ITHACA, N.Y.—Ithaca is not an easy place to build. That goes doubly so if you’re in the already difficult business of affordable housing or special needs housing. For Lakeview Health Services, the opening of their new West End Heights building at 701 West Court Street is something of an accomplishment in itself, the culmination of years of planning and effort.

Lakeview Health Services, formerly Lakeview Mental Health Services, is a Geneva-based non-profit health and human services agency. Its primary focus is working with people who have chronic illnesses or challenges, often but not always mental health challenges, for which the organization provides support and housing options as well as care management services. Since its founding in 1978, Lakeview has expanded beyond providing housing for people with special needs to also include generalized affordable housing throughout the Finger Lakes region, the most recent builds being in Canandaigua, Macedon and Ithaca. When it does a project, the development is always a combination of general lower-income housing and special needs housing.

The 60-unit mixed-use building at 701 West Court Street in Ithaca’s West End neighborhood has started to move in its first tenants to the modern five-story building designed by PLAN Architecture Studio. The timeline to get to this point stretches over a decade, practically as long as CEO Harry Merryman has been in his job. Merryman, a professional psychologist, joined Lakeview’s Board of Directors in 2007, and became CEO in 2011.

“Like a lot of things, this project came about mostly as a result of necessity. We house a lot of people in Ithaca. What we have found over the years is that we had a great deal of difficulty finding suitable housing for the people that we serve. The vacancy rate in Ithaca is very low and it’s hard to find housing, period. Even then, some of the housing that is available is poor quality, and we have for years been contemplating how and where we might develop a project in Ithaca. It’s been a long time dream,” said Merryman.

In fact, this is Lakeview’s second attempt. Following the construction of their single-room occupancy facility on Third Street in the late 2000s, the agency began scouting property, and put in a purchasing option on the corner of West State and North Meadow Streets, for what was than the vacant former VFW Building/Pancho Villa Restaurant. Unfortunately, they struggled to secure the adjacent properties to the north. Lakeview wasn’t able to obtain funding to complete the land acquisition and let the purchase option expire. The corner property was purchased by Elmira Savings Bank and renovated into their newest branch a few years later.

However, Lakeview remained committed to finding something in Ithaca, particularly the West End, for a few reasons. According to Merryman, they needed enough space as allowed by zoning to do about 60 apartments alongside with the complementary support space, because 60 is roughly their break-even point for long-term financial operation. They required a site that was financially attainable, and land values per square foot are somewhat lower vs. locations closer to Downtown or on the hills. Lastly, they needed a site close to public transportation, with convenient access to other social and community services.

This second try has been more successful, and that goes likewise for the funding. First proposed and approved in 2017 two blocks north of the original site, the project was not awarded grant funds by New York State on its first try, but it was awarded funds on its second attempt. Construction began in 2020 on the $21.7 million building, which includes Lakeview’s support offices and services on the ground level, and the apartments, all one-bedroom units, on the upper four floors.

Merryman noted that funding is the biggest obstacle for building special needs housing. “The challenge in a project like this is bringing all the funding sources and the agencies together, to create a funding package that enables you to proceed. That means you really have to look at all the different funding sources available, programs, tax credits; we got local funding from Tompkins County (CHDF), from NYSERDA, the state. Here, you also have to secure funding for services as well as capital construction funding. And then, keeping your fingers crossed.”

A model apartment. Image provided.

Of the 60 apartments, 22 affordable apartments are available to the general community (link here, for those of you interested) who have incomes at or below the 60% of area median income (about $31,400-$43,020/year depending on household size). Each apartment in the energy-efficient LEED Gold-Certified building is equipped with a refrigerator, stove and dishwasher and includes free on-site laundry.

The remaining 38 units will house individuals who are residents in Lakeview’s supportive apartment or congregate living programs. These programs and certified by the NYS Office of Mental Health (OMH) and the units are filled via referral, either Lakeview’s existing clients or referrals from other providers.

Under that umbrella of 38 special needs units are a few different categories of offerings. Twenty units are for those with mental health challenges but generally independent, ten more units are for those who need more specialized care, six units are set aside for those who have struggled with substance use disorder, and the remaining two units are set aside for those managing care for HIV/AIDS. Lakeview’s onsite staff in the ground-floor space provide a supportive environment and programming for the individuals in these units, and the building has enhanced security to maintain health and safety needs.

“Often, it has to do with where you can get funding, while continuing to serve the population in which you primarily serve,” said Merryman. “We primarily are in the work of serving people with mental health challenges, and that’s our major focus, we get a lot of our funding through the (NYS) Office of Mental Health. We also get funding from the Empire State Supportive Housing Initiative (ESSHI), which serves a bunch of different special needs groups, such as those who are at risk of homelessness and struggling with mental health challenges. It also depends on who we can partner with to provide services with those folks. For instance, we’ll be partnering with the Southern Tier AIDS Program (STAP) to provide services to those with HIV/AIDS, to ensure they’re getting the services they need to be successful.”

For all the challenges with obtaining funding and finding a suitable location on which to build, not to mention get approvals for, Merryman noted that there was thing in Ithaca that, while often a problem in other communities, was not an issue here – pushback on the concept of special needs housing.

The community room. Image provided.

“Some of the challenges we often face from the community, we did not face in Ithaca. I think it’s a testament to Ithaca. The Mayor, the Planning Department, they were incredibly supportive. The Planning Board wasn’t just supportive, they were excited about the concept. Sometimes in communities, people will not want to have individuals with special needs living near them, even though those people are already living in those communities, we’re not importing people from Cincinnati or New York City or someplace. It was not a problem we faced in Ithaca,” said Merryman.

For the city of Ithaca, which has long struggled to meet most of its housing needs let alone groups that are traditionally underserved, West End Heights is a welcome addition to the community’s offerings. According to Merryman, it makes sense financially, it makes sense for public safety, and it makes sense for the public good.

“The data shows that people who are stably housed are in a better position to consume less in the way of social services and to be more productive and make more of a contribution to their communities. If you think about it, if you don’t have stable housing, you don’t have a reliable place to lay your head at night, what happens? Maybe you end up on the street. These folks are more likely to be victims of crime because of their situation, especially if they’re unstably housed. Maybe you’re so concerned about where you’ll live you don’t go to your doctor’s appointments, and you get sick. That consumes public resources if you can’t afford medical care. Financially, it makes more sense to be providing stable housing for those with special needs,” Merryman added.

Lakeview was assisted in making this building a reality by Lecesse Construction as general contractor, and by Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services for consulting and assistance throughout the development process. Merryman says that with the new building finished, the plan for now is to focus on service provisions and care for their Ithaca clients.

“We will continue to be a major provider of services for people with special needs, particularly mental health challenges. We are growing our presence of Ithaca in terms of secure care management, care coordination for those with chronic needs.

It could be mental health, or physical needs — it’s people who would benefit from assistance managing their care and their lives. Lots of people with limited resources can benefit from help in coordinating their care to get the service they need from the providers that give it, to reduce hospital visits and emergencies. We will continue to work to get people the care they need.”

Brian Crandall

Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at bcrandall@ithacavoice.com.