Nonprofit group negotiating to stay at Bluffton House, help at-risk families

bheffernan@islandpacket.comAugust 16, 2013 

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In this file photo, Stacy Grey, a summer teacher at the Neighborhood Outreach Connection works with Mia Rodriguez Valerio, 5, and David Sandoval, 6, at Bluffton House.

SARAH WELLIVER — Sarah Welliver Buy Photo

A nonprofit group that provides after-school help and other services to low-income families from two units at Bluffton House Apartments said in a letter Thursday it won't leave until its lease expires in November.

Neighborhood Outreach Connection officials were told in May they would have to leave one of the apartments at the end of August and the second by the end of November.

Aspen Square Management, which purchased the complex in December, said it could no longer afford to provide the apartments rent-free.

In his letter to the owners, Connection founder Narendra Sharma said the group has "exhausted other options for space without finding a satisfactory solution" and will not vacate either apartment until its lease is up.

Sharma said the group is willing to rent one of the units for $1,000 a month if it can use a second one nearby without charge. He cited "the significant benefit that NOC brings to the Bluffton House community and the owners of the property."

He said the rent could be covered by grants and donations the group has received from the Community Foundation of the Lowcountry, the Coastal Community Foundation of S.C., individuals and its board of directors.

Gwendolyn Marrero, assistant manager at Bluffton House, said Friday that corporate officials have instructed her not to respond to questions about the nonprofit group.

Attempts Friday to reach Aspen Square Management officials were unsuccessful. The company has a western Massachusetts address and area code.

EARLIER OFFER REJECTED

S.C. State Housing Finance and Development Authority rules do not allow those who operate low-income housing units such as Bluffton House Apartments to accept rent from nonprofit groups.

The group has been occupying the units rent-free because the authority deems it a "supportive-services unit."

Sharma suggested that the Neighborhood Outreach Connection move into one of the 13 apartments at Bluffton House that are not set aside for low-income residents.

In a letter dated Aug. 7, Christey Simkins, district manager of Aspen Square, offered to allow the group to rent as many as two of those apartments for $1,000 a month each. The nonprofit group would also have to pay up to $500 per apartment for moving costs and pay to refurbish the new units, Simkins' letter said. Neighborhood Outreach Connection had two days to respond, the letter said.

"While the owners certainly appreciate the value of your work and charity, they are unable to extend the $12,000 contribution that you have asked for due to the financial needs of the property and company," the letter said.

Sharma turned down the offer in a letter dated that same day.

He said the moving and refurbishing fees were a "proposal ... so far outside standard rental practice that NOC really cannot take it seriously."

He said the stability and community the nonprofit provides is "a very clear financial and economic gain" for the owners that is worth more than the $12,000 they would be lose annually. That loss could be reduced further by counting it as a tax write-off, Sharma said.

COMPROMISE SOUGHT

The center opened in Bluffton three years ago. It has a similar center at The Oaks on Hilton Head.

The group's anti-poverty program brings support directly into the low-income neighborhood and focuses on education, health and developing business skills.

In three years, the group has provided more than 500 health screenings for hypertension, diabetes, breast cancer, prostate cancer and HIV at the Bluffton center, Sharma said. It also offers after-school and summer-school programs for at-risk youth; workshops on dental hygiene, nutrition, banking and entrepreneurial skills; and English training for adults.

Sharma said the group is collecting signatures from residents who want Neighborhood Outreach Connection to stay. By Friday, the group had signatures from about 130 residents of the 280 apartments in the complex, he said.

Sharma said he is "hopeful" a compromise will be reached.

Follow reporter Brian Heffernan at twitter.com/IPBG_Brian.

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