Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Housing Revolution in the Bronx: Green, Affordable and for Low-Income Women

By Regina Cornwell, Women's Media Center. Posted April 13, 2009.

A neighborhood that once epitomized urban decay has created apartments that save energy, money and are beautiful and healthy places to live.

Green and beautiful low-income housing? This sounds like an oxymoron. The usual standard for housing for the poor has been cheap and functional. But only this year came Intervale Green, a low-income apartment building in the South Bronx that might just be a model for developers.

Intervale Green Apartments is located in Crotona Park East, a once torched and ravaged neighborhood, a casualty of the rage, anger, and drug wars of the late 60s and 70s. In October 1977, the image of a doleful Jimmy Carter was seen worldwide surveying the garbage-strewn land imprinted with lost hopes and lives. He called it our country's "worst slum." Later Ronald Reagan visited the same spot, comparing it to the devastation of the London Blitz. The African American and Latino neighborhood is still dismal today and a risk for many low-income developers.

The woman behind the new Intervale Green is fearless where others are daunted. Nancy Biberman founded the Women's Housing and Economic Development Corporation (WHEDCo) in 1991. She is a small woman in her mid-50s, energetic, thoughtful, soft-spoken. An attorney involved with low-income housing and social justice throughout her career, she completed a fellowship at Columbia University's School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. In the mid-80s, she oversaw the gutting of 23 abandoned buildings in the Bronx and their redesign into 122 affordable apartments.

When later she formed WHEDCo, her mission was clear: affordable housing for the poor as well as such services as counseling, education, and job training -- essential, she says, "especially where there is so much poverty. About half the families with children in the Crotona East neighborhood live in poverty." Realizing that 85 percent of the tenants in the mid-80s project were women, with WHEDCo, she decided to focus on "the needs of women as primary bread winners and caretakers of children," although not to the exclusion of men. Her staff also reflects this focus: 75 percent are women, including all the teachers and social workers, as are 90 percent of her board.

In the mid-90s, Biberman decided to go after a 70 year-old building, the long-abandoned neo-Renaissance-style Morrisania Hospital. Her first time inside the block-long, flaxen-colored brick building, she "climbed through debris literally up to my chest." That wasn't the worst. "There was a dead human there" and "several dead dogs. I was spared looking at them."
A year and a half and $16.5 million after the nightmare inspection of the 10-story building, work was completed, its majestic fa├žade assuming a commanding new role. Renamed Urban Horizons, it offered 132 low-income apartments in one-half of the building and social and other services in the other.

By 2004 Nancy Biberman believed it was the right time to take on another daring venture. This time it would be a new green low-income apartment building with beautiful amenities.

Welcome to Intervale Green Apartments. Quietly but clearly it engages in a dialogue with the old psychology and social policies that say the poor don't need beauty -- just basics. But Biberman understands that beautiful places change people's attitudes, reduce stress, improve productivity, and also give people hope.

The $39 million building at 1330 Intervale Avenue is six and seven stories built in the style of traditional Bronx architecture. Red brickwork dominates with yellow brick detail. A white decorative cornice surrounds the building at the roof's edge, another touch of the old Bronx. The sidewalks are pleasantly wide with street trees surrounding the entire building. Intervale Green's pocket sculpture park stands near the tip of the building's triangular-shaped lot. A low decorative iron fence surrounds the park. Local artists will regularly show there. The 150,000 square foot building also has two green roofs and a pair of landscaped courtyards.


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