Tuesday, October 6, 2009 6:12 PM EDT

California man in Olean to help poorest people

Terrell James recently visited Olean to review proposed renovations at the former Mountain Clinic on East State Street, which he hopes to turn into residential units for low-income individuals. Photo by Kate Day Sager/Olean Times Herald




OLEAN - A number of years ago, Terrell James decided to use his successful real-estate business in Sacramento, Calif., to provide affordable, clean and safe housing to low-income individuals.

In the past few years, Mr. James has focused his attention on the housing needs of low-income individuals in the Olean area with plans of converting the former Mountain Clinic on East State Street into single-occupancy housing units they can call home. During a recent visit to Olean, Mr. James talked about his plans for the four-story brick building at 202 E. State St., and why he decided to take on the project.

A native of Sacramento, the California developer said Olean appeared on his radar screen years ago when he met Tony Rogozinski, a former resident of Olean.

“Tony and I had coached different Little League teams in Sacramento and he lived down the street from me,” Mr. James said.

He said he didn’t think much more of the connection to Olean until years later, after helping low-income people in his community find decent housing.

“In Sacramento, we provide co-housing for extremely low-income seniors who are on Social Security” or other forms of regular income, Mr. James said.



He said most seniors who are looking for a single-occupancy room or apartment are doing so because they have had some type of difficulty in life.

“It’s kind of a step above homelessness,” he said. “We provide everything but their clothes.”

Mr. James said most social-service agencies refer to the dwellings he provides for people as transitional housing, but he doesn’t look at them that way.

“We realize that these individuals are on some type of minimal income that is not going to change. Their income is not suddenly going to quadruple so they can rush out to buy a $200,000 home and new car,” he said. Because of this, his properties for those with low income have no vacancies and the occupants are long-term.

Mr. James said that after selling off some of his properties in Sacramento when the real-estate market was peaking in 2005, he decided to put his additional funds into a similar low-income housing project in the northeast. An Internet search led him to Olean, with which he was familiar through his friend.

“Olean sort of won” during his search of communities across the country, he said. With that in mind, he traveled to the area and bought several properties as well as the Mountain Clinic building in 2006. Mr. James’ additional properties in the neighborhood currently house 20 to 30 people.

The Mountain Clinic building, which is considered a historic structure in the community, has many of its former hospital fixtures, including medical equipment. It also is adjoined to a brick building that has housed Southern Tier Legal Services for the past 18 years. Mr. James said his association with Jeff Reed, managing attorney of Southern Tier Legal Services and a board member with Cattaraugus Community Action, helped him come in contact with officials with the latter agency.

“Jeff was instrumental in opening up a lot of doors in the community once I had gained his trust,” Mr. James said.

When contacted, Mr. Reed said Mr. James always came through with his promises regarding renovation work on the legal-services building.

“When he (Mr. James) became the landlord, we gave him a wish list and one was to fix the roof,” Mr. Reed said “Within a year, we had a new roof and that made a huge difference.”

Mr. James also renovated the building to provide a suite of offices, put in new carpet and installed an employee break room.

Mr. Reed said an employee of Mr. James, Robert Pundt, moved from California to Olean and makes sure all the work on the legal-services building and other properties is taken care of.

“Robert is the muscle behind all the work that is done” on Mr. James’ buildings, Mr. Reed said.

Mr. James said he also has been helped by Ed Jennings, code-enforcement officer for the city, who helped him present proposals for the building at past Olean City Planning Board meetings.

He said Cattaraugus Community Action, its director Tina Zerbian, and Jodi Fuller, director of the agency’s homeless shelters, began researching resources available to help with the cost of renovating the huge structure into 18 single apartments and administrative offices. Also included with the plans would be space for a small medical clinic, that would be headed up by Dr. Mike Kalsman. A museum to house to the building’s medical artifacts also is included in the plans. Mr. James said that renovating the building would cost several million dollars, therefore help is needed.

Ms. Zerbian said she is hopeful the agency will help secure funding for the project, as it has been successful in the past in “bringing in homeless-housing-assistance dollars to the county” in the past.

“We have four facilities operated by the Temporary and Disability Assistance Program in New York state,” she said. “And I believe he (Mr. James) is sincere in helping people who are less fortunate and making sure they have access to good, affordable housing.

“He wants to restore a facility that has special meaning in the city of Olean, so it seems like a perfect marriage,” Ms. Zerbian said of the historic structure.

She said the grant application process has passed the first round of review and the site visit by state officials went well. Officials with the state will meet again in November for further review of the funding request.

Ms. Fuller added, “There is a severe shortage of safe, affordable housing in our county, and if successfully funded, the Mountain Clinic Project will help address this problem.”

Dr. Kalsman, who practices family medicine at the Seneca Nation of Health Department and is on the board of Cattaraugus Community Action, said he also provides medical care to clients at the Genesis House homeless shelter. He said a small medical clinic at the former Mountain Clinic building would be an ideal setting for the needy.

“I literally see these people in their respective living facilities (Genesis House) with nothing more than a stethoscope and blood-pressure cuff,” Dr. Kalsman said. “And I literally use the office at these facilities to do any examinations.”

Dr. Kalsman said Mr. James liked his idea for a clinic so much that he has offered to install the facility in the Mountain Clinic building at his own cost.