Opinion: New York should look to Rochester for affordable housing models

New York should look to Rochester for affordable housing models | Opinion

September 12, 2022
by Jolie Milstein Special to the USA TODAY Network

In many ways, the Flower City is like most other American cities: its residents are grappling with a housing crisis rooted in a shortage of affordable housing for low-income residents. The facts are disturbing. More than 40% of Rochester residents are rent burdened, meaning they spend more than 30percent of their paycheck on rent, and roughly 850 people experience homelessness each night in Monroe County.

On the other hand, the city is also a testament to the power of smart growth and passionate leadership that is dedicated to solving real problems facing its constituents. It is rapidly becoming a model city for urban development in New York — and the good news is that its example can be followed statewide.

Consider the revolutionary Inner Loop redevelopment. As part of the 2015 Finger Lakes Forward Initiative the city is leveraging state funding to transform  the derelict highway into high-quality, affordable housing. Its most recent milestone, the opening of 270 on East, created 112 new affordable apartments including 55 homes with support services for veterans and seniors. 

In all, the ongoing initiative — which continues to expand — is a transformative achievement in urban politics. It is a reminder that the sprawl and environmental decay associated with highways can give way to dense, sustainable and affordable urban communities.

Several housing units are being constructed by Pueblo Nuevo on Hoeltzer Street on Oct. 8, 2020.

While the Inner Loop is the headline grabber, it is far from all that is happening in Rochester. In June, Gov. Kathy Hochul announced the completion of Pueblo Nuevo Phase II,  part of a project that will turn an abandoned warehouse in Rochester’s El Camino neighborhood into a 10,000-square-foot community center and affordable housing. The Pueblo Nuevo Phase II building created 29 affordable and supportive homes.

And on Wednesday, Sept. 21, I will be proud to stand with East House and MM Development as they begin construction of Canal Street Commons, the conversion of a long-vacant warehouse into a 123-unit apartment building, 70 of which will serve people who experience chronic homelessness.

Add this up and you see a clear picture. Rochester — with the Inner Loop initiative, Pueblo Nuevo and Canal Commons — is transforming underutilized areas into long-term housing providing residents stability and affordability. This is precisely the kind of solution that housing leaders across the state need to replicate if we are to meaningfully address rent insecurity and rising homelessness. 

It is not a coincidence that the New York State Association for Affordable Housing is hosting its annual upstate conference in Rochester on Sept. 22. It is in recognition of the city’s example of the many ways policymakers and the affordable housing industry can work together to solve the housing crisis. 

The conference is an ideal opportunity to discuss sustainable growth, and we have dedicated a panel discussion to repurposing underutilized lands to create housing, as was successfully employed with the Inner Loop, Pueblo Nuevo, and Canal Commons developments. 

Overall, our conference will highlight these achievements and demonstrate how our industry can work with public officials to create communities that truly work for everyone, whether that means overcoming NIMBYism and exclusionary zoning or finding new ways to electrify our homes.

Rochester is a shining example of what we can achieve  when community leaders work together to maximize resources and transform communities for the better. Next we need to find ways to expand and replicate these successes not just here in Rochester but across New York and the nation because that is the future we all deserve.

Jolie Milstein, president and CEO of the New York State Association for Affordable Housing

Jolie Milstein is the President and CEO of the New York State Association for Affordable Housing.