BY ROBERT KNIGHT
ROCKLAND COUNTY TIMES
Orangetown’s Volunteer Emergency Services Coalition detailed their plans Tuesday for upgrading eight homes the group controls and leases to local fire, ambulance and police volunteers and their families.
The plea came at a workshop meeting of the Orangetown Town Board, at which the council had sought an appearance by OVESC officials to explain their request last month for $60,000 to re-roof the eight homes. The homes, located along Chief Bill Harris Way in Orangeburg, were built by Rockland Psychiatric Center about 50 years ago to house professional staff members and their families.
When New York State began dismantling the sprawling psychiatric hospital in the 1980s it started divesting itself of hundreds of acres of land at the Orangeburg institution, along with nearly 100 buildings. By 2003, it had sold 348 acres of property to the Town of Orangetown, including 13 one and two-story homes along what was then called North Blaisdell Road, named after a former hospital director. H. Underwood Blaisdell.
One home, at the corner of Blaisdell and Orangeburg Roads, became the Orangetown Museum and Archives, while two adjacent homes were leased to the Rockland Paramedic Service, which operates Orangetown’s EMS service in conjunction with local volunteer ambulance corps.
The other 10 homes were leased for $1 to OVESC, which was formed for that purpose by the chiefs and captains of the town’s seven volunteer fire departments and three volunteer ambulance corps. After repairing and upgrading the long-vacant homes with donated labor and some small grants, OVESC in turn leased the homes to volunteer members of those departments who could not otherwise afford to live in Orangetown because of steep apartment rental prices and the high cost of private housing.
The concept was originated by then Pearl River Fire Chief William Harris along with his counterparts from Blauvelt and Orangeburg, who all quickly enlisted the support of the other chiefs, and the leaders of the ambulance corps, all of whom depend on local resident volunteers to staff their fire trucks and ambulances to respond to alarms. There are no paid fire departments or ambulance corps in Orangetown or in all of Rockland County.
Housing a Gift
After Harris died Blaisdell Road was re-named in his honor, and Blauvelt Fire Chief David Schnitzer assumed the role of OVASC chairman.
He told the Town Board Tuesday that the donation of the 10 homes to the volunteer corps was a gift from heaven because it was getting harder and harder for the various departments to maintain their membership and their strength. The majority of active members are on the younger end of the age scale, he explained, from 18 to 30 or 40. This is the same group who grew up in Orangetown but now can’t afford to live there because of the high cost of houses and apartments.
Those who try must work two jobs just to pay the rent or the mortgage and taxes, he explained, and thus have no time to volunteer for fire departments or ambulance corps.
Applications for the new volunteer housing came pouring in, and they were initially rented to volunteers who had the ability to contribute sweat equity into the rehabilitation of the long-vacant and severely dilapidated housing.
The first group of volunteer tenants were able to save enough money from the low rent to eventually be able to purchase their own homes or lease market–rate apartments, Schnitzer explained, fulfilling the goal OVESC had set when the housing concept was first created.
Two of the 10 homes were so badly deteriorated they were deemed unfixable, and they have been left to deteriorate to the point they are now considered eyesores and dangerous.
The other eight have been periodically repaired and upgraded as the need and the funding has dictated, Schnitzer and others explained. Rents have been kept purposely low for two main reasons, he added. It allows the volunteer tenants to save enough money to progress to their own housing, and it has been calculated using federal HUD regulations and to “break even” after paying for needed repairs but not providing any “profit” to OVESC or Orangetown.
What comes in through rent is immediately spend on repairs, OVESC leaders said, noting that this has typically included new hot water heaters and furnaces when old ones fail and replacement of windows as they start to fall out of their frames. Bathrooms and kitchens have also been upgraded as needed and as funding was available, and leaks in roofs have been repaired as they develop.
Tenants do their own minor maintenance as well as yard and lawn care, so that sweat equity remains an important ingredient in the entire process of leasing the homes to cash-strapped young volunteers.
Schnitzer noted that OVESC had applied to Orangetown twice in the past for small grants, when their budget ran out of funds and immediate repairs were needed, and the town responded favorably both times. The largest amount was for $22,000 needed to eliminate mold found in all the homes several years ago.
They are at that position again today, he said, with no money in the bank and new roofs needed on all eight homes that are currently occupied.
The roofs are the originals and are nearly 50 years old and have never been replaced, just patched and repaired as needed. They are now shot, Schnitzer said, and must be completely replaced with new roofs for the first time, which will cost an estimated $75,000 to $85,000 in total.
OVESC feels it can conduct fund-raisers and grant appeals to raise about $18,000 to $22,000 of that amount, leaving a financial gap of $60,000. It is that amount they are now seeking from Orangetown to keep the volunteer housing project going for future generations.
