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Nassau nears completion of affordable housing for veterans

U.S. Army veterans and neighbors, Alana Downey, right,

U.S. Army veterans and neighbors, Alana Downey, right, and Deborah Custis, pose for a portrait outside Custis' townhome at 115 Henry Street in Hempstead Wednesday, May 18, 2016. The site consists of 5 renovated townhomes for veterans as well as one group house currently under construction. Credit: Barry Sloan

Former Army Pfc. Alana Downey knows how hard it can be for a young veteran to find affordable housing on Long Island.

So she is thankful that Nassau County has used $1.3 million in federal housing money to provide five nearly-new Hempstead town houses for formerly homeless veterans.

“It was nerve-racking,” Downey, 30, a mother of two children, said of her own search for low-cost housing on high-cost Long Island. “Especially when you have kids.”

County Executive Edward Mangano announced Wednesday that renovations are nearing completion on a set of six veterans homes on Henry Street east of Hempstead’s government center.

“We want to make sure our veterans don’t go homeless,” said Mangano, who said the county has already added 60 units of veterans housing on the grounds of the former Mitchell Field in East Garden City. “And the way to do that is to provide more housing.”

Five of the renovated homes are two-bedroom attached units for individual families. A sixth building, which stands across a courtyard parking lot from the others, will house five single veterans who once were homeless themselves.

Downey moved into one of the already completed units last September, after mostly struggling to find permanent housing since she left the military in 2012 and had an arrangement with her mother in Lynbrook fall through two years later.

The high cost of housing on Long Island makes it hard for returning veterans — many of whom earned less than $25,000 per year while in uniform and who often struggle to find good paying jobs — to live here.

The salary for a private first class who serves a full four-year enlistment can be as little as $24,984 per year, according to the Pentagon’s Defense Finance and Accounting Service. Even after more than five years in uniform, an Army corporal can still be earning less than $30,000 per year.

That means military personnel returning to Long Island often have little saved for rents and security deposits that soar above $1,500 per month for a two-bedroom home even in modestly priced communities in Suffolk.

Downey, who served eight years as a military police officer before her 2012 discharge, said neither she nor her husband have found work that pays enough to afford Long Island rents.

She has worked a number of low-wage jobs, including an $11-per-hour stint as a manager at a Taco Bell. Her husband is hampered by a back injury, and for now stays home caring for the couple’s children.

But with two-bedroom apartments in Hempstead starting at $2,000 per month, Downey said her family had no choice but to accept temporary arrangements in homeless shelters and subsidized motel rooms for more than half a year until she was able to move into her home last May.

The federal government has sought to counter veteran homelessness on Long Island by providing 400 so-called HUD-VASH rental vouchers. Renters typically pay 30 percent of their monthly gross income for rent and utilities.

But demand is so high that there is a waiting list for these veterans rental vouchers, said Greg Curran, director of anti-homeless programs at the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Northport.

And many landlords are reluctant to participate with that veterans homelessness program, often preferring tenants with ready cash and no need to comply with required federal home inspections, Curran said.

“Landlords are looking for higher rents than what our vouchers pay, which is disappointing,” Curran said.

“Our experience is that it is getting harder and harder, given the existing market,” Curran said. “Landlords are increasingly opting to go in a different direction than to work with us.”

The renovated homes benefitted from a collaboration between federal and private agencies.

United Veterans Beacon House, a veterans service nonprofit, contributed $200,000 toward electrical, plumbing and siding work. Home Depot donated flooring, kitchen appliances and other materials. The United Way of Long Island donated architectural services, insulation, a gas boiler and windows.

Downey’s next-door neighbor, Deborah Custis, said her newly renovated home has been a godsend.

A Hempstead native who joined the military in 1986 when money for college ran out, Custis fell in and out of homelessness after completing her military service in 1989.

Now, Custis said, she appreciates having a veteran-friendly place to raise her daughter.

“I felt lost before, because I didn’t fit in with normal people,” Downey said. “Because all I knew was military life.”

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