Rochester spruces up public housing with $410,000 facelift
by: Brian Sharp
A four-plex on the corner of Garson Avenue and Fourth Street not far from the Public Market is where the Rochester Housing Authority hopes to start changing perceptions.
“Who says public housing needs to look like public housing?” RHA’s executive director John Hill asks — a rhetorical question, and one he poses often to make his point.
Hill and others plan to gather Tuesday for a ceremonial ribbon cutting at 54-66 Garson Ave. The public housing complex underwent a $410,000 renovation, updating the exterior and interior. In addition to new siding and a new roof, RHA added front porches, lighting and privacy fences around the rear yards, while the inside was completely redone, with new cabinets, fixtures, carpet and flooring. The kitchen and dining room walls were torn out to create a more open floor plan.
Construction started in March of last year, and finished in December.
Garson is the first of several RHA properties in the pipeline for some level of renovation, possibly even a complete rebuild, over the next two or three years. Others include properties on Federal Street, which currently is vacant, on Waring Road and on Shirley Street. All are on the city’s east or northeast side.
Hill was hired last year, taking up a directive of a remade board of directors, and taking charge of an authority that had gone nearly two years without a permanent leader. RHA serves roughly 25,000 people and manages more than 2,400 public housing units in the area. It has an annual budget of more than $80 million.
The authority gets $3.5 million in federal dollars each year to cover maintenance and improvements. What is different is that, going forward, the authority is trying to be more aggressive, with a more robust work plan and moving more quickly. RHA has added staff to tap additional funding sources, including tax credits, and is signing up architecture and engineering firms — including Lothrop Associates, Konopka Architecture and Liro Group — while also seeking a partner developer.
“We need to try to utilize whatever is available to modernize and preserve public housing,” Hill said of RHA’s aging housing stock. “The need is great. Some is under stress. All of it is tired.”
A developer decision is expected in the next 60 days. RHA put out a request for proposals, receiving more than a half dozen responses that are currently being evaluated.
The authority has some 24 public housing sites. Most of the affordable housing is privately owned. RHA does most of its business in Section 8 vouchers. There is a separate push by City Council to get landlords to accept Section 8, with a public meeting expected next month.
As RHA works through its housing stock, the focus will spread across the city. There will be a focus on hiring local residents, buying materials locally: “Whatever we can do to stimulate the economy,” Hill said. RHA’s investments should make its public housing more efficient, and thus more affordable, for the families that live there and for RHA to maintain — while also improving nearby property values and, hopefully, setting a standard, officials said.
“We should be a leader,” said RHA board chairman George Moses, rather than “where you drove by … and, you know, ‘Oh, that’s public housing.'”
RHA does not have a set budget or timeframe for working through all of its properties. Said Hill: “Some of the structures are great, but cabinets, windows and doors are what’s needed (to be replaced).
“We are not going to do a (rebuild) on everything,” Hill said. But “I want people to say, ‘That’s a great-looking piece of property,’ and not even know it’s public housing.”