Rupcco will formally mark its 35th anniversary this week, celebrating its efforts to get clean, safe and affordable housing for thousands of people throughout the Hudson Valley. The challenges it originally faced nearly four decades ago are no less daunting now.
A Three-County Regional Housing Needs Assessment, written by an economist in 2009 and funded by the Dyson Foundation, projected a Kingston affordable-rental-housing gap of 2071 units in 2015. To close that gap, the city needed to build 908 affordable rental units by then.
It didn’t happen, but not for a lack of trying on Rupco’s part.
Rupco added 55 units at the Lace Mill, a decrepit factory in Midtown converted into live-work space for artists, last year. But the last senior affordable units had been built at Brigham Senior Housing in Midtown in the late Nineties. “If we want people to come to Kingston, we have to provide them with affordable places to live, opportunities to work and a quality of life to play and live,” said Rupco CEO Kevin O’Connor.
Formed as an offshoot of Ulster County Community Action in 1981, Rural Ulster Preservation Company changed its named in 2012 to what it had been known as for years — Rupco. The not-for-profit’s housing and community development programs directly affect the lives of more than 8,000 persons annually through its work with homelessness, rental assistance, foreclosure prevention, first-time homebuying, home rehabilitation, energy efficiency, property management and real-estate development.
Rupco currently owns and/or manages 430 units, with another 169 units in development. Its federal Housing Choice Voucher program (formerly called Section 8) administers more than $11 million a year in rental subsidies to local landlords in Ulster and Greene counties. Those properties are inspected every year by Rupco’s housing quality inspector. “The majority of residents represent the most vulnerable populations in our communities, including the elderly and disabled,” O’Connor said. “Our mission is to create homes, support people and improve communities. Our ultimate goal is strong, vibrant and diverse communities. We achieve that through a broad spectrum of housing solutions and community development, from rental assistance to homeownership, home rehab, weatherization and foreclosure prevention. We believe in creating communities where people want to live, work, play and thrive — it’s called creative place-making, and we’ve started that in Midtown with the introduction of The Lace Mill.”
Rupco is replicating that work in Newburgh, by working with Newburgh Community Land Bank and the City of Newburgh to acquire and rehabilitate properties in blighted neighborhoods to create new mixed-income housing to spur economic and community re-development in a city desperately in need of both. It’s working with Middletown on state programs that are also being tried in Kingston.
Helping the dream come true
One aspect of Rupco’s community work is expanding homeownership by making it financially accessible through homebuyer education, financial counseling and homeownership preservation. “It is of course the American dream to own one’s own home,” O’Connor said. “I remember when my parents bought our family’s first home in Hyde Park. It was a milestone for us. At Rupco, we are ready to help families achieve their dream. From these homeowners we get the Little League coaches and the volunteer firemen. But don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of renters out there invested in our communities who are involved with their community. We have to balance housing solutions to provide the best mix, because diversity fosters successful neighborhoods.”
Similarly, improving the availability of housing stock within the budgets of young people and families drives Rupco’s development work. Rupco, with an annual budget of $6.4 million and 65 employees in five offices, operates on a broad scale. The 19th-century Stuyvesant and Kirkland hotels in Kingston’s Stockade were acquired and restored by Rupco to their landmark status. The 57-unit Energy Square new construction proposed on Cedar Street in Midtown Kingston on the site of a former bowling alley will be resubmitted for state approval in December. Rupco is also working with Stockade Works to bring TV/film production studios and a training center to the old MetLife building on Greenkill Avenue in Kingston (see accompanying story in this edition).
Last month, Rupco signed a contract for $950,000 to purchase the former Alms House on Flatbush Avenue in Kingston. The combination of historic preservation and new construction, estimated to cost $20 million, will create 66 units of permanent supportive and senior housing. The campus will integrate supportive services and provide affordable homes for many close to medical services, retail services and public transportation. O’Connor expects construction there to start in mid-2017.
Rupco, which took on a regional mission about five years ago, also operates NYSERDA’s Green Jobs/Green New York program in ten Hudson Valley counties, including Westchester. “We’re good at helping communities identify their needs. We’re adept at going after appropriated funds,” he said. “And because of our national affiliations, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”
O’Connor is particularly invested in green building and historic restoration, two areas which are attracting significant funding in federal and state grants.
O’Connor is cognizant of resistance to so-called “subsidized housing,” but argues for putting it in perspective. “In terms of federal assistance, the subsidy provided to homeowners in the form of tax deductions for mortgage interest and local taxes — estimated at more than $70 billion outstrips the entire [U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development] budget — $56 billion in 2015,” he said. “Rental assistance is often the stepping stone to homeownership.”
In Ulster County, a family of four earning $36,000 a year qualifies for rental assistance. Over a third of Ulster County families are eligible for this assistance now but can’t get it. Rupco got 755 applications when it recently opened its housing voucher application wait list in Greene County this summer for the first time in years. The Ulster County wait list opened on October 3 for the first time in two years. “We close the lists because we don’t want to give people false hope,” he said. “We’ll probably get at least several thousand applicants.”
Keeping the money within the community
A Marist College graduate in communications, O’Connor, 58, succeeded Kathy Maxwell at Rupco in 2002. He was named NeighborWorks America’s “Practitioner of the Year” in 2013 and has received numerous awards on behalf of his organization, including New York State Association for Affordable Housing’s Project of the Year (for The Lace Mill) and Friends of Historic Kingston Historic Preservation Awards (for The Kirkland, Stuyvesant and Lace Mill).
Rupco is committed to using use local contractors and tradespersons on its projects. “We spread the money around and we try to keep it in-community,” he said. “We’re bringing federal and state money to our communities, money that would otherwise be spent elsewhere.”
O’Connor seems bullish on the future of nonprofit developers of modest-income housing. “There’s a growing interest in green construction and historic preservation, and the funding is becoming increasingly available,” he said. “With our experienced and competent staff we’re well positioned to move forward to provide decent housing for the people we serve.”