Men and women formerly behind bars will soon find affordable housing behind aluminum solar shades. The $42 million green housing development in West Harlem, run by the Fortune Society—a Chelsea-based non-profit that helps parolees assimilate into life outside prison—will be shared by homeless, formerly incarcerated individuals, and low-income families. The development at 140th Street near Riverside Drive is midway through construction and will begin accepting applications for residency next month. For the developers, this project is a message that going green is not reserved for affluent New Yorkers. "Our idea behind this building is that everyone, not just people with high incomes, should be able to live in a green building," said Whitney Foutz, a project manager at Jonathan Rose Companies—a co-developer green firm that has partnered with the Fortune Society to build the 114-unit housing complex. Foutz said the eco-friendly building would include a rooftop garden that controls temperature and harvests rainwater, solar panels for energy efficiency, free Wi-Fi, on-site counseling and job-training services, and unobstructed views of the Hudson River. And according to JoAnne Page, president of the Fortune Society, for many formerly incarcerated individuals, ivy-covered trellises and breathtaking panoramas are a far cry from life after prison. "There's actually a screening process that keeps them out of public housing," Page said. Based on research from the Fortune Society, around 50 percent of New York City parolees are homeless after they get out of prison. "We take people in who have no track record—of paying bills, of being responsible, of being drug-free, of staying out of trouble—and we let them build that track record with us," Page added. She said that the society decided to split the complex between formerly incarcerated people and families, because an advisory committee that they meet with regularly had said that there was a desperate need for affordable housing in the area. According to Page, 63 of the units will be for formerly incarcerated people, 13 of which will be designed for ex-prisoners with families, and the other 50 will be studios with monthly rents that will range from $624 to $976. Fifty other units will be developed for low-income families. Family units will range from $930 to $1,127 a month. And eligibility for the moderate-income units will be set at 60 percent of the median average income of the surrounding community or less. Historically, the Fortune Society has seen firsthand how parolees must contend with a strong social stigma in their fight for affordable housing. Page said she remembered how hostile the neighborhood was when they first bought property on that street, to build the Fortune Academy—commonly known as "The Castle"—as a transitional house for homeless parolees in 1998. "When we first moved in people were scared of us," Page said. "But we've put a lot of effort into building trust with the community." This year "The Castle" hosted a neighborhood haunted house for Halloween that drew over 1,000 people. Page said one of her managers remarked, "Look, they trust us enough now to let us scare their kids." But for some local residents, fears and concerns still linger. Evelin Baldera—who did not send her children to the haunted house—said that neighbors are sometimes afraid of standing up to a powerful city-backed organization and often feel left in the dark about the development. Pointing to the new site, she said, "The people around here don't know exactly what's going on over there." But Page emphasized that the new development would directly support the local community. "What's really important is that people are getting priced out of the neighborhood they grew up in, the neighborhood where their families live," she said, adding that the application process will favor West Harlem residents. She said, "I think what we're going to have is a very beautiful building that reflects how all people should be housed."
Kenny Jackson / Staff Photographer