Urban Design Challenges: Past and Present

14 Jan

It has been very interesting to follow the evolution of some of our city’s most storied communities. Neighborhoods like Bedford Stuyvesant, the South Bronx and Harlem. Growing up in the 80s, forced to tag along with my Mom who worked in neighborhood-based planning, I witnessed the severe blight in many of these areas, with entire blocks abandoned, burned out, and boarded up. – Fodder for nightly news programs admonishing the poor for the inevitable social and economic breakdown resulting from landlord abandonment and neglect, and divestment of federal dollars in cities in favor of infusion of resources in the suburbs. This occured via federal programs like FHA working in sync with real estate and brokerage firms. A system to secure wealth and prosperity for some. And well for others, I’ll let you fill in the blank.

Today these formerly “undesirable”, “unbankable”, “red-lined” neighborhoods are storied for their ever-rising property values, with plans for rezoning in these and other gentrifying areas around New York City.

Concerned about unheard voices in urban design, my colleague, Architect and Housing Policy PhD candidate, Anze Zadel and I launched a project to offer design support to low-resourced residents, whose businesses and homes are targeting for rezoning (largely “up-zoning” to attract developers).

This participatory action research and design project puts residents in the driver’s seat whereby they interrogate problems, develop research questions and design solutions and take leadership in implementation and evaluation of the project.

For me, this project is an exciting culmination of several years of advising, facilitating and teaching community-centered urban design approaches and the impact of design on housing quality, jobs, education, environmental conditions and other factors.

Historically the struggle has been to bring in capital through grants and federal subsidies to keep these communities afloat. Now the fight is to fend off an influx of aggressive capitalistic tactics aimed at displacing long-time residents.

Below is an article that the brilliant young writer and philosopher, Anthony Schiappa, and I worked on a few years ago for executive director, Donald Notice and his team at West Harlem Group Assistance, Inc., as they celebrated their 40th Anniversary.

The piece is a retrospective on the socio-economic factors and politics with which WHGA had to contend in re-designing severely blighted buildings and blocks throughout Harlem over the past few decades. Though very community-centered but not radically participatory (yet!) WHGA has pushed through many hurdles to secure a future for their constituents.

WHGA’s story is the is the story of over 3,000 such community-based organizations. More importantly this is about the impact of policy and design on millions of low- and moderate- income tenants and homeowners, small business, disabled persons, seniors, immigrants, the working poor and unemployed poor and many other vulnerable groups that comprise our cities. People for whom design can be remarkably uplifting or unimaginably oppressive.

Feedback welcome.

40th Year Anniversary – Retrospective on West Harlem Group Assistance, Inc. 

West Harlem Group Assistance, Inc., a Community Development Corporation (CDC), was founded 1971 by community activists concerned about the lack of decent affordable housing and social services in West Harlem and Hamilton Heights.

Established with a $50,000 grant from the Ford Foundation, WHGA grew from a staff of two with a modest tenant-organizing program to a multi-faceted agency with a portfolio of over 1,200 affordable housing units, two homeless shelters, two senior residences, five technology centers and a multi-service center. This unswerving determination to the people of Harlem has kept the organization strong and resilient in today’s tumultuous economic climate.

From its humble beginnings to its current prominence as a leading NY CDC, the 40-year history of WHGA coincides with three major periods of Harlem’s history: The Abandonment Era, The Revitalization Era and the present-day Second Renaissance Era.

1970- 1986: The Abandonment Era

The 1970s are widely considered one of Harlem’s most difficult periods. During this time, in many communities nationwide faced a formidable array of obstacles, such as the nascent energy crisis, a severe recession, and massive disinvestment in favor of suburban development, and Harlem, which has historically been especially vulnerable to such economic upheavals, was left severely blighted. The efficacy of contemporary neighborhood stabilization programs, provided for by federal War On Poverty legislation, were criticized for addressing only the effects and not the root causes of issues such as of massive unemployment and the constriction of capital, credit and insurance in communities of color. Furthermore, while in the 1960s efforts at the national level mandated prescriptions for change, many fell short of taking the crucial step of empowering stakeholders at the local level. At the local level, however, a stakeholder-driven poverty reduction model was emerging that would typify the Community Development Corporation – and would soon become the model for a fledgling WHGA.

