At UNHP’s Bronx Views: Buildings, Data and Stories Webinar and fundraiser, attended by over 100 participants on Thursday, September 15th, we shared Bronx stories, unraveled the data that reveals the struggles of Bronx residents, and highlighted our successful work to preserve Bronx buildings as affordable and decent places for low-income families and individuals. Thanks to our many generous sponsors and donors, Bronx Views was also a successful fundraiser for UNHP, supporting our mission-driven work to create and preserve affordable housing and bring resources to our community. Below is a summary of the webinar. The full replay of Bronx Views: Buildings, Data, and Stories is available on UNHP’s Youtube channel and can be viewed here.
“UNHP never pretended to have all the answers–we pride ourselves on identifying questions that need to be answered. We believe that the more people who are directly affected by an issue have input in its resolution, the more likely it is that realistic answers will be found.“ – Jim Buckley
Jim Buckley, UNHP’s Executive Director, welcomed participants to the webinar with a big thank you to the attendees, our many partners, our sponsors, UNHP volunteers, interns, board, and staff: “Thank you – it’s a phrase we use a lot here at UNHP, because we know we don’t get anything done without our many partners in the community, and the non-profit, for-profit, and government sectors.” At its inception, UNHP initially acted as a community lender in the face of redlining and the need to assist tenants and newly-developed community housing corporations acquire distressed properties. Today, we work to share our research and Building Indicator Project database to identify distressed multifamily properties, partner with many organizations to look at the financialization of housing, strive to address the issues that jeopardize the affordability of community-developed housing and collaborate with Bronx residents to address their need for safe affordable housing and financial stability.
The next speakers were Jumelia Abrahamson, Director of Programs, and Laura Guerrero, Housing and Financial Advocate, who introduced our direct service work with Bronx residents through the Northwest Bronx Resource Center. Jumelia shared that through her 10 years at our Northwest Bronx Resource Center she has developed a “Bronx View” – a sense of how things look from a Bronx perspective. She described the affordable housing crisis from this perspective, noting that the crisis in our community continues to escalate as rent rises, while many families and individuals do not see the same rises in their incomes, whether earned by wages or fixed sources like social security. While UNHP staff has had the privilege of gaining a “Bronx View,” we are also committed to understanding individual perspectives directly from the Bronx residents we work with. Jumelia explained that “these conversations have allowed us to create spaces where residents can come together to share their experiences, find solidarity, and brainstorm potential interventions or solutions. Much of this work has been occurring in the monthly Ask UNHP webinars, mobile banking days, and the continued meetings with the tenant-led Housing Connect group, Affordable Housing Opportunities Right Away (AHORA).”
“The city and elected officials have not provided adequate resources to applicants, which is why it is so important that those looking to find an apartment through Housing Connect are able to share their experiences with key decision makers directly - the need for affordable housing is now, AHORA.” - Jumelia Abrahamson
Bronx AHORA was created in response to both the deep frustration among those who were applying to Housing Connect and the urgent need of tenants for safe and affordable housing. AHORA is made up of Bronx residents who come from very different backgrounds. However, they are all struggling to find apartments within their income range. Just like the group members, UNHP has become extremely frustrated and discouraged with the lottery process, assisting with the submission of thousands of applications and seeing very few interviews for housing. The majority of newly constructed units available via Housing Connect are out of reach for neighborhood residents who have an average income of $26,000. Additionally, the online portal is inaccessible and confusing for many, and the selection process is cumbersome.
Jumelia also shared our collaborative work with the Bronx Financial Access Coalition to bring a Federal Credit Union to the Bronx. The Bronx People’s Credit Union is being developed with a “Bronx View” and will provide all that the well-established Lower East Side FCU offers including low-cost accounts, credit builder loans, and products that build wealth and accessibility to all including immigrants with ITINs. Read more about this work here.
