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WNY Veterans Housing Coalition seeks to turn former school into apartments

A regional veterans organization is moving ahead with a $28 million plan to convert a deteriorating former public school in Buffalo, plus 33 surrounding properties, into a new low-income residential community for former members of the U.S. military.

The Western New York Veterans Housing Coalition, in conjunction with Norstar Development USA, is seeking state and federal funding to support the renovation of the former School 75 into about 47 affordable rental apartments.

The apartments would be aimed at individuals and households with incomes at or below 30 percent, 50 percent and 60 percent of the area median income, depending on the unit, according to an application to the city for an adaptive reuse permit.

The project also will include on-site laundry facilities, tenant storage, property management offices, and the new 3,700-square-foot headquarters for the housing coalition. And there's a 32-space parking lot planned.

Formed in 1987 to provide housing for homeless veterans and those with special needs, the Veterans Housing Coalition has since expanded its mission to encompass others with low-income, severe disabilities, special needs and homelessness. Today, it manages four complexes with about 100 units of housing in the city, and also provides case management and program services.

The coalition won designated-developer status from the city for the empty school and a host of surrounding properties. Plans call for redevelopment of the existing building and new construction on vacant lots on Adams, Howard, Monroe and Watson streets.

After completion, the school building will include two studio apartments, 43 one-bedroom units and two two-bedroom apartments, according to the application to the city.

Another 18 two- and three-bedroom units would be constructed in new two-story duplex townhouses that would be built on a series of adjacent lots, said Linda Goodman, vice president of Norstar, which is leading the project on behalf of the nonprofit coalition.

The three-story brick school building with a central courtyard is located at 57 Howard St., between William and Clinton streets, near Jefferson Avenue, in the William-Emslie neighborhood.

The former elementary school closed in 1979, and the facility has been vacant for more than a decade. So it requires major repairs and other significant work, Goodman said.

"The school’s a mess," she said. "The basement’s full of water. The roof’s falling in."

The coalition and Norstar have already held a series of community meetings over the past two years, but don't have the money lined up yet.

"We are just in the preliminary stages of trying to raise financing," Goodman said.

Norstar and the coalition are planning to apply in December for state low-income housing tax credits through the Division of Homes and Community Renewal. Those credits, whose value has previously been projected at about $15 million, are only available through a once-a-year application cycle.

The project "will preserve a local historic landmark that has been vacant for a number of years and one that currently has a blighting impact on the neighborhood," the coalition and Norstar wrote in their application. "The former school will be reused in a way that adds value to and complements the existing neighborhood while providing much needed affordable housing opportunities."

The school – which was constructed in 1925 – also is eligible for about $5.5 million in state and federal historic tax credits, which are another critical part of the financing, Goodman said.

"Without the historic tax credits, there’s not enough money to fix up a building like this," she said. "These schools cost a lot of money. It's the only way to fix the neighborhood."

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