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Crisis Makes Heroes: Affordable Housing in New York City During and After a “Decade of Fire”

by Susan Saegert, on 2 July 2019
Tags: New York | Bronx
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Susan Saegert discusses the memoirs of two hard-fighting Bronx housing advocates, active at a particularly turbulent time in the borough’s—and New York City’s—history.
Reviewed : Carol Lamberg, Neighborhood Success Stories, New York, Fordham University Press, 2018; Harry DeRienzo, The Concept of Community: Lessons from the Bronx, Milan, IPOC di Pietro Condemi, 2008

Carol Lamberg (2018) in Neighborhood Success Stories and Harry DeRienzo (2008) in The Concept of Community: Lessons from the Bronx begin their main narratives in the Bronx at about the same time, around New York City’s near bankruptcy and the Daily News headline “Ford to City: Drop Dead.” Each tells dramatic personal stories about the challenges they faced when creating beloved communities and successful neighborhoods amid disaster in the Bronx in the 1970s and ’80s. They are each the heroes of their own tales—not out of vanity, but from a wish to share what they learned about the world in facing the devastation of New York and especially the Bronx while confronting the surge of housing abandonment and neighborhood and community wreckage. These tales remain relevant. I read them now during the seemingly unstoppable crisis of skyrocketing inequality in low-income communities and ongoing effects of the 2008 financial crisis.

The books’ titles prefigure their different concerns and intents. Similarities come from the authors’ shared time, place and significance in pioneering new forms of community development. DeRienzo, in foregrounding the idea of community, emphasizes the centrality of popular democracy both in his career and as a feature of his vision for contemporary housing politics. On the book jacket, he explains: “It is my sincere hope that this book serves as a wake-up call to the valuable attributes of community… [as] a necessary predicate to popular democracy… [as]… its meaning and relevance is slowly being dismantled.” Carol Lamberg uses the less socially charged term neighborhood, and her book is mostly about developing successful affordable housing. She states, “The reason I wanted to write this book was to help people understand the exhilaration and the challenge faced by those who provide affordable housing… More now than ever, such efforts are needed” (p. 239).

Neighborhood success stories

Lamberg’s story centers on a detailed account of the hard work of developing and maintaining successful affordable housing with a mixed income and mixed ethnicity tenant body. In 1983, she succeeded Clara Fox as the director of the Settlement Housing Fund, founded in 1969 to provide high quality housing and successful neighborhoods for low-income New Yorkers. While Fox laid a groundwork of accomplishments and an important network of political and financial support, Lamberg presided over the development of the largest and most risky new housing development the organization undertook at a cataclysmic time for the Bronx as it became synonymous with unimaginable devastation. At the time, it was common to compare the Bronx to Dresden after the allied bombings; at one point the city was so anxious about the image and unable to substantially change it, that the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) took to plastering decals of window shades, cats, and geraniums on its boarded-up facades.

My interest in the Settlement Housing Fund began as feminist fascination with how an almost all-woman organization led by the “martinis for lunch” Fox became such a significant player in the highly competitive, male-dominated affordable housing world of New York City. Women were often the backbone of housing organizations, but not the leaders and political deal makers. Neighborhood Success Stories helps set the record straight by describing the work of the women Lamberg worked with: important if unrecognized heroes, then or now. Lamberg names names throughout. Who was wonderfully competent? Who was hard to get along with? Who failed to deliver on promises? Who was a hero? I celebrate their recognition from my time as a newcomer to New York City, trying to come to terms with the catastrophe and invention that was the city. The people who did not abandon the city were an amazing lot. Lamberg contributes an account of the many women who made survival for low income families possible in those years. [1] These women had a vision, articulated or implicit, of a world where the work of maintaining life and making family and community—women’s work—needed support even when it didn’t fit into a strictly economic account of what constituted successful real estate development.

The book traces the chronology, challenges, near failures and eventual successes of two housing developments: New Settlement Apartments in the West Bronx and Two Bridges Urban Renewal Area housing, wedged between Chinatown and the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges. New Settlement Apartments gets the most attention because this project was a risky venture to create mixed-income, mixed-ethnicity housing in 1987 in the Bronx in the wake of extreme capital and white flight followed by near paralysis of government at all levels. Lamberg is extraordinarily detailed in her description of financing, construction, tenant selection, and property management and maintenance. The appendix on housing programs is a treasure trove of ideas and efforts that she used in her work.

Lamberg focuses on developing successful affordable housing in the world as she encounters it. Her approach to tenants involves careful selection and strict, well-enforced rules. Early in her tenure as leader of the Settlement Housing Fund, she rejected and eliminated her predecessor, Clara Fox’s, inclusion of tenant associations as a necessary component of Settlement Housing Fund projects. She believes in competent housing providers coupled with strong federal housing programs that have been increasingly weakened. For example, she accepts the main affordable housing vehicle today, Low-Income Housing Tax Credits, with a tongue-in-cheek comment that tax-credit funding is often hard to use, comes with many constraints, and is likely to decline if (as has happened) taxes on corporations decrease. But she observes that with so many lawyers and powerful intermediaries involved, it is not likely to go away.

Despite having succeeded within the political and economic status quo, New Settlement Apartments was the birthplace of Community Action for Safe Apartments (CASA), an activist housing organization that, among other things, fights for the right to counsel for tenants and to strengthen rent regulations. CASA supported the vision that Harry DeRienzo embodied through his work by its organizing around participatory planning for Jerome Avenue in the Bronx. Many years earlier, DeRienzo had led a coalition of protesters to confront Mayor Koch and successfully demanded a bigger role for community organizations in redeveloping neglected city-owned housing. The confrontation led to the Construction Management Program in the Division of Alternative Management Programs at HPD, used by Lamberg in her Two Bridges development.