CDCs were federally institutionalized through an amendment to the Economics Opportunity Act, a bipartisan effort of New York State senators Robert Kennedy and Jacob Javitz. This initiative entitled, the Special Impact Program, provided federal dollars to neighborhood-based economic development initiatives and to organizations whose boards of directors were comprised of residents, businesses and homeowners. Early CDCs like WHGA pioneered the development of kinds of financial tools, community-based programs, and organizational models that are today’s hallmarks the field.

In 1971, as the national Special Impact Program entered its fourth year, WHGA joined a handful of incorporated community-based organizations working to facilitate localized neighborhood-strengthening programs that focused on the core issues faced by Harlem residents, such as landlord abandonment and neglect, predatory lending and redlining, sparse and unfavorable offerings of health care, social services and education. Today over 4,000 such organizations exist nationwide.

A Triumphant First Decade

By its 10th anniversary in 1981, WHGA and its Harlem constituency had a great deal to celebrate with a galaxy of programs and strategic partnerships that had begun making meaningful positive change in critical areas.

WHGA’s first major housing initiative, launched in 1980 in partnership with the city’s Community Management Program and continued through the mid-1990s, rehabilitated 407-units across 22 blighted buildings had been abandoned by their landlords and deeded to HPD. The majority of the units in this project, over 300 in all, were transitioned from rentals to co-ops, allowing the existing tenants to purchase their units at a deep subsidy. WHGA’s partnership with the buildings’ residents and the city appeared in The New York Times, announcing the organization’s position as a true pioneer of urban revitalization models, cutting-edge in their approach to neighborhood driven housing and economic development. Today, such projects are so routine and commonplace that they are taken as a matter of course.

Also in its tenth year, WHGA’s the press heralded the organization’s next greatest achievement: the acquisition of Mannie L. Wilson Towers, the former site of Sydenham Hospital, which had been a scourge in the community for many years as an under-resourced city-owned facility. The relationship between the city and the community at this time was contentious as a use was sought for the site after its closure in 1980. But WGHA, in submitting the winning proposal for the hospital’s redevelopment, secured $9 million in federal financing through the Section 202 program that funds housing for seniors and the disabled. Engineer and architect William Ince developed the blueprint for the conversion of Sydenham to a 101-unit complex for low-income seniors. As at the groundbreaking, Mannie Wilson’s ribbon cutting in 1986 drew a great deal of attention as one of the first of its kind in the city. The project’s success was proof that community-based efforts in Harlem could affect change and cemented WHGA as a beacon of success in the CDC sector, a model for others to follow. Decades later, the refinancing of the Mannie L. Wilson Towers would once again land WHGA and its pioneering spirit in the spotlight, as the organization played a lead role in navigating a second wave of affordable housing policy reform at the turn of the Twenty-First Century.

This achievement would be repeated several years later with the Oberia Dempsey Center. Harlem residents viewed the center as an under-used, under-resourced city-owned facility, and a sharp population decline throughout the 1970s led to the closing of this former public school building, the former home of elementary school P.S. 68. However, the remaining population, unwilling or unable to relocate, would view the transformation of this building from a school to a multi-service as a godsend. In 1992 the Human Resources Agency designated WHGA as the manager the Oberia Dempsey Center, a hub for social and supportive services and educational programs. Like the Mannie L. Wilson Towers, an affordable housing project at the Dempsey Center would stand years later as a symbol of WHGA’s diligence and ingenuity in the wake of economic and political uncertainty.

