Via Verde and Green Roofs in the South Bronx!

“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.


“Politicians Call on FDIC to Protect Affordable Housing”: Huffington Post

As published in the Huffington Post by Yepoka Yeebo

NEW YORK — City politicians are calling on federal regulators to start making use of a little-known provision in the sweeping financial reform bill passed last year that could help protect housing for low-income residents.

Local politicians, residents and housing activists gathered outside a dilapidated Bronx building Thursday to launch the opening salvo in a battle against New York State’s biggest savings and loan — which, they say, is exacerbating the growing threat to affordable housing in New York City.

Photo courtesy of Huffington Post

New York Community Bank has been accused of trying to profit from the seizure of foreclosed apartment buildings in the area, selling the buildings at prices reminiscent of the height of the housing boom. But property prices have taken a hit, and tenants say conditions at the buildings — run-down even during the market’s flush years — have deteriorated further.

The bank’s representatives did not respond to calls for comment.

Politicians have accused the bank of trying to claw back every penny of the bad mortgages it initiated while the housing bubble inflated, regardless of the consequences.

“Instead of selling them at the price that they’re worth, making it clear that major repairs need to be done, New York Community Bank was only trying to make a quick buck,” New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn said, adding that regulators like the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation should examine the “inflated fake numbers faceless, greedy bankers use to make a profit.”

A provision in the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill passed last year calls on federal agencies to protect apartment buildings in foreclosure. Politicians said they are still unsure what form the provision will take, but said the law gave the FDIC the power to intervene in bad deals.

Specifically, Quinn said, the FDIC should force New York Community Bank to disclose its finances and the buildings’ repair costs.

At the height of the financial crisis, roughly 100,000 apartments in low-income neighborhoods in New York were bought by investors who planned to raise the rents or flip the properties, according to affordable housing advocates. Many of the apartment buildings fell into foreclosure, leaving tenants in limbo — a situation politicians tried to address in the financial reform bill.

Long-term residents of the Bronx brought their neighborhoods back from the ruin of the 1970s and 1980s, only to watch speculators and banks make a quick buck then walk away, according to Ruben Diaz Jr, the borough’s president. “It’s downright criminal,” he said. “We’re calling on the FDIC to stop New York Community Bank from profiteering at the expense of Bronxites, all while their buildings fall apart around them.”

“Group asks FDIC to help 34 Bronx buildings”: Crain’s New York Business

As published in Crain’s New York Business by Daniel Massey

Housing advocates, tenants and some of New York’s most powerful elected officials Thursday called on the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. to force New York Community Bank to evaluate the finances and living conditions at 34 rundown Bronx buildings in foreclosure, and then disclose information on building repairs that are needed.

The move to pressure the FDIC to get involved is the latest salvo in a three-year campaign by officials and advocates to hold banks responsible for loans they made on multi-family properties that ended up falling into a state of disrepair. An amendment inserted into last year’s Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act by two New York politicians, Sen. Charles Schumer and Rep. Nydia Velazquez, gives the FDIC the power to intervene.

“We’re asking the FDIC to investigate the practices and actions of NYCB and force NYCB to make documents public so we can actually see whether there is enough money at the table to make these buildings livable,” said City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. “There are 800 units and 800 families at risk.”

An FDIC spokesman did not immediately have a response to the statement from the officials and advocates, made at a press conference Thursday at a Bronx building that was recently sold. Tenants in the Bryant Avenue building, where the morning event was held, are contending with dangerous conditions, officials said. Problems include a broken elevator, toxic mold and a carbon monoxide leak from the boiler.

New York Community Bank officials did not respond to a call seeking comment.

The bank last month sold the debt on eight dilapidated Bronx buildings to Bronx 8 LLC, a joint venture led by Townhouse Management Co., at what is believed to be a small discount on the mortgage’s $16 million face value. The city had backed a nonprofit developer, the Mutual Housing Association, and had been working on putting a financing package together for the group, which had offered $8 million.

Townhouse President Mitchel Maidman said the receiver on the buildings has been working diligently to make repairs and remove violations. “I don’t get this question of whether we paid the right price or the wrong price,” he said, declining to provide the specific figure, but saying it was less than a rumored $14 million. “We paid a fair price and if we get title, we will preserve the assets and make them very nice housing and an asset to the community.”

NYCB has a large portfolio of distressed multi-family loans. Those include mortgages on 328 buildings—housing more than 6,000 families—with more than three outstanding code violations per unit that pose serious health and safety risks. Of those buildings, 34 are in foreclosure, with a total of 800 apartments. Advocates worry they will be sold to the highest bidder without vetting the buyers’ ability or willingness to rehabilitate the deteriorating properties.

“NYCB’s irresponsible lending practices helped to create one of the most distressed housing portfolios in New York City,” said Dina Levy, organizing and policy director for the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board. “Their response has been to dump troubled loans for maximum profit, leaving tenants living in squalor and taxpayers to clean up their mess.”

Mr. Schumer, Ms. Quinn, Rep. Jose Serrano and Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. were among the officials who called on the FDIC to compel New York Community Bank to examine the conditions at the 34 buildings.

In addition, a half-dozen housing groups have written to the FDIC asking the agency to consider the physical distress of the housing that is in the bank’s portfolio, as well as the bank’s practices related to disposition of troubled loans as part of its ongoing Community Reinvestment Act evaluation.

By pressuring the bank to disclose financial and living conditions, officials and advocates hope to create a level of transparency so potential buyers will understand the true value of the buildings and the amount of money needed to make repairs.

“New York Community Bank is currently the most active provider of multi-family loans in New York City, and this makes their actions important to the health of our city’s housing stock,” said Benjamin Dulchin, executive director at the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development.