Human Services

African Services Committee

Keeping up with the need, and the market

African Services Committee knows how to set its immigrant and refugee clients on a path to success. When people arrive in New York City from Africa and the Caribbean they can turn to African Services for affordable or no-cost healthcare, legal representation, housing, employment assistance, and social connections. To deliver this full suite of services, African Services had to face one of the toughest challenges in New York City: real estate.

Co-Executive Director Kim Nichols has been with African Services for 27 years. She said that in the 1990s, demand for African Services' programs started to grow, and by the end of the decade, its space could no longer accommodate client need.  

“We were located in the Murray Hill area, which is not where our client base was,” Nichols said. “Plus, the need for more health, legal, and housing services – we couldn’t fit that in our space.” 

In 2000, African Services renovated and moved to a new, rented 5,200-square-foot raw factory space in Harlem, an ideal location for their clients. In 2003, to make room for more programs, African Services leased and renovated 3,600 square feet on another floor of the same building. In 2007, African Services gave up that space when another floor opened in the building that was connected to the original space, which gave the organization 10,400 square feet of space over two connected floors. Nonprofit Finance Fund (NFF) provided loans for all three moves and renovations.  

But the bliss of an ideal space didn’t last long. Gentrification and rising rents in the area made it difficult for African Services to continue there. Nichols began to look for a new building, this time in the Bronx, a more affordable area and still somewhat convenient for clients. The search process was a considerable drain on the organization's time and resources, but Nichols looks back in stride at the uncertainty.  

 “It seemed like I was always up in the Bronx. I practically lived there,” she said with a laugh.  

Having been at this so long, she’s used to the setbacks nonprofits face – and finding a way forward. She managed to negotiate a 7-year lease extension for African Services' existing and much-loved Harlem space at $30 per square foot – a manageable price, but a much bigger burden than the $4 per square foot African Services paid in 2000. 

She’s not sure what will happen when it runs out in 2024, but she knows something will work out. The clients African Services serves motivate her to keep finding solution after solution.   

She described two clients who first came to African Services extremely ill. Through testing African Services offered, both were diagnosed with HIV and one also with tuberculosis. Both recovered through medical care, nutritional counseling, and support groups and went on to learn English and pursue education while working.  

“We see clients gain their strength and confidence and become full members of society,” Nichols said. “They want to do great things, and we know they will. They find their way, and so do we.” 

But with new space and programs came the need for new funding and strategic planning. Through NFF’s Community Resilience Fund, African Services was able to review all of their programs to determine which presented the best opportunity for expansion to meet need and provide sustainable revenue. With the help of NFF’s Change Capital grant, African Services moved ahead with opening a new legal clinic, Immigrant Community Law Center (ICLC), which offers low-cost legal services for all immigration issues. 

“We worked for a year on a fiscal analysis with NFF’s technical modeling before we decided the legal clinic was the best option to pursue,” Nichols said. “NFF helped us model out how many cases we’d need in order to cover our cost and generate additional money years in the future.” 

Though the clinic has served over 200 clients since opening in 2015, the 2016 election threw a wrench in fiscal projections African Services made.  

“We’ve had more inquiries than ever,” said Nichols. “But the administration’s changes in immigration rules mean there’s less we can do for the clients, so we can’t actually take as many cases.”  

While the legal clinic struggled, rising rents in Harlem meant that once again, African Services had to look for new space, coming close to moving to the Bronx.  

With less than four years left on the lease, uncertainly is just around the corner. Nichols is optimistic a possible new administration could mean immigration laws that allow African Services to work with more clients, and an end to African Services' participation in costly lawsuits challenging the current administration’s regulations. Whatever happens with their space or the legal clinic, Nichols knows African Services will navigate with the quick thinking and flexibility that has allowed them to weather so many challenges before. For Nichols, it’s the clients that make this imperative.  

This story was written as part of NFF's 40th anniversary celebration.

[Lead photo by Eirik Omlie]

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