Reuniting To Build Better Housing
By Michael Skrebutenas ’86
’86, ’95 AR (left) and Christopher Betts ’84
outside Cornerstone Residence, formerly the Hotel Newburgh,
in Newburgh, N.Y. on October 29, 2004.
PHOTO: LUIS A. PEÑA
Nearly 20 years after becoming friends at Columbia, Chris Betts
’84 and I not only have ended up in the same profession of
community development but also work together on housing projects.
We recently completed a major phase of a joint venture on a housing
development for the homeless in Newburgh, N.Y., and we plan to collaborate
on many more projects.
Our interest in community and housing development probably started
in 1984 while living at River Hall on 114th Street between Broadway
and Riverside. River was the bottom of Columbia’s residential
barrel. I am convinced that I lived in the smallest room in the
system, facing an air shaft to boot. Chris’ room in River
was three times the size of mine. I’m not sure if I really
liked his company, or if I was claustrophobic and liked his room.
Despite this less than auspicious start, we’ve been great
friends since; we drank at Cannon’s, traveled together and
celebrated each other’s weddings.
Twenty years ago, New York City, and specifically the Upper West
Side, was a harsher, grittier place — not a Starbucks or a
sidewalk café to be found. Inner city urban disinvestment
had reached its height, and homelessness was a growing phenomenon.
I recall seeing my first homeless man hollering at the world on
the corner of 114th and Broadway. Chris was from upstate and I was
a smalltown kid, so this didn’t sit well with us. The disconnect
between our comfortable dorm rooms (even River!) at CC and this
poor soul on the corner was too challenging for us to forget.
After graduation, I earned a law degree from the University of
Connecticut and quickly became disenchanted with law practice. In
my short career in municipal law, I spent a lot of time protecting
areas of Connecticut from affordable housing development. The intent
of many of these communities seemed to be clear — they wanted
to block the poor and minorities from reaching their borders. I
went back to Columbia and received an urban planning degree from
the School of Architecture in 1995, with the vague notion that I
wanted to build affordable housing.
Meanwhile, Chris and his wife, Diane Wheatley ’83 Barnard,
moved to Philadelphia, where he joined Mayor Ed Rendell’s
administration. Chris was working to develop affordable housing
and revitalize neighborhoods with the Friends Rehabilitation Program,
a Philadelphia community development corporation. Fifteen years
ago, Philadelphia’s blighted neighborhoods were overwhelming
— miles upon miles of abandoned housing, factories and commercial
strips. Chris was making great progress working on a number of projects
in North and West Philadelphia, helping to turn his organization
into an important catalyst for neighborhood transformation. Beginning
in 1991, Chris immersed himself in urban affairs, working at a community
development corporation while earning a master’s degree from
Penn’s Fels Center of Government.
We found ourselves on parallel tracks as early as 1989; I had
begun working in New York City government — the Financial
Services Corporation (now Economic Development Corporation) —
and we both were active in city Democratic Party organizations.
When Chris finished his master’s and began working in community
development, an emerging field at the time, he took me with him.
We immediately saw the field’s appeal, because it merged politics,
law, finance, planning and architecture; community development is
the art of the possible. While Chris began working for Friends Rehabilitation
Program, I did similar work for The Community Builders in New Haven,
In 2000, Chris, his wife and their three boys moved from Philadelphia
to Albany, N.Y., and he accepted a position with a nonprofit housing
developer. In 2002, I started working at Common Ground, a developer
of permanent housing for the homeless headquartered in New York
City. When I was charged with the responsibility of financing and
building a project in Newburgh, N.Y., I decided to partner with
Chris, who was now with Community Preservation Corp., a New York
City-based nonprofit financing institution.
Our plan was to rehabilitate a 128-unit former hotel in Newburgh
into permanent, supportive housing for the homeless. Supportive
housing merges affordable housing with social services, to assist
residents who struggle with addiction, mental illness or unemployment.
The work, which began in 2002 and will be completed in 2006, includes
rebuilding storefront spaces in an attempt to bring life back to
downtown Newburgh. Unfortunately, Newburgh typifies many of the
challenges faced by older U.S. cities. Years of neglect and fundamental
shifts in regional economies have diminished the power of centered-place
The greatest gift I received from Columbia, besides friendship,
was an appreciation of urban form and a sense that urbanity was
worth fighting for. While in college, Chris and I shed enough of
our small-town ways to enjoy the pleasure of sushi, theatre and
museums; we picked up all the affects of New York living and take
them with us today. We do, however, cherish opportunities to escape
the pressures of our inner city work, usually on backpacking trips
or working together on the Upstate New York farm of Chris’s
father, George Betts ’57.
As an adjunct faculty member at the School of Architecture, Planning
and Preservation, I teach two courses, “Affordable Housing
Development” and “Real Estate Finance.” Chris
will teach “Managing Community Development” this spring
at the School of Urban Planning.
Michael Skrebutenas ’86, ’95 AR, director
of replication for Common Ground Community, lives in New Haven,
Conn., with his wife, Anne, and daughters, Lucy and Caroline.