Celebrating 25 Years of Service

Written by Summer Dawn Hortillosa of Jersey City Independent

After 25 years of creating over 220 units of affordable housing by redeveloping over 80 problem properties and serving homeless and disadvantaged people throughout Hudson County, the Garden State Episcopal Community Development Corporation is looking to expand its reach.

The GSECDC, which changed its name from Jersey City Episcopal CDC in January, is looking to push through with a project in Jersey City’s Greenville neighborhood as well as provide affordable housing in Bayonne, Union City and Passaic County. As they prepare to move forward, they will also celebrate their previous success with a gala at Liberty House in Liberty State Park today.

Executive Director Carol Mori, who started as the CDC’s Chief Financial Officer in 2002 and became its ED in 2005, says the group will reflect on what they have done for impoverished families, special needs populations and others. In addition to creating affordable housing, they say they also serve over 1,200 homeless people and special needs persons annually. Last year alone, they prevented over 500 families from falling into homelessness with emergency services and transitioned over 120 homeless people into stable housing.

“(We) are proud of all of our projects, because they are each significant in some way. Each one of them tackles properties and issues that have plagued the community for decades,” she says. Her two favorite projects, however, are 167 Monticello (pictured below) and the Neighborhood Stabilization Program (including 62 Stegman Street, above).

The project at 167-169 Monticello Ave. was the first mixed-use development on the avenue in 20 years when it began construction in August 2009. The project includes seven affordable condominiums with 2,000 square feet of commercial space and was the first initiative of the Bergen Communities United neighborhood plan, Mori says, noting that the building also houses BCU’s job bank. The project was the first LEED-certified structure in Bergen Hill, meaning it met the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards. As a result, the project won a Green Award from the city last year.

“Shortly after the completion of the project, private investors constructed another mixed-use building a couple of blocks south, a clear indication that our investment helped encourage others,” says Mori. “More importantly, this project serves as a model for bringing back small mixed-use properties in dis-invested commercial corridors like Martin Luther King Drive and Monticello Avenue.”

The Monticello Avenue project cost more than $2.1 million to build, which included a number of grants from sources like the Jersey City Division of Community Development’s HOME Program ($506,000), the Jersey City Affordable Housing Trust Fund ($451,000) and New Jersey Community Capital (NJCC) and a number of private investments. By the time the project was completed in October 2010, the CDC had managed to pre-sell all the condos, including three one-bedroom units for $95,000 and four two-bedroom units for $125,000.

The Neighborhood Stabilization Program, on the other hand, was focused on Greenville, one of the city’s most troubled neighborhoods.

“The Greenville community has a disproportionate share of the city’s foreclosures and high cost loans — about 45 percent — and with this dynamic comes many problems,” she says. “In the past five years, Greenville home owners have seen an average of $130,000 in equity losses in their homes and foreclosed homes are a nuisance. Many investments by GSECDC and its partners in the Greenville community were being jeopardized by this prolonged recession.”

Mori says the CDC acquired foreclosed properties and converted them into affordable housing for first-time home buyers and low-income renters to help stabilize housing values. They bought their first bank-owned foreclosed home on Jewett Avenue for $250,000 and continued purchasing homes using grants and other funding, including a $1 million credit line from NJCC. The program was completed in May this year.

“In a period of one-and-a-half years, GSECDC was able to rescue 18 foreclosed units and was the first nonprofit in the state to complete this program and sell all of its homes,” says Mori proudly. “In an environment of reduced government resources, we were able to produce units at half the cost when compared to new construction by negotiating of discounted acquisitions. We were able to help prevent Greenville housing values from further losses, increase disposable income of recipients, and attract mixed income households, create jobs for local contractors, and deter crime.”

Mori says that while the projects “may not have the highest financial returns to the agency,” it is their impact on the surrounding community that is most important.

“What is most rewarding to me is seeing how all the work we do in the community makes such a difference in many of the residence’s lives,” she says.

The CDC’s impact on the communities in which it works has not gone unnoticed. Greenville community advocate and Councilwoman-at-Large Viola Richardson called the group’s work “stellar,” especially commending them for their reliability, transformation of blighted areas and work with disabled people and disadvantaged families.

“I am very proud of the work that (Director of Housing and Community Development) John Restrepo and Carol Mori and that group is doing,” she says. “One thing I love is that once they get the projects, they move, and you can count on the completion of a project they get involved in in a reasonable period of time. I love that what they produce is quality housing, not something that’s just thrown up. I also love that they provide home ownership to low- and moderate-income people — these are not just places to rent, but places where people can be part of the American Dream.”

Richardson also praised them for listening to community needs. Keeping their finger on the pulse of both communities and the market, Mori says, has been the most challenging part of every CDC project.

“These properties are located in some of the most difficult areas. Our staff has to have a constant pulse on the market — block by block and on policy and programs at a local, state and federal level — so that we can create financial structures and programming to make the deals work,” she says. “In the last couple of years, we have experienced less subsidy resources for this work, but have been able to maintain the same production levels by rolling with the punches and keeping true to our commitment to quality and creativity.”

Now, Mori says the CDC will continue pushing to improve Greenville as well as expanding its geographical focus. For example, the agency recently launched the Greenville Community Plan, which aims to help the neighborhood receive revitalization tax credits and more importantly, brings locals together.

“We are really excited about this (initiative) because it has truly united the residents in the community and they are working together to make it a safe, prosperous, great community to live in,” says Mori.

The GSECDC’s 25th Anniversary gala will be held today at 6 pm at Liberty House, located at 76 Audrey Zapp Dr. General admission is $125. For more information, click here.

Jon Whiten contributed to this report.