Developers envision a large downtown parking lot for a five-story building

A five-story apartment building for low-income and recently homeless residents may soon replace a sprawling parking lot west of downtown Rochester.

The demand for such accommodation is great.

“The gap between people’s incomes and the cost of housing isn’t getting better,” said David Cleghorn, who is on the development team at a nonprofit organization called HELP USA. “We have an affordability crisis across the country.”

More than half of Rochester households are considered rent dependent, spending more than 30% of their income on housing. It was before the pandemic. Rents have continued to rise, but experts say affordability in the city stems from falling incomes and poverty.

The Center City Courtyard proposal with its 160 apartments is designed for this population.

Half of the units would be supportive housing with social services, medical and mental health care available on site. All would be affordable to those earning less than 60% of the region’s median income.

The U-shaped building would rise between West Main and Broad streets, in front of the city’s school district central office. What there is now is a gravel lot, over an acre, encompassing an entire city block.

The west side of downtown is riddled with parking lots, but less and less as developers build or reserve lots for tenant use. The courtyard project includes underground parking for residents and visitors.

HELP USA is a national affordable housing developer based in New York. The company is making its first foray into Rochester, partnering with local developer CDS.

“We’ve looked at projects over the years in Rochester,” said Cleghorn, the organization’s housing director, “and decided to pass them all on so far.”

The nonprofit got its start in the mid-1980s, opening apartment-style homeless shelters with on-site services in Brooklyn and the Bronx. This turned into permanent housing projects, like what is proposed here.

Cleghorn oversees this aspect of the business, serving as the organization’s housing manager. Over the past decade, HELP USA has undertaken more than a dozen such developments in multiple states.

“There is a huge need for affordable housing everywhere,” Cleghorn said. “The amount of housing we need to build to be affordable, true affordability to exist, is simply staggering.

“And developing permanent housing like we do, which is multi-family, is just one piece of the puzzle.”

The reason for Rochester’s earlier death was not for lack of need or demand. He said Rochester already had “many reputable and knowledgeable affordable housing developers who have worked there for years.”

Cleghorn and his colleagues didn’t want to step on toes or compete for the same limited resources available to do the job.

The magnitude of this project is the draw.

HELP USA wants to have a bigger presence in Western New York, Cleghorn said. This desire is motivated by its board of directors, led by Maria Cuomo Cole, the sister of former Governor Andrew Cuomo.

He sees little difference between Rochester or Buffalo, where HELP USA has two developments, or New York or Philadelphia, where the nonprofit is particularly active.

“There are a lot of hard-working people who, you know, spend too much of their family income on housing…at the expense of other things,” he said.

Cleghorn knows the Rochester area well. His wife and one of his closest friends grew up here. He spent summers here in college and he has friends he still visits often.

“That’s not how we make our development decisions,” he said. “But it was always on my radar of somewhere we wanted to be more active.”

Construction could start as early as December, but it’s more likely to take place in the spring, with the goal of finishing in 2024.

Other partners include the Rochester Urban League and Victor’s Eagle Star Housing, which works with homeless veterans.

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