Several building units of the New Settlement Apartments shine in the sunlight as they create approximately 1,022 affordable homes for more than 3,500 people, 30 percent of whom are formerly homeless.
BRONX—Change in any neglected community often comes first and foremost through affordable housing, but it is the kind of affordable housing that matters, especially to the low-income residents of the Highbridge—the most neglected community in New York City.
Highbridge has the city’s highest mortality rates, the lowest school ratings, and the most drug and health problems, yet its location on the banks of the Harlem River and tenure of Highbridge Park has made it an enticing real estate investment for low-income housing developers. In the last ten years a surge of new apartment complexes has caused a long over due resurgence of interest in the area. While the Highbridge area has benefitted from these recent housing initiatives, the question of whether or not it completely forces out the residents of the predominantly Latino and Black community that are deeply rooted there is impending.
“In order to ensure that a multiplicity of income levels and diversity of population remains, affordable housing must be regulated,” said Carol Lamberg former Executive Director of the Settlement Housing Fund, speaking of the need to set aside some of this new housing stock for current residents.
The correlation between low-income housing and community improvement long has been accredited to the transformation of many neighborhoods such as East Harlem, Williamsburg, Bushwick, and Greenpoint. Gentrification, however, it can be a double-edged sword that does not always have the original occupants of an area in mind. Some fear that if low income housing is opened to all applicants and no housing is set aside for families already residing in the area, they will be ousted to people seeking a more affordable place to live such as artists.
Non-profit housing groups, such as the Settlement Housing Fund, have anticipated this predicament since their conception in 1969. By instilling parameters on gentrification development plans since its inception, the Settlement Housing Fund has molded the type of inevitable change arriving in the southwest Bronx. A portion of housing is set aside for struggling members of the community. Due to their efforts, the unveiling aspiration of a revitalized Highbridge neighborhood does not only include new apartment buildings by the river and cleaner streets, but the sustainment of the original community.
“We do recertification for low-middle income parents, where your child can be recertified into the program for a second consecutive year. This is a free program. We have been here for more than 20 years. The waiting list is really long because more people are moving to this area and many children are staying on for that second year,” said Brenda Hernandez is Family Councilor at the Highbridge Advisory Council, an organization that strives to be deeply integrated in the community by offering quality services for families.
The Settlement Housing Fund has developed over 57 projects and is currently in possession of thirty-one housing complexes. Although governmental systems —namely the New York City’s Department of Homeless Services, Housing Authority, and Housing Development Corporation — work closely with groups like the Settlement Housing Fund to create living spaces that are maintained and accurately financed, it is the input the Settlement Housing Fund receives on a grass roots level that makes a difference. Educational foundations, housing and community development societies, local businesses, youth development and social service agencies’ voices are heard.
“We are seeing much more progression. People are getting really involved in the programs we offer,” said Stephanie Aguirre, Assistant Coordinator at the New Settlement Community Center.
The Settlement Housing Fund’s recent development — the New Settlement Apartments and Community Center in 2012 –is a prime example of how low income designs directly addresses the struggling community by not only providing homes, but by offering inexpensive access to essential community spaces: a rooftop garden, pool, auditorium, three new schools, special education classrooms, and after class programs.
“The Center grew out of the fact that that we have been rooted here for years,” said DoJack Doyle (no relation to the reporter, Director of the Settlement Apartments. “District 9 has been a struggling district for a long time.”
While affordable accommodation is established and more is underway, the Highbridge community is still in need of more plans; many housing projects, such as the Settlement Apartments, receive too many applicants than they have room for. According to a Community Health Profile by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the percent of residents living below the poverty level in Highbridge is higher than in the Bronx and New York City overall.
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s New Housing Marketplace Plan of creating over 175,000 units in Inclusionary Zoning areas was a larger crusade to attack this issue by 2015. Under the Inclusionary Zoning program, all affordable residential units created must remain permanently affordable. In the Bronx $7.6 billion was invested in 49,426 affordable units from 2009 throughout 2014. New life is beginning to bloom in the south Bronx as crime has lowered, schools improved, supporting the community overall. Highbridge, still the most struggling neighborhood in the Bronx, next to Morrisania, is on the brink of witnessing these small signs of change.
Low-income housing is successful for families and individuals only if rent stabilizes. To promote long-term affordability, successful low-income housing management charge no more than thirty percent of a tenant’s income. “Even if you make more or get a promotion, we do not raise the rent, with hopes that you can stay here and build that mixed income community. We want to keep it in the community; everyone here is in the same boat and can learn from each other—that’s our goal,” said Alexandra Medina, Head Coordinator at the New Settlement Community Center. Medina strives to strengthen the impact of grassroots organizations in New York City’s low-income and other excluded communities.
Through new and well-managed low-income housing, Highbridge has become a safer environment. More residents are engaging in their neighborhood and spending more time outside.
“I’ve been here for 14 years. I used to go home straight from work to home and mind my own business,” said Highbridge resident and Highbridge Community Development Corporation housing application manager, Sonia Montalvo. “Now, I haven’t had a problem.” The Highbridge Community Development Corporation is committed to working with residents, businesses, and religious organizations throughout the borough through affordable, well designed, secure, and professionally managed housing.