor said. “If this was five years ago, we wouldn’t have had any hope of turning it into affordable housing. It would have been scooped up and turned into luxury condos.”

He also surmised that the surrounding residential neighborhood, about half a mile from Hofstra’s Uniondale campus, would welcome having “family housing” after years of student use.

But once Twin Oaks is spruced up, the student population could become a source for tenants.

Richard V. Guardino Jr., executive dean of the Wilbur F. Breslin Center for Real Estate Studies at Hofstra, said that the university had stopped using Twin Oaks in 2008, and that with the construction of another dormitory on campus, it “no longer needed the bed space.”

Still, he pointed out, 50 percent of Hofstra students are from out of state, and some may need affordable housing when they graduate and first start working, if they seek to stay in the area.

“We are absolutely delighted that there is an opportunity for our students and young people to have rental housing,” Mr. Guardino said. With rentals constituting less than 20 percent of housing on the Island, “adding 94 units is a tremendous boost.”


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