The Tax Reform Law, through the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program of 1986, incentivized private investment in affordable housing development. The timing of this legislation and subsequent influx of capital marked Harlem’s transition into the Revitalization Era. Financial intermediaries such as LISC were just beginning to serve as syndicators of private equity and provide technical assistance to community-based groups that ventured to navigate the complexities of tax credit underwriting. Undeterred by this seemingly daunting process and re-written rules, WHGA was awarded a scattered site of five city-owned buildings along Amsterdam Avenue. Successful completion of this project, along with, crucially, strong community support, led to a development pipeline of 664 affordable housing units, whose construction would leverage Low Income Housing Tax Credits through out the 1990s.

WHGA’s participation in comprehensive revitalization resulted in the rebuilding of entire neighborhood blocks throughout West and Central Harlem. By the end of the Revitalization Era the area’s population was steadily increasing with a socio-economically diverse influx of households seeking to put down roots in a reinvented Harlem.

The success of neighborhood revitalization, however, and subsequent rise in real estate values, also attracted unscrupulous lenders seeking to capitalize on the newly appreciating privately-owned property. Where redlining -as well as scarce credit and insurance- had once bankrupted the community in the 1970s and 1980s, predatory banking and an abundance of the kind of high rate, asset-stripping loans that pervaded in the housing market in the 1990s would wreak havoc on still marginalized, credit-seeking Harlemites. WHGA fought to cast light on this dark side to economic growth through Financial Literacy and Homeownership program, established in 1999. The program, which assisted dozens of victimized borrowers in the first few months, garnered governmental partnerships on the local, state and federal levels. WHGA ensured its constituency had access to a myriad of resources to establish financial stability, such as credit repair and loan mitigation counselors, grants, and city-administered low-interest home repair loans.

At the turn of the millennium, WHGA was approaching its 30th year of service with an outstanding record of community service. However, paradox would soon reveal itself as WHGA and the long-term activists would soon be forced to confront the consequences of their own their own success, as the growing appeal of Harlem brought new, wealthy residents – and a unique set of difficult challenges.

2000- Present – The Second Renaissance: A Renaissance- Recession Paradox

With the new millennium came a new perception of Harlem as an area ripe for growth and new beginnings. The real estate market began to skyrocket, ushering in an unprecedented era of growth and prosperity. The city was soon leading an aggressive effort to reclaim and renovate abandoned buildings.  Whereas the housing and economic development activities during this period were largely community-based and below market value, upper income earners began scouting out roofless and windowless building shells priced well over a million dollars.

Harlem’s newfound status as a reinvigorated arts district came at a price to the longtime low-and moderate-income residents who increasingly saw themselves priced out of the real estate market. In response, WHGA took aim at gentrification, and the resultant social and economic polarization, in a 3-year strategic plan launched in 2002, which included a set of programs aimed at protecting affordable housing and ensuring that vulnerable residents access to tools that would aid in their empowerment: technology access, financial literacy and housing preservation.

Bridging Digital Divide

“In the Twenty-First Century, a digital divide is an opportunity divide.”

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski

WHGA launched a comprehensive technology program in 2000 in an effort to expand free access to high speed broad-brand connections, a vital Twenty-First Century resource largely unavailable in minority households. The first technology center was established at the Mannie L. Wilson Towers offering instruction-based and general access services to both tech- savvy seniors and those who had never operated a computer. Four new tech centers would soon follow in WHGA’s housing sites: two public tech centers and two developed exclusively for families occupying the agency’s homeless shelters. An array of concerned and dedicated partners has been pivotal to the success of WHGA’s technology access project over the years, including One Economy, Community Impact, the U.S. Department of Education and the Beaumont Foundation, Councilwoman Inez Dickens, LISC, HPD and HUD. It is WHGA’s philosophy that, irrespective of age or level of disposable income, Harlem residents are entitled to up-to-date internet access to aid in education, private enterprise or personal development pursuits.

