Historic Jazz Site in Harlem Rehabilitated, Houses Formerly Homeless New Yorkers


At a time when social services are facing sometimes difficult cuts, one organization is celebrating the funding it received from the city to rehabilitate a housing project in Harlem that provides homes and services to the chronically homeless.

Housing and Services Inc., or HSI, — an organization that develops and manages affordable housing for New Yorkers with special needs — announced this week that it has completed construction on its rehabilitation project for supportive housing at the Cecil Hotel in Harlem and the Narragansett Hotel on the Upper West Side. The projects were awarded $16.4 million from the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, HSI said.

The Cecil Hotel — which in the 1990s was one of the city’s first supportive housing projects of its kind according to HSI — is located at 118th Street and St. Nicholas Ave. in a five-story building that once housed Minton’s Playhouse, a legendary jazz club famous for its “bebop” music (The site is on the New York State Register of Historic Places).

Ninety percent of the tenants, living in 89 housing units, are over 60 years old at Cecil, which is part of the Section 8 voucher program for low-income residents. The city’s Department of Homeless Services refers residents to Cecil. There, the construction project involved a range of improvements, including a new computer lab, infrastructure and mechanical system upgrades, a new elevator, an enhanced security system, and redesigned kitchens and bathrooms.

At the Narragansett Hotel, a mixed-use 100-unit project on the Upper West Side, residents are HIV-positive and are referred there by the city’s Human Resources Administration. At this location, the renovation project included extensive repairs to the façade, a new roof, new boiler systems, improved drainage and security systems, and a comprehensive remodeling of program space for residents’ social services.

Securing funding from the city for these kinds of updates is essential, HSI executive director Jim Dill told Runnin’ Scared today, because the development does not get enough revenue from rent to fund major renovations.

“These buildings generally need a good makeover every 15 to 20 years,” he said. “But because these are for persons with very low income, the projects themselves don’t generate the cash flow…The city came through magnificently.”

This kind of housing is vital for the city’s homeless population, Dill said, adding that it saves the city money by keeping them out of shelters and stops them from draining resources elsewhere. It also provides the residents with some important stability through on-site services — staff work with the residents or refer them to appropriate agencies for health and other concerns.

“Supportive housing is the most cost-effective and humane way of dealing with chronic homelessness,” he said.

A spokesperson for HPD, which funded the projects, said that in these economic times, it is important for housing to be dynamic enough to meet the needs of New Yorkers in a cost-effective way. This funding, the spokesperson said, ensures that residents will have much needed quality of life and safety upgrades, which preserve affordable housing for the Harlem tenants. (The Cecil project in Harlem, HPD added, also includes a commercial space that the city hopes will help bring new economic opportunity to the area).

Despite the successes with this project, Dill said he is concerned about the potential consequences of upcoming budget cuts on the operational side, which could impact the actual services they provide.

“Over the past couple of years, the industry has just been hit with a barrage of cuts and threatened cuts to its operating budget,” he said. “It kind of puts the investment in jeopardy.”

Dill said that the city’s HIV/AIDS Service Administration, or HASA, has proposed citywide cuts of $5.1 million that would reduce HASA-funded on-site social services staff by 1/3 at Narragansett and double caseloads. And cuts from the state will also force the Department of Homeless Services to cut more than 17% from projects like Cecil, he said.

Having a renovated space is essential, but maintaining the services is also key, he added.

In response to his concerns, a DHS spokesperson sent Runnin’ Scared a statement, saying, “The State cut critical funding for supportive housing programs two years ago. Homeless Services was able to work with providers to stem the tide and maintain operations and will continue to partner with providers to mitigate the financial impact.”

HASA — an agency we’ve written about several times recently, also defended its budget in a statement sent to Runnin’ Scared this afternoon, also noting that these budgets are merely proposals and are not finalized. A spokesperson from the HRA, which oversees HASA, said, “HASA’s two vendor cut proposals for next year’s budget streamline services and asks our partners to do more with less while ensuring the program continues with no adverse impact on our clients. One proposal would adjust the case manager/number of clients ratio at community-based partners to current HASA program ratio of 1 case manager per every 34 clients. The other proposal would reduce supportive housing contracts by 2 percent to encourage vendors to turn to effective resource management. Under these two proposals, vendors are allowed to adjust funding reduction as they see fit.”