Companies May Contribute
The $60,000 can conceivably be reduced even further, fire chiefs acknowledged in response to council inquiries at Tuesday’s meeting. They can request additional sweat equity from the tenants themselves and from the total memberships of their various departments and corps, the chairman said, and they can solicit the private fire associations and ambulance corps to see if they will donate their own money to help defray the cost of the project.
Such solicitations have been done in the past Schnitzer and others said, although to a much smaller extent, and the corps and departments have been “generous” in their support when asked.
Following further discussion, Town Board members agreed to place the request for the $60,000 donation on the agenda for their next business meeting, Tuesday, June 25. The meeting begins at 7:30 p.m. at the Town Hall at 26 Orangeburg Road, Orangeburg, about three blocks east of the housing being discussed.
Representatives from the seven fire departments and three ambulance corps are expected to attend to lobby for the resolution, along with members of the departments and tenants currently residing in the volunteer housing.
During the discussions this week, it was revealed that:
– Five of the original tenants were able to buy homes or rent private apartments in Orangetown, after getting their start in the Blaisdell Road homes.
– The one-story ranch homes are used for single family residences, while some of the two-story homes are used for two families, one up and one down; while another two of them are used as single-residence occupancy rooming houses, or SROs, housing four or more single tenants in individual bedrooms with shared kitchens and baths. OVESC officials conceded that SROs are not legal in Orangetown or Rockland County but these two have been purposely “overlooked” because they serve such a valuable need.
– Six of the eight homes currently house 11 families, which consists of 23 people.
– While originally designed for fire department and ambulance corps volunteers, that list has now been expanded to include volunteer auxiliary police officers in the Orangetown Police Department; at least one of who currently resides there.
– Two of the two-story homes, at the northwest corner of Old Orangeburg Road and Chief Bill Harris Way, are so dilapidated that they are considered beyond restoration. If the Town Board agrees, OVESC will soon request the town to authorize the fire departments in Orangetown to burn them to the ground in “controlled burns,” which the volunteers will use as training exercises. No board members objected Tuesday, noting that such action made sense because it saved everyone money and provided valuable training to the volunteers.
– OVESC pro bono attorney David Howe said the organization signed its first lease with Orangetown in 2004, when Thom Kleiner was supervisor and Denis Troy was a councilman. Kleiner is long gone but Troy remains on the board, and remains a strong supporter of the volunteer housing concept. Howe said the leases are for five years at a time, with the current lease running through Dec. of 2016.
– The lease was originally for 11 homes, but one was given to the Orangetown Museum and two others were removed as uninhabitable, leaving eight that OVASC currently rents.
– As far as OVASC can determine, the houses on Chief Bill Harris Way are the first such housing for volunteer firefighters and ambulance corpsmen ever established in New York State, and set a precedence that is now being copied state-wide.
Councilman Tom Morr praised OVESC for its efforts in running the eight volunteer homes and said the agreement with Orangetown “has worked well for the past 10 years.”
Councilman Tom Diviny also praised OVESC and asked what the town can do to facilitate the removal of the two dilapidated homes, opposite the RPC tennis courts. Schnitzer and Howe said Building Inspector John Giardiello would first have to condemn them as uninhabitable and dangerous, and then authorize the controlled burn. Giardiello, sitting in the rear of the auditorium, said he would do so if authorized by the town board, which owns all of the homes involved and would have to give permission.
Schnitzer said once the two houses are removed OVESC would like to turn that land into a vest pocket park for local children who reside in the area, and especially children who live in the volunteer housing. Hopefully, working with town parks, DPW and other officials as well as the fire departments and ambulance corps and dozens of volunteers, they would be able to create the park at little to no cost to Orangetown. It would include play equipment such as sand boxes, swings, slides and other children’s attractions. A tennis court is located across Bill Harris Way, and baseball, soccer and football fields are across Old Orangeburg Road.
Town Board members said they remain hopeful that all of the homes along Bill Harris Way, with the exception of the museum, can eventually be sold to a private developer who will re-develop the bulk of the RPC campus into an attractive commercial centerpiece and taxpaying cash cow for Orangetown. One of the requirements in the bid from such a developer would be that they must create new volunteer housing somewhere on the site, to replace and possibly even increase the number of units to be demolished in the process. The town had such an agreement a few years ago with the K. Hovnanian Company of New Jersey but that deal fell through when the housing marked crashed and Hovnanian withdrew his bid. No offers have been received since then, but the town is about to embark on a major marketing campaign to solicit new bids from other developers.
Orangetown hopes to enhance its appeal as a site for redevelopment at the RPC campus by offering lucrative town, school, county and state tax incentives.
Serving with Schnitzer on the OVESC board of directors are Bill Papp and Pete Byrne of the Orangeburg Fire Department, Don Arterburn of the Pearl River Fire Department, Bruce Leonard of the Tappan Fire Department and Glenn Albin of the South Orangetown Ambulance Corps. They and attorney Howe all serve without pay, and OVESC makes no money other than what is raised through rents to pay for needed maintenance and repairs.