By SCOTT THOMPSON
843-815-0800, Ext. 13 [email protected]
A Bluffton nonprofit organization’s push to keep its headquarters at a local apartment complex has apparently paid off, but the group will likely have to downsize soon, according to its chairman.
Neighborhood Outreach Connection (NOC) offers after-school assistance and other resources to low-income families. It has been lobbying to remain at Bluffton House Apartments since it was ordered in May by the complex’s Massachusetts-based property manager to vacate the two units it has occupied by Nov. 30.
NOC chairman and founder Narendra Sharma said Thursday corporate officials at Aspen Square Management, which purchased the property this year, have allowed the group to keep its two apartments through the end of the semester. But it must move out of them once renovations of another building are completed and it can only rent one unit in that renovated building, based on availability.
We’re happy that it looks like we’ll be able to remain at Bluffton House, and it worked out well for us that we’re able to finish the current semester in our two units,” Sharma said. “But by having to downsize, a lot of the kids we serve now will be falling through the cracks.”
Bluffton House and Aspen Square corporate officials did not return repeated calls for comment.
The situation gained major attention Oct. 30 when group leaders and about 100 students, parents, volunteers and other supporters delivered hand-written letters and a petition to the complex’s management office addressed to Aspen Square founder and president Harold Grinspoon, asking that the group be allowed to stay at Bluffton House.
Sharma considered the petition, which was signed by 223 Bluffton House residents, and the attention it received, to be a game changer in his group’s negotiations with Aspen Square.
I think the focus of the media, the various stakeholders and other community groups on this issue and the importance of community development really played a big part in us being allowed to stay,” he said. “Also, the tenacity of the NOC itself played a key role. We’ve been very steadfast in our opposition to having to leave entirely. This clearly shows when we have an issue that impacts the community, if we put our voices together, that can produce results.”
Sharma said NOC has helped more than 300 children improve their school performance in its 5 1/2 years of existence, but its long-term viability leans heavily on being able to remain at Bluffton House, where almost 90 percent of its beneficiaries live. Currently, he said, the after-school program can accommodate 60-70 students a semester between the two apartments, about 60 percent of those wanting to participate. If the group is occupies only one unit, that number will have to be cut in half.
It’s tough to have to select kids to be in the program and turn down so many others we could help,” Sharma said.
NOC will also likely have to pay $1,000 a month in rent for the apartment. The group does not currently pay rent for its two units because state law does not allow low-income housing providers to accept rent from nonprofit groups. Sharma said that costs Aspen Square $15,000 to $20,000 a year.
Sharma had offered to pay $1,000 a month for one of the group’s current units if it could use a nearby one without charge. He said the rent could be covered by grants and donations made by the group’s board of directors and other community organizations.
That is the rent they can get in the market,” Sharma said. “I hope we won’t have to pay that much, but if so, then we will. We have no other choice if we want to make sure more kids aren’t falling through the cracks. I would like to see the community contribute. A lot of support from the general public would do a lot of good and allow us to keep reaching more kids at a very valuable time.”
Sharma said NOC is evaluating other options and has had discussions with various community organizations, including the possibility of acquiring space for a learning center from nearby Lowcountry Presbyterian Church, but he is hopeful the group eventually will be able to remain in its full capacity at Bluffton House.
We will continue to try to convince (Aspen Square) to allow us to occupy two units,” Sharma said. “We hope they realize the economic and social benefits we can bring to the community.
They’ve shown the willingness to work with us before, and I’m optimistic we can continue to work something out.”