An upper west side SRO Gets a Makeover

| 31 May 2016 | 12:52

With its marble entryway, furnished rooms and well-appointed halls, one wouldn’t guess that Capitol Hall is a supportive housing unit.

The residential building, at 166 West 87th St., and its residents are benefiting from a top-to-bottom, $16.7 million renovation. The makeover, administered by Goddard Riverside Community Center, which owns and manages Capitol Hall, transformed the building into a modern, 10-story complex of 202 single-occupancy rooms for men and women vulnerable to homelessness.

Nathaniel Davis, a tenant, was a chef at the Holy Name Church until he was unable to work following the amputation of one of his legs. No longer able to afford rent at his former apartment, Davis looked to alternative housing and eventually found Capitol Hall.

“This place has been a godsend,” he said recently.

Davis walks on a prosthetic leg and uses a cane to get around, and appears always cheerful. He still cooks, making meals for the other residents and even, on occasion, giving tips to the building’s chef.

“We’ll text each other,” Davis said, “I help him with the little things. After 30 years of cooking I know the little tricks.”

The renovations include a kitchenette and private bathroom in every room and a new community space, as well as a common kitchen and laundry room, which Goddard Riverside’s executive director, Stephen Russo, said creates a much more livable space.

“We did a major, ceiling-to-basement gut renovation of the entire building,” Russo said. “It was an old building, there were shared bathrooms, the rooms were not in good shape, we sort of would repair the building and keep it together with chewing gum.”

Capitol Hall was one of the first supportive housing units in the city, funded by Goddard Riverside, the Settlement Housing Fund and the West 87th Street Block Association, in the late 1970s. Goddard Riverside took full control in the 1980s.

Besides offering permanent low-rent apartments, made possible by the federally funded Section-8 moderate rehabilitation program, Capitol Hall and Goddard Riverside want to keep homeless off the streets by offering supportive services to tenants who need them.

“The real work that has to be done is with the residents,” Russo said. “It’s one thing to just renovate the building, but it was just as important to develop and fund a real social-service team here, so that the residents can live independently and work in the community.”

Russo said tenants are assigned case workers who help get secure food stamps and social security disability payments, among other benefits. Building administrators also offer group activities, such as a gardening club and a photography club, which Russo said creates a feeling of community.

Capitol Hall’s social service program director, Mario Arias, said that some of the funding went toward an on-site medical team, which has been of great value since many residents previously lacked access to health care for, in some cases, prolonged periods. Other services include nutrition clinics and group meals. Arias is also in charge of setting up the events like Netflix group, where a movie is shown with snacks served and a current events group.

“We have to get creative sometimes,” Arias said. “Some of our tenants isolate themselves, but we’re trying to give them a sense of community and out of isolation so they can integrate back into the community.”

For Davis and roughly 200 other tenants, the building is making the intended impact.

“This building is very much of a model for what the city and state is trying to do to address homelessness,” Russo said. “We need to develop more of this kind of permanent supportive housing, because this is the answer to homelessness.”