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Veterans’ Housing Project in Bernards Township Opens with First Occupant

The first resident has moved into a newly completed rental housing complex at the Lyons Veterans Administration (VA) Medical Center off Valley Road.

Known as “Valley Brook Village,” the three-building complex will provide 62 units of permanent housing for homeless veterans, many of whom work in an on-campus job training and transitional housing program.

Bill Ehrie, a Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam War, became the first occupant when he moved in on Friday, Sept. 20. More veterans ranging in age from their 20s to 60s are expected join him this month.

All the units have been rented out, with another 20 veterans on a waiting list, according to Julia Ahmet, vice president of development for Community Hope, a Parsippany-based non-profit group that will run it.

The units are open to any honorably discharged veteran who has experienced homelessness and is in need of housing, Ahmet said. She said referrals will be provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs as well as community shelters and social service agencies.

“Valley Brook Village is truly a place to call home,” she said.

Since 2004, the Lyons VA has created 95 beds for homeless veterans under the management of Community Hope. The veterans receive job training at an on-campus café, greenhouse and golf course while housed for up to two years in a former hospital building.

In May 2009, Community Hope and a developer, Peabody Properties Inc. of Braintree, Mass., teamed up to propose a permanent housing complex. The plans initially called for 90 units on 16 acres in the southwest corner of the 297-acre Lyons VA campus, near the township’s Pleasant Valley Park.

But federal and state funding proved tougher to come by as the economy slumped, and in early 2011 the project was reduced to 62 units. That slashed the projected cost from $22.9 million to $15.5 million.

A coalition developed that included Community Hope, Peabody Properties, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Windover Construction of Manchester, Mass., and The Architectural Team of Chelsea, Mass.

The VA leased the land at virtually no cost; the partners secured state and federal grants and private tax credits; and MetLife provided $8.4 million in equity capital, said Ahmet.

In addition, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development and the VA Supportive Housing program (HUD-VASH) agreed to provide rental housing vouchers – the first time it had done so for a specific project, Ahmet said.

As a result, she noted, rent for the units will be capped at 30 percent of a tenant’s income.

Construction began in August 2012. Ahmet said that as of last week, the builder was “just tweaking some final things but for the most part, construction has been completed.”

The housing includes mostly one-bedroom units of 600 square feet, and three, two-bedroom units of 950 square feet. The main building includes a community room, a computer laboratory and offices for case managers.

“It’s been a great public-private partnership – a lot of people have been involved,” said J. Michael Armstrong, Community Hope’s chief executive officer. “I think it’s a win-win for everyone, and mostly importantly the veterans who served us very well.

“It’s a great example of what happens when public and private entities work together,” he added.

Armstrong said he foresees “a nice ribbon-cutting ceremony” at a future date with local and federal officials.

Two months after construction started, VA officials scheduled a formal ground-breaking ceremony for Tuesday afternoon, Oct. 30, 2012. U.S. Reps. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-11, and Leonard Lance, R-7, agreed to attend, and Gov. Chris Christie was also invited.

But officials announced on Friday, Oct. 26, that the ceremony was cancelled due to forecasts for Hurricane Sandy, which would strike the area on Monday night, Oct. 29.

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