The concept of community

DeRienzo took the significance of resident participation well beyond Clara Fox. He contributed to a productive, oppositional stance toward low-income housing and communities by understanding that the Bronx was not just a real estate debacle. It was a crisis of a community and of very many lives. It was also a product of the political economy that amplified painful, pervasive racism in communities struggling for survival. His book foregrounds the emotionally and socially resonant term “community.” He and other Bronx residents defended, squatted and developed landlord-abandoned property in the Bronx; the group he founded, Banana Kelly, became a prominent affordable housing developer and owner. But the focus of his book is not on how he came to succeed so much as how he came to understand the causes and consequences of the devastation of the South Bronx of that era. Beginning as a student volunteer and youth worker in the Bronx, he grew into maturity seeing and feeling up close the toll on individuals, families and community as the Bronx went up in flames. One of the youths he saw as a developing community leader died as a result of landlord arson as he tried to save relatives caught in the burning building. He saw another emerging leader crack mentally as the fabric of social relations unraveled around him, leading to a murder and his suicide.

From working with DeRienzo on the Task Force on City-Owned Housing in the 1990s I saw the side of him that confronted human weaknesses with sympathy while keeping justice in mind. He worked to create viable, supportive communities with people as they are, not as they should be. DeRienzo writes as a lifelong community activist who was among the pioneers of resident-controlled community development. He is also an astute observer of how the capitalist economy became a wrecking ball in the Bronx. He details every last effort to extract value from abused assets and very poor people five decades ago, and then touches on how current reinvestment and development drain assets from the same communities and drive people out. In the space between capital abandonment and capital returning, he and others also saw an opportunity to make a community closer to their desires that served their needs.

Students of resident-controlled community development will learn much from DeRienzo’s history. While his, like Lamberg’s, is a New York story, he does not simply offer stories and examples, but analysis of how organizations and policies support transformative, organizing and development. Activists, scholars, and policy analysts elsewhere, whether in Berlin or London, have as much to learn from him as those in the Bronx and Long Island City. Nearly all of his tales, such as a recounting of community-based planning through the Bronx Center, include great efforts at organizing and coalition-building that met defeat as a resident-controlled vision confronted economic power. But the defeats are never complete: new promising directions, organizations, networks, and coalitions come from the experience. Amidst sharp takedowns of decades of foundation fads and political buzz words, DeRienzo calmly lays out principles for transformative development. These include harnessing community-controlled financial assets and building on diversity and density to promote interdependence. Neighborhoods can function without community, “[b]ut economically thriving, diverse, socially agreeable neighborhoods do not a community make” (DeRienzo 2008, p. 89). Community requires interdependence in daily life and collective control over resources used toward common goals.

The book rambles—engagingly or maddeningly, depending on the reader’s perspective. Yet, ultimately, DeRienzo ties detailed life experiences, meditations on thinkers who influenced him, policy prescriptions, and homespun philosophical observations into a coherent critique and vision. The book ends with the story of how his beloved Banana Kelly, arising from organizing efforts by residents of Kelly Street in the late 1970s, flourished and then fell, only to be reborn—in a much-diminished state but going forward nonetheless. Blows to the organization he helped birth came from betrayal by leading figures in activist community development, from the imposition of foundation-based programs rooted in beliefs that the poor were defective and needed fixing, and common but heartbreaking fraud by trusted staff members. [2] Even in the early 2000s, when he wrote the book, DeRienzo could see that the success of community leaders in preserving and stabilizing communities in the Bronx would eventually be threatened by “reinvestment” controlled by actors who elevate return to capital over all other measures of value. His book seems more urgent today than when I first read it in 2008.

Conclusion

Despite having different and often opposing views on successful community development, Lamberg and DeRienzo share the commitment to detailed, careful, energetic and exhausting competence in what they do. They are, in their different ways, pragmatic and realistic. Lamberg concludes that the two things that make affordable housing succeed are adequate resources and competent people in every role related to housing development and operation. DeRienzo lists his ingredients for successful development as the backing of a strong, established institution like a church, financial resources, and membership. DeRienzo attributes the decline of Banana Kelly to members’ diminished involvement in the daily business of the organization. But he also sees the lack of community as the background condition for falling participation and the absence of strong local institutional support. The divergence between these two retrospectives inheres in the difference between Lamberg’s and DeRienzo’s visions for low-income, distressed areas: successful neighborhoods versus strong democratic communities.

Bibliography

  • DeRienzo, H. 2008. The Concept of Community: Lessons from the Bronx, Milan: IPOC di Pietro Condemi.
  • Lamberg, C. 2018. Neighborhood Success Stories: Creating and Sustaining Affordable Housing in New York, New York: Fordham University Press.

Footnotes

[1For example, Susan Cole and Linda Fields (who are named in Lamberg’s book), as well as Lee Farrow, Ethel Velez, Nancy Bieberman, and Lynda Simmons.

[2DeRienzo stepped back in at Banana Kelly and helped to restore its tradition of resident control, its functioning, and its reputation. He is a revered and effective force in New York City community development.

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To cite this article:

Susan Saegert, “Crisis Makes Heroes: Affordable Housing in New York City During and After a “Decade of Fire””, Metropolitics, 2 July 2019. URL: https://www.metropolitiques.eu/Crisis-Makes-Heroes-Affordable-Housing-in-New-York-City-During-and-After-a.html
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