Local developer Keith Libolt pitched the proposed “Harmony Hall,” a.k.a. Manheim Mews affordable senior housing project to New Paltz Town Council members at their November 17 meeting. Libolt has been open about the intention to seek a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes from village officials for the project, which just received Planning Board approval, but village officials decided only recently that it would better if their town colleagues likewise approved the request. With a December grant deadline approaching, the project was placed on the agenda before the town attorney could review it, which is why a decision wasn’t made on the spot.
The path to stay in one’s Ulster County community while aging can be a narrow one. Transitioning to independent living at Woodland Pond, for example, requires an “entrance fee” ranging from about $262,000 to nearly $670,000, along with a “monthly service fee” from about $3,400 to $6,800. That cost includes everything from transportation and home maintenance to housekeeping and dining, and other amenities that add value.
KT Tobin, when serving as deputy mayor in the village, called what’s happened since the beginning of the pandemic as a “housing crisis on steroids,” and senior citizens are one group that struggle to find a local alternative to get them out of keeping up a home that’s become too large. Even high-end facilities such as Woodland Pond have a waiting list; money is not necessarily enough to age gracefully here because housing is in such short supply. With the large hikes in real estate and rent in the past two years, it’s also more difficult to find anything that’s affordable on a limited income.
Libolt’s project is intended to help fill that gap with 51 affordable units across from the college on Manheim Boulevard. The village affordable housing law only requires that 10% of rental units have rates pegged to median income; this project is all in on affordability and should keep members of the Affordable Housing Board busier even than the opening of Zero Place — for which Libolt’s Affordable Housing Concepts was general contractor and ongoing partner. There are several other corporate entities involved, including the nonprofit Affordable Housing Conservancy to which management and ownership are expected to fall. Libolt said that lack of corporate structure is a “barrier” to tapping into state affordable-housing funding.
What affordability will look like does depend on income. For those bringing in 30% or less of the median county income, one bedroom should run $450. Most of the apartments will be pegged at 60% of median, but still could cost less than $1,000 per month. Utility costs will be buffered by a high level of energy efficiency that includes solar panels and preserving mature trees, as well as in the choice of appliances. The units are all accessible, but the specific adaptations installed will depend on the needs of the resident. “Someone who is blind doesn’t benefit from low counters” that are useful to someone in a wheelchair, Libolt explained. Pets will be allowed in some of the units, and there may also be a “house pet” for those who enjoy animals but don’t wish to care for one.
The name “Harmony Hall” is a homage to a former college building, Libolt said. If harmony stems from community, it might live up to that name. The plans include workout facilities and a flexible community space that should lead to residents getting to know neighbors. Libolt imagines that these senior citizens could become an asset to the college across the street, tutoring current students across generations. The state program that Libolt is applying for has a minimum age of 60.
Supervisor Neil Bettez expressed understanding for the need to get a tax break. “Without a PILOT, there is no affordable housing.” Libolt concurred, saying that the taxes at Zero Place are more per unit than the rents will be for the least expensive in Harmony Hall. Village law also requires an on-site manager, adding to the expense. While PILOTs through the county IDA have become unpopular in New Paltz, this one is shutting that agency out and being negotiated directly with village — and now, town — elected leaders.
Planning board weighs in
Harmony Hall also generated significant support from members of Ulster Activists (UACT) during a meeting of the Village of New Paltz Planning Board, which held a public hearing and application review on the project on Tuesday, November 15.
Several people spoke in support of the project, along with several more who commented virtually. They were impressed with the project and its developers, and stressed how important it was to ensure New Paltz remained affordable for its aging population.
“Without the support and interest of communities and public funds, affordable housing just wouldn’t happen and couldn’t,” Susan Denton said. “As a member of the Ulster Activist Housing Committee I was able to meet many times with Mr. Libolt … Throughout this process, we were impressed with how rigorous and thorough it is … I have observed that all parties are in this for the right reasons, which are to protect the village interests and to address the present need for reasonably price housing that seniors can afford and make a viable dent in the need for this housing.”
During last week’s Town Board meeting, UACT members also urged approval of the project right away. “Our great concern is that it not be held up,” said group member Jacki Brownstein. Over the past two years, Libolt has met not only with Planning Board and UACT members, but has also attended numerous historic preservation and zoning appeals board meetings.
The last-minute town council inclusion is because a definition of “taxing jurisdiction” used in this process is having an assessor; that’s a town function, not a village one. Libolt explained how it’s expected that this project will not take much of a toll on schools, but could keep emergency services personnel a bit busier. New Paltz Rescue Chief Matthew Goodnow was present at the meeting, and confirmed that the number of calls at Woodland Pond is an order of magnitude larger than what the developers of that facility projected.
What comes next is for town council members to weigh this information and make a decision. Including town officials safeguards the process, but even if they choose not to approve, the plans could go forward. It’s just another one of the multitude of steps Libolt and others have to check off on the way to filling this community need. “If it were easy to build affordable housing, more people would do it.”
— with additional reporting by Crispin Kott