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In August 2016, the first tenants of the newly opened Evergreen Lofts walked through the doors of a former warehouse on Genesee Street and found what many of them had been seeking for a long time – a safe, affordable apartment to call home. The Evergreen Association’s vision of providing affordable housing that would be open and affirming to members of the LGBTQ community, low-income individuals and families, and those living with chronic illness had become a reality.
Originally founded as AIDS Community Services in 1983 to provide assistance to those affected by the HIV/AIDS crisis, the organization has since expanded to provide health services to the entire community, focusing on underserved or stigmatized individuals who are battling chronic health conditions. The Evergreen Association encompasses several non-profit service providers, including Evergreen Health, The Pride Center of Western New York, and Community Access Services.
“The larger association oversees Evergreen Health, which encompasses medical behavioral health services such as chronic disease management, social work and medical care coordination,” said Justin Azzarella, Evergreen’s VP for Community Development. “Under that same umbrella is the Pride Center of WNY, whose mission is to improve quality of life for LGBTQ folks throughout the community and the eight counties of Western New York. Our third partner organization, Community Access Services, is primarily focused on communities of color, with a more major shift toward Buffalo’s East Side communities over the last five years.”
Evergreen’s holistic structure and years of experience serving the local LGBTQ population led them to the realization that there was a significant need for this type of open and affirmative housing in Western New York. Many of their clients face discrimination and even violence when staying at shelters or moving into group-living environments, and have experienced the harsh reality that revealing their sexual identity might compromise their personal safety. By partnering with Southern Tier Environments for Living (STEL), Evergreen developed a plan to address their clients’ housing needs through adaptive reuse of an historic building.
“We’ve long known that safe housing in the region for people who identify as LGBTQ, and particularly trans, is just non-existent right now,” Azzarella said. “Nationally and beyond, I think there’s a narrative we think of – often shown in sitcoms – where the gay characters are always two really well put together guys who are well off professionals with a beautiful home. The true story is that many people within the LGBTQ community live in poverty and struggle with homelessness. It’s a story that just is not told, but that we see and work with every day.”
As longtime advocates of the Housing First model, Evergreen has operated a scattered site housing program for over a decade to assist their clients who were facing homelessness. The Evergreen Lofts will be their first agency-operated affordable housing site where tenants can be seamlessly connected to the health services offered at Evergreen’s main campus.
“It’s really the culture of Evergreen to say that this is going to help close that loop,” Azzarella said. “You can’t expect folks to stay healthy and have positive health outcomes if they leave our building at 5 p.m. when we close and they’re living on the streets or going to stay at a shelter.”
The century-old, five-story brick building on the edge of Buffalo’s East Side was originally home to the Buffalo Trunk Manufacturing Company, and had been severely underutilized for the better part of the last decade. “Sonic Blinds was the previous owner and they really only utilized the first floor for light manufacturing. Anyone would have thought the building was vacant from the outside,” Azzarella said.
That building now contains a total of 56 affordable housing units, with 28 designated for low-income individuals and 28 HOPWA subsidized units set aside for individuals with HIV/AIDS who are currently homeless or have struggled with chronic homelessness.
The 28 assisted units also come fully furnished and equipped with the basic essentials. “They even include houseware kits, so you have your dishes, your silverware, everything you need once you move in,” said Kim LaVare, AVP for Real Estate and Construction. “Linens are provided, blinds will be on the windows, there’s a television and a phone set up. It’s really all-inclusive.”
The City of Buffalo provided the HOPWA funding to subsidize rents for individuals living with HIV/AIDS. Those tenants who do not qualify for those subsidies are offered a reduced rent, below market value.
The $13.7 Million project received tax-exempt bond financing from the New York State Housing Finance Agency (HFA), and additional subsidized financing from HFA, the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA) and the Federal Home Loan Bank of New York. LISC-affiliate National Equity Fund (NEF) syndicated a $9.8 Million equity investment to benefit from the project’s Federal Low Income Housing Tax Credits as well as Federal and State Historic Tax Credits. First Niagara Financial Group was the sole investor and also provide a Letter of Credit to insure the bonds during construction.
