“Via Verde is a model for what affordable housing ought to be – a platform for opportunity, a source of stability, a building block with which we forge neighborhoods, put down roots, and build the communities that are the engines of our nation’s economic growth.” – HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, 6/28/2012
New York City’s housing community is abuzz about the recent grand opening of Via Verde – a large mixed rental/co-op affordable housing building in the South Bronx. Via Verde is being heralded for its environmentally sustainable structure and green design, as well as a commitment to residents’ and community health. The building is a collaboration between several groups including HPD, The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, the Enterprise Foundation, and the New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. Montefiore Medical Center is even planning to open a family practice at Via Verde.
All this hype around Via Verde can be seen as an attempt to break away from the South Bronx’s reputation as a destitute place filled with environmental and social problems. The space where Via Verde now stands was previously occupied by 1.5 acres of trash and blight. Once a gas station and a rail yard, the spot was environmentally wrecked. Now, Via Verde is symbolic of the “new and improved” South Bronx. It is a new hope for what the South Bronx can be — low income people living in LEED certified-buildings fully equipped with resources for healthy living. It’s also reminiscent of what New York City could be like if the city and development groups upheld their promises to build new affordable housing. (Check out our recent blog post about Atlantic Yards and the other broken promises of affordable housing.)
Via Verde is not the only project the City is working on to fight environmental degradation in the South Bronx. New York City Economic Development Corporation (with the support of Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. and Council Speaker Christine Quinn) has proposed building one of the largest rooftops farms (200,000 square feet!) to in Hunts Point. Hunts Point is a notorious “food desert” and the proposed rooftop garden would provide the neighborhood with both fresh food and jobs.
New affordable housing is desperately needed in New York, and green developments like Via Verde are innovative and exciting. However, it is important to recognize the pervasive struggles tenants face in already existing affordable housing. This rent regulated housing is valuable infrastructure that is home to hundreds of thousands of New York City low income people.
On Monday, we spent the day surveying several small buildings in foreclosure with Flushing Savings Bank in Brooklyn. The buildings were in terrible condition: rodents, mold, holes in ceilings, no security. One building had been living without gas for over two weeks.
Tenants desperately need New York City and innovative housing advocacy groups to invest in occupied buildings, not just in exciting new developments. Rent stabilized units are crumbling away while tenants are living in them – tenants should not have to wait until these units loose their affordability for repairs and renovations.We believe that the cost to stabilize these buildings now is far lower than the cost of losing this invaluable housing stock. We need to keep our rent protection laws strong, and increase opportunities for responsible preservation developers to purchase affordable housing before what exists becomes utterly unlivable.