Affordable Housing With a Sense of Community

December 1, 2010

For almost 30 years, Our Lady of Good Counsel at 800 Madison Street has been providing affordable, single-occupant residences for formerly homeless people. Their mission is to help people get back on their feet and reintegrate into the community, said Trisha Dawson, assistant director for Progress of People (POP) Management.

POP Management is the not-for-profit housing wing of Catholic Charities, and Our Lady of Good Counsel is one of the three buildings in Brooklyn that POP oversees.

POP Management buys old church property that is not in use, and converts them into something still in the mission of the community, said Ms. Dawson. Their majestic church buildings are an architectural marvel. The grounds outside are meticulous, quiet and well kept, offering little evidence it houses tenants, much less, any clue of their income status.

The Our Lady of Good Counsel building is no exception. It was built in 1867 as two schools– one for boys and one for girls—and at the time, was run by a convent of nuns. When POP Management took over in 1982, it offered very basic amenities to 88 low-income tenants. In 2000, the agency gutted both buildings and re-did the studios, adding a private bathroom and a private kitchen and a community space in the front.

Today, there are 76 single-occupant studios in the building. Tenants are admitted from shelters, or occasionally they come in from the street expressing their need for housing.

Since many of the residents do not have family nearby, the community at Our Lady acts as a kind of family. Warmth radiates throughout the halls of the residence, where staff and occupants greet each other or gather for various community-building events, such as a Thanksgiving lunch, a women’s discussion group, gardening or Friday night Wii sessions. The staff also provides local history lessons for the tenants, giving them a sense of the building’s origins as a Josephite school.

“The tenants are adults. We ask everyone to be responsible for themselves,” said Dawson. However, she added, the goal of the staff is to help them stay housed.

In order to be eligible to join a Catholic Charities residence, applicants must provide proof of stable income. The studios rent for $779, and each tenant is expected to pay an amount equal to 30 percent of his or her income. The remainder is covered by funds from HPD Section 8 subsidies, the Department of Homeless Services, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and FEMA. The cost of rent includes basic utilities; Internet, cable, and telephone are additional and optional. New tenants are provided with basic furniture, and there are laundry facilities in the building.

One resident named Angel volunteered to show off his studio. He had been living in his immaculately clean, carefully decorated studio for one year. When Dawson asked him what he liked most about his apartment, he grinned and responded, “It’s mine!”

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