The Evergreen Association worked with STEL and Paula Blanchard of Realty USA to find the building, which not only had an ideal location in proximity to their main campus, but also had landmark status on the National Historic Register and an open floor plan that would support their renovation plans. They also worked with locally based consultants at Preservation Studios to complete their applications for historic tax credits.
“This is our first time going into the foray of different tax credits,” Azzarella said. “We took some advice from our developer (STEL) in terms of what has worked in the past and making sure it was a solid building. When we walked into the building, I knew right away. This building has the perfect bones,” Azzarella said.
Several features of the building made it appealing to the National Park Service for historic tax credits, particularly its unique beam system. “We preserved the beams wherever possible in the hallways and in the units, so instead of hiding those beams in the walls, we made a conscious decision to make them a focal point,” Azzarella said.
A conference room on the main floor gives new life to a former office space framed with the original wood paneling and windows, while a preserved staircase takes tenants to the second floor apartments. An original display case on the second floor showcases antique trunks from the Buffalo Manufacturing Company, celebrating the building’s history.
The development team made an effort to involve clients of the Association when it came to the design process, sharing building plans and soliciting feedback from their “Partners” group. One item voiced by Evergreen’s former housing director, Brian Planty, was ensuring the tenants would have a significant amount of storage space in their apartments.
“Brian said to me, ‘We’re talking about populations who are used to living with everything on their person or nearby and they have some real separation anxiety. When you tell them there’s a storage unit downstairs and it’ll be safe there, that hasn’t always been true for them.’ It’s feedback we got from Brian who really tapped into the clients he had seen for years in health services,” Azzarella said.
While the Evergreen Lofts were designed as an independent living facility, tenants will have some amenities to assist them. “On the first floor we have a computer lab – mostly for the purpose of being able to job search and print resumes,” LaVare said. “We’ll also have a housing retention counselor who will assist in those needs and connecting them to services.”
The proximity to Evergreen’s downtown campus on Chippewa Street makes it simple for tenants to be linked to the organization’s health services. The on-site counselor can connect tenants to care coordinators based out of Evergreen’s main campus. “They do everything from checking up on folks, to making sure they are taking their prescriptions, getting them to appointments. Or maybe they have a transportation or nutritional need. We have all those services through Evergreen, so those programs are available to anyone who lives there and chooses to sign up for care coordination services,” Azzarella said.
Living at Evergreen Lofts will not only allow the Association’s clients to live with dignity in an open, welcoming environment, but it will also be an environment that encourages them to stay consistent with healthcare. Particularly for tenants who were homeless, living at Evergreen Lofts could be the catalyst for major progress in their personal health and wellness.
“Folks who would otherwise be homeless and have to find other ways to make ends meet are going to have that one less burden of worrying about coming up with money to stay at a rooming house that’s going to be a higher charge,” Azzarella said. “They’re going to have the ability to put more focus on their health. So someone who is HIV positive who was previously homeless will now be in long-term, secure, affordable housing and be able to start saying, ‘I’m going to tackle my viral load. I know that I will take my regimented antiviral drugs every day because I now have a nightstand next to my bed to put them on.’ When a client reduces their viral load they are much less likely to pass HIV on to others, thus helping to end the epidemic.”
Thus, by providing this type of housing and supportive health services to their clients, the Evergreen Association has taken another huge step in their mission to tackle HIV/AIDS in the Western New York region. The agency is looking forward to continuing this effort as they move forward with the expansion of their downtown campus.
“This project works in tandem and hand-in-hand with Governor Cuomo’s End Aids by 2020 initiative,” Azzarella said. “This is really where everything we’ve done for 30 years finally comes to a culmination and you end the cycle. That’s what this is all about.”