The organization achieved important success in other areas as well during this era. In 200_ MLW Towers also became the site of the Thelma Adair Ryan Medical Center, one of the first public use facilities on a HUD-based development in the nation. This landmark partnership between WHGA, Harlem Hospital, and Columbia University School of Medicine and Dentistry set a precedent for other federally funded housing sites seeking to offer vital services to the community beyond the walls of their buildings. The Thelma Adair Ryan Center boasts state of the art facilities, highly trained professional doctors and dentists, and a host outreach initiatives to promote healthy living, serving privately- and publicly- insured residents.

Housing Preservation Outside –In

By entering partnerships with housing preservation programs at all levels of government, WHGA returned to its organizing roots by training and preparing tenants who were victims of landlord harassment. The organization’s Housing Counseling, Anti-Eviction & Anti- Foreclosure program has prepared countless tenants for court proceedings with negligent landlords and negotiating with absentee property owners willing to address building violations with low interest government financing. WHGA counselors prevented the eviction of thousands of households since the programs inception in 1999.

Elsewhere, for those tenants and homeowners overburdened with debt and who had fallen prey to unscrupulous creditors, WHGA has provided assistance with a broad range of services, from fraud claims to loan modification services, aimed at protecting residents’ assets and keeping them in their homes.

Preserving Affordable Housing for Future Generations 

As WHGA counselors zeroed in on individual property owners, it also entered negotiations on a much broader scale with the city and their lenders as nearly half of WHGA’s now 15- year old housing stock was threatened by expiring tax credits. An ambitious preservation strategy was required to restructure subsidies, while upgrading buildings with more efficient and sustainable measures. WHGA launched its preservation strategy in 2005 to date WHGA has completed the refinance and renovation of seven scattered development sites, totaling over 650 low income housing units.

In 2007 MLW would once again place WHGA center stage, as the agency’s completion of the senior residences refinance would entail the pioneering of revised HUD 202 financing instrument to lower the interest rate on the building’s debt. WHGA was among the first organizations to attempt this endeavor, leveraging over $20 million to facilitate moderate renovations to upgrade and improve building systems.

Reinventing Existing Spaces for New Development

The site of Dempsey Center also reemerged as place of great significance, during this period. Special circumstances lead to protracted negotiations between its co-developer Phipps, HRA, HPD and the Department of Education – unique assemblage of partners by any measure – to appropriate a portion of the former public school lot for affordable housing development.  Once authorized, WHGA and Phipps worked efficiently to guarantee the timely development of the new construction project the 80-unit Dempsey Houses, completed in Fall 2011.

The Harriet Tubman Apartments is another noteworthy WHGA project that entailed the transformation of a homeless family facility to permanent housing. Part new construction, part gut renovation, the project was designed to maximize the number of apartments, while making them large and comfortable enough for the low, moderate income and formerly homeless families that will soon occupy the units. Two of the four buildings that comprised the emergency housing shelter will maintain its services for displaced families with children.

And more recently in 2015, WHGA over saw the redevelopment of Randolph Houses a severely blighted public housing development, received gut-renovations, after 30 years of tenant activism and advocacy for financing from the federal government.

A History to Build On 

WHGA recently implemented 3- year strategic plan that would expand and deepen the resources needed to support Harlem’s most economically and socially vulnerable households, from elderly seniors at risk of losing their home to long- term unemployed Black and Latino men, infamously “first to be fired last to be hired,” to the working class and immigrant families living paycheck to paycheck either falling prey to unprincipled financiers or facing the possibility of homelessness. At a time when austerity and the resultant cuts to social supports have put communities on the brink of regression, WHGA’s current leadership continues to draw its inspiration from its own history. The strategic plan sets out to leverage the organizations stock of housing resources to further housing preservation, access to technology and capital. While the tools of community development have greatly evolved over the past four decades, for WHGA the underlying commitment to equity has been driven by its own relationship to the Harlem and Hamilton Heights communities and our record of achievement is reflects this commitment.##

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