School district looks to sell Jefferson Center to affordable housing organization

By: Joshua Gordon | Woodward Talk | Published July 29, 2015

 The Ferndale School District has approved a purchasing agreement with Community Housing Network to sell the Jefferson Center, located in Oak Park, for $500,000 to develop roughly 60 affordable-housing apartments. The Ferndale School District closed the Jefferson Center as part of the restructuring plan approved earlier this year and will look to use funds from selling the property to improve other buildings or bolster the district’s fund equity.

The Ferndale School District has approved a purchasing agreement with Community Housing Network to sell the Jefferson Center, located in Oak Park, for $500,000 to develop roughly 60 affordable-housing apartments. The Ferndale School District closed the Jefferson Center as part of the restructuring plan approved earlier this year and will look to use funds from selling the property to improve other buildings or bolster the district’s fund equity.

Photos by Joshua Gordon

OAK PARK — In March, the Ferndale School District Board of Education made a decision to restructure the district over the next couple of years, a decision that included moving the adult and alternative education programs from the Jefferson Center and closing the building.

Now, the district is working with the city of Oak Park, where the Jefferson Center is located, and Community Housing Network, a Troy-based nonprofit organization that provides housing for those in need, to turn the Jefferson Center into a mixed-income development with 60 one- to four-bedroom apartments.

On the school district’s side, the Board of Education has approved a sale agreement for $500,000 with Community Housing Network, but plans are pending collaboration between the organization and the city of Oak Park.

“It is much better to have a reputable company in there than a vacant property,” Ferndale Superintendent Blake Prewitt said. “Many of my employees would fit the qualification and would look at it as a better option to be closer to work and live in the community where they work. Overall, the board is very much looking forward to this moving forward, and when it is all done, we believe it will be some beautiful housing and the whole community can benefit.”

Prewitt said that when the topic of restructuring came about, the plan was to have the Jefferson Center and its land be redeveloped for residential uses. A study by Plante Moran estimated that the property itself was worth $700,000, but it would cost between $300,000 and $400,000 for the district to tear down the building.

Plante Moran also reported to the district that it was highly unlikely that a developer would look at the property for single-family housing, as the developer would not be able to get a high enough return on its investment.

Prewitt said the district reached out to businesses and art incubators, but it did not get any interested parties because of the condition of the building and the cost to rehabilitate it.

“We worked with the city of Oak Park and engaged with the Community Housing Network, and both the development directors from Oak Park and Ferndale had high praise for the work they do,” Prewitt said. “The housing they put in and the way they manage it is an asset to the community. They want to engage the community and work to add to it.”

According to current plans, Community Housing Network would be making a $15.8 million investment with the project, with the largest portion being nearly $12 million in construction costs.

All of the units would remain affordable by having rent based on income, and 21 of the units would be set aside for supportive housing with project-based rental assistance. The development, which has been named Jefferson Oaks, would serve low- to moderate-income households and individuals.

Oak Park City Manager Erik Tungate said that Oak Park, Ferndale and several neighboring communities have an income demographic that would meet the criteria of the development, and if executed correctly, the project could be beneficial for the community.

Still, Tungate said measures need to be taken to protect the current residents near the development.

“If the project is done correctly, if it is maintained and managed correctly and gives due respect to neighboring residential areas, there is a strong possibility it could be a positive project,” he said. “We are making sure there are as many safeguards in place as possible to protect current residents.”

Community Housing Network has not gone through a site plan approval process yet with Oak Park, but representatives held a community meeting earlier this month to discuss the project. Tungate said concerns were raised about the effect that the development would have on the area, as well as possible strains on the Public Safety Department with more residents.

Ultimately, Tungate said he hopes Community Housing Network just listens to the city and the residents moving forward.

“I think there is always a lack of trust for the unknown,” he said. “We take any concerns very seriously, and there were concerns about taking away green space and diminishing housing values, so these are things we need to talk about.”

Community Housing Network Director of Resource Development and Communications C.J. Felton said that as far as green space goes, the organization has worked with the city and school district to relocate the community garden currently situated at the Jefferson Center, and there are plans in place to build two playscapes along with the housing units.

Felton added that there would be no fence or wall up around the development, so the green space would be readily available for use by any resident.

As far as what the development could mean for neighboring residents, including concerns about diminishing housing values, Felton said utilizing the property is a much better alternative than leaving it empty.

“People are rightly concerned about property values, because they made an investment into their homes, but we believe the alternative is not a good situation,” he said. “If the Ferndale School District can’t afford to maintain the building, then it gets boarded up and fenced up, and that is not good for the neighborhood. We do extremely high-quality construction and have very selective criteria for who is able to live there, and (we) feel that enhances property values.”

For the school district, selling the building would save the district upward of $200,000 a year in operational costs, ranging from general maintenance to utility bills to custodial staff.

“The money could go for the upkeep and improvement of other buildings. As we know, there are multiple roofs and boilers that need to be replaced, and there is no way the bond money could cover all of that in the next few years,” Prewitt said. “Or, some of the money could go into the fund equity to build that up, and that allows the district to be more financially stable.”