Problems have plagued the Hudson Housing Authority (HHA) complex, Columbia County’s only public housing project, for years. Moisture soaks into the building through the porous, cracked facade. Rainwater leaks into the walls through panels meant to hold air conditioners. There’s an intractable roach infestation. Because of the heavy damage, as many as 20 percent of the units have been unlivable in recent years.
But public housing in Hudson may soon be remade. The HHA currently consists of two buildings: Bliss Tower, a nine-story high-rise, and the adjacent Columbia Apartments, popularly referred to in the city as “the low-rise.” The county Board of Commissioners is advancing a plan to demolish both buildings and construct an entirely new development. A long path lies ahead for the nascent proposal, but members of the board and local elected officials are enthusiastic it will help address Hudson’s severe affordable housing crisis.
The HHA administers 130 Section 8 vouchers, but 80 remain unused due to “a lack of affordable housing inventory in the City of Hudson, lack of interest from property owners, and extremely high rental rates as a result of the ongoing gentrification that has occurred for many years,” according to the HHA. The pandemic put Hudson’s overheated rental market into hyperdrive, with rents leaping as much as 20 percent almost overnight. With no other public housing in the county and few landlords who accept Section 8 payment, low-income residents are essentially told, “this is your only choice,” says Second Ward Alderwoman Tiffany Garriga, who raised her children at the HHA.
There are 131 units in Bliss Tower and Columbia Apartments, according to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), but 25 of them were offline as of December 2020. Many have heavy water damage, including collapsed ceilings and walls, and 18 of the 25 need major renovations, according to a Board of Commissioners presentation in December. The floors of both buildings are filled with asbestos, making rehabilitation costly and habitation unhealthy.
The Board of Commissioners put out a survey to HHA residents asking what they wanted in their housing authority, and held a meeting where tenants were asked to “basically dream up their future,” according to Claire Cousin, an HHA board member. Cousin says it was “disheartening” for tenants to watch formerly dilapidated areas of the city quickly changing “and to know that they’ve been in the same situation since the seventies,” when the HHA buildings were built.
“Some of their biggest and wildest dreams were having central air—they don’t even understand the type of possibilities that this type of project can have,” Cousin says. “So we’re warming them up to the idea that it can be so many things.”
Replacement Without Displacement
A request for qualifications (RFQ) was issued July 15 seeking developers for the project. Distinct from a request for proposals, where developers offer price quotes to build a fleshed-out proposal, an RFQ seeks developers to engage in a collaborative process to come up with a plan. The RFQ envisions demolishing the existing buildings, but no resident will be left without a place to live—HUD requires all tenants to be transferred to other properties during construction.
Mayor Kamal Johnson, who has made affordable housing a priority, says it is important “that no one is displaced through this process at all…because that’s always the fear.” He adds that attempts at repair over the last few years have made it clear that “rehabilitation isn’t really going to save the buildings.”
The basic plan, laid out in the RFQ, is to build new HHA units on land across the street from Bliss Tower on a parcel owned by the housing authority that currently includes a basketball court and a playground. Tenants would be relocated there while the existing HHA buildings are demolished and new buildings constructed in their place. The new units will be permanent, and tenants who move to there will have the option of staying once all construction is completed or moving back to the original property, according to Cousin.
The plans for the original property are hazy, but residents said during forums that they wanted retail spaces on the ground floor and would prefer multiple buildings as opposed to a single tower. Hudson received $800,000 as part of its 2017 Downtown Revitalization grant for predevelopment of the playground parcel. The following year, the city attempted to build new HHA units on that land, but the original plan had to be pared down because of poor soil conditions at the site, which limit the density and height of any new development. The original plan was mothballed in 2019.
It is unclear if enough new housing can be constructed on the parcel to accommodate the 200-plus residents of the HHA, even temporarily. The Board of Commissioners is also looking at acquiring new land elsewhere in the city on which to build, according to board member Rebecca Wolfe.
Wolfe stresses that the redevelopment project is very much in its beginning stages—it is not yet funded, for one thing—but she says the board was in “preliminary conversations” about acquiring more land.
Funding the Project
The HHA has acquired a 36-month bridge loan from M&T Bank to cover operating costs and make improvements to existing units during the projects design phase, according to the RFQ. The authority plans to apply for additional financing through the bank with the help of HUD tax credits. Constructing new HHA housing will take years, if the plan comes to fruition at all. But the end result would not only provide current HHA tenants with new and better accommodations, but greatly increase the number of low-income units overall in Hudson, with buildings on the playground parcel or elsewhere in the city.
There have been previous attempts during Mayor Johnson’s administration to build affordable and low-income housing in the city, but none have yet come to fruition. These include a proposal by a private nonprofit developer to build a 77-unit affordable housing block in the city, a plan touted by the mayor. But the developer withdrew the plan in August 2020 after a dispute between the nonprofit and the city’s common council over property tax breaks for the project.
Proposals for reconstructing the HHA property are due back August 13, after which the chosen developer will work with the Board of Commissioners, tenants, the city, and the HHA to come up with a specific plan and funding streams.