Seniors in East Harlem Get Priority in New Affordable Housing Units

A former dormitory for nurses, vacant since it was damaged in Hurricane Sandy, will soon reopen as apartments for the elderly, expanding New York City’s supply of housing for a population struggling under skyrocketing rents.

The Draper Hall Apartments at 1918 First Avenue, opening later this year, are now drawing applicants for 51 units intended for elderly residents of the surrounding neighborhood, East Harlem. Ultimately, 202 units in the building will be available.

But even advocates said these apartments would hardly put a dent in the demand for safe housing at rents that people can afford — particularly in neighborhoods like Harlem, where gentrification drives up costs and gobbles up vacancies.

“We want to make sure that seniors can stay in the neighborhood, so they don’t have to move out of a community they have lived in all of their life,” said Noel Alicea, a spokesman for Metropolitan Hospital Center, which owns the former dormitory.

The 14-story building has been out of commission since 2012, when Hurricane Sandy plowed through the East Coast. But in 2014, Metropolitan Hospital, part of the city’s medical system, offered the site to a developer for senior housing.

The city granted a 99-year lease to SKA Marin, a real estate developer in Great Neck, N.Y. The company obtained financing and subsidies from the city to convert the residence and add features like a laundry room, a community room and an outdoor recreation area. In return, SKA Marin pays $100,000 a year to the city.

Tenants are eligible if they meet Section 8 guidelines and make $38,000 or less a year. They are required to pay 30 percent of their income in rent; the rest is subsidized. The rooms have energy-efficient appliances and senior-accessible features such as seated showers, rails and call buttons.

“The fact that it’s across the street from the hospital is obviously a plus,” Mr. Alicea said.

The city is accepting applications for the first 51 apartments until July 10, and the units will be assigned by a lottery. The remaining apartments, for seniors already on a waiting list, will be assigned by the end of the year.

SKA Marin also locked down $59.7 million in financing from the New York City Housing Development Corporation for a 152-unit affordable housing complex nearby, a spokesman for the developer confirmed Wednesday.

Nearly 1.44 million people 60 and older live in New York City, and the city estimates this number will grow to 1.84 million by 2030.

Approximately 33 percent of them are living alone, and many struggle with rising rents in areas like Harlem, which are attracting more middle- to high-income families.

A recent study reported that 200,000 low-income seniors were on waiting lists for affordable housing citywide.

Part of the problem is that seniors are holding onto apartments that are larger than they need; they want to stay in the neighborhood and don’t have other options. Adding units for them has a secondary benefit: Larger apartments can become available to local families.

“There’s a need for affordable housing for all age levels,” Mr. Alicea said. “By creating housing that’s targeted to seniors, that’s a benefit for everyone.”

The city is trying multiple approaches to relieve the burden, but most, like the Draper Hall Apartments, are merely chipping away as demand continues to rise.

One alternative is the Senior Citizen Rent Increase Exemption program, through which qualifying New Yorkers can apply to have their rents frozen; in return, landlords receive a property-tax reduction.

The New York Foundation for Senior Citizens’ home-sharing program allows people to keep their homes by bringing in a roommate. This year, 68 roommates have been assigned, already equaling last year’s total.

Those matched include a woman whose husband moved into a nursing home, said Linda Hoffman, president of the New York Foundation for Senior Citizens. To stay in Manhattan, she was paired with a man blinded by glaucoma, who sold his co-op and couldn’t afford rent.

Some seniors also fear living alone. One 96-year-old woman, a retired bookkeeper and hatmaker, lived in a two-bedroom apartment in Harlem for 14 years, according to an account emailed by the home-sharing program, which said the woman did not want to be identified.

When her daughter died, she became anxious and had asthma attacks at night.

In February, she was matched with a 45-year-old woman who wanted to live in a quieter, less-crowded apartment. Now, the 96-year-old woman receives $170 a month in payments toward household expenses and also has a sense of security, according to the group’s account.

“We save souls. It’s very rewarding,” Ms. Hoffman said.