"These are beautiful, contemporary apartments -- I sound like an ad!" says Maria Cuomo Cole, strolling through a new East New York development for 52 formerly homeless families built by help, the nonprofit group founded by her brother Andrew. She actually seems more like Jackie Kennedy leading her televised tour of the White House: "The rooms are comfortable, even spacious, really, with data lines for Internet access." Then there are the floors. Cole first saw them seven years ago, when she delivered her third baby at NYU Hospital. "I asked the nurses about it, and they said it was vinyl -- but it looked like wood. At first our architects pooh-poohed it, but they've grown to love it."
The fifties had Levittown. Now we have what could be called Cuomo City, a showcase development for 400 low-income and formerly homeless people in the heart of Brooklyn. In 1992, not long before the son of a governor went to work for a president, young Cuomo took a swath of city-owned land on Snediker Avenue in East New York in Brooklyn and built a city-block-size compound of prefab housing for the homeless. At the time, Snediker Avenue was a war zone, and Cuomo's development seemed like a fortress, complete with security cameras. But the walls protected a grand, grassy courtyard that was prettier and better maintained than most city parks.
Since 1993, the 75th Precinct in East New York has had a 70 percent drop in homicides. And this week, a few days before Denise Rich throws Cuomo a welcome-home fund-raiser, his $20 million project is sprouting part of a $25 million addition in a rather more optimistic style: 52 new apartments with decidedly upscale amenities, not to speak of an open entryway. "The tenants certainly don't want to have the stigma of living in a homeless shelter," says Cole, who took over help when Cuomo departed.
The expansion was helped along by a friendly federal housing secretary. The project was paid for by selling a mix of federal and city tax credits, but at hud, Cuomo took his help housing model of on-site social services, including counseling and job training, and bottled it, creating programming funding for help and similar groups. "Thank goodness we had Andrew," Cole says. "He was able to earmark thousands of dollars to New York homeless and social-service providers for job training, job placement, and after-care."
With Cuomo openly flirting with a run for governor, 400 people in East New York doesn't seem like major constituency-building. Still, the families making less than $22,480 a year and paying no more than $385 a month know who to thank for their laundry room and on-site child-care. And Cuomo City's only getting bigger. The next phase calls for an 8,000-square-foot retail corridor not unlike a small-town Main Street, with a grocery, a restaurant, and, perhaps, a video store. "I'm reaching out to Blockbuster," Cole says.