“We are not only able to help people address the pressing financial issues that they are facing, but we are also able to provide a welcoming and supportive space where community members know that they can come to when they need help.” – Laura Guerrero
Jacob Udell, UNHP’s Director of Research and Data, also reflected on UNHP’s long view of Bronx multifamily housing. This view has been bolstered in the last 12 years by our historical database of NYC multifamily buildings: the Building Indicator Project. UNHP has seen the arc of disinvestment to overinvestment in the Bronx over the almost 40 years we’ve been in existence. Our research work originated 20 years ago from a set of insights about the inflection point in that long arc: fast-rising property prices and fast-rising rents in the Bronx were seeming to outstrip what it actually costs to run a building responsibly. Since the beginning of our research and data work, we’ve spent a lot of our time on the effect of that trend on both building conditions and on tenants themselves. Jacob explained, “This trend that we have been trying to understand for so long now has a name: it’s called the financialization of housing, which is a term that describes the tendency for owners and investors to value housing as a financial asset, like stocks or bonds. And given the name of this fundraiser today, I think it’s fair to say that our research and data work is about how to bring a ‘Bronx View’ to the question of financialization, of where our housing market stands right now, and where it should be going.”
UNHP recently collaborated with LISC on a report called Gambling with Homes, or Investing in Communities, which looked into the effects of “speculation” or “financialization” for tenants, and actually try to determine the connection between the housing market and outcomes for tenants in an empirical manner. The report found that speculation via rising property prices has indeed run rampant in neighborhoods like the Northwest Bronx and elsewhere in NYC with high concentrations of low-income and/or black and brown households, and it also points to various solutions to this crisis with a particular emphasis on the positive outcomes of housing preservation. Preservation-minded entities both reinvest a much higher percentage of rental income back into the building, and also are more attuned to longer-term rehab needs. Jacob concluded by asking:
“How do we create housing policies and a housing system altogether that incentivizes the preservation model? In a time with so many unknowns and lots of instability, we need to be relying on the experience, expertise, and lessons that we at UNHP have learned from our work and the work of [our partners].” - Jacob Udell
Preservation of rent-stabilized multifamily buildings is indeed critical. While our research and action work focuses on privately-owned stock, Brendan Mitchell, UNHP’s Real Estate and Finance Director, focuses on the community-developed affordable multifamily buildings. UNHP is involved in the oversight of 27 Bronx buildings that provide affordable homes to over 1,000 households. “Preserving affordability in the face of rising operating costs and regulatory burdens while keeping rents affordable is a challenge,” Brendan stated. “This is a challenge that UNHP meets by working with other Bronx Building Operators and citywide non-profits as well as by seizing every opportunity to improve our portfolio in ways that save energy, cut costs, and utilize low-cost programs and incentives.” A main focus for UNHP over the past year has been to incorporate renewable energy into our housing portfolio. We have been working with a Solar Consulting Group which specializes in affordable housing to assess which of our projects would be good candidates for solar panels and how we can creatively finance these projects with limited resources. Ultimately, we have identified three projects totaling 7 buildings in which we plan to begin solar projects in early 2023.
“When it comes to incorporating energy efficiency measures into affordable housing, we constantly stress the importance of incentives and matching programs to elected officials at all levels of government,” Brendan continued. One such program is the Weatherization Assistance Program. Through this program, UNHP has been assisting Edison Arms HDFC – a 70-unit senior housing project on Decatur Avenue – navigate and implement a full energy retrofit. Edison Arms remains largely original to its 1991 construction and when operating on fixed rents, would be largely unable to pay for the cost of the improvements needed. Over the last ten years, we have seen the price of repairs, utilities, insurance, and water increase at a rapid rate. Initiatives like the Weatherization Assistance Program allow housing providers to improve building systems and tenant quality of life without passing along costs to tenants. Not only do these types of energy efficiency improvements reduce the carbon footprint of the building and improve the quality of life for tenants, but they free up much-needed income on a monthly basis to cover operating costs. These savings allow UNHP and affordable community-developed projects to maintain well-balanced budgets and programs.
The conclusion of the webinar was brought to us by our summer intern from Fordham University, Samantha Sayre. In the short video that Samantha created, you will hear from Claire Benitez, the property manager at Rose Hill Management, and Altagracia Consuegra, the Resident Social Worker at Edison Arms. Altagracia was not only vital to the vetting process in applying for Weatherization Funds, but also in making sure that tenants felt part of the process. Lastly, you will get to hear Mazie, a longtime Edison Arms resident, perform a song – accompanied by messages of thanks to our generous sponsors. Read more about the energy-saving work at Edison Arms here.
“If we continue to come together, share our experiences, and work to find solutions, we can help those in our community access the opportunities and resources they are entitled to.” – Laura Guerrero
The webinar concluded with grateful remarks from Cathy Clarke, Development Director of UNHP. “Your support gives UNHP the freedom to do our work based on what we see is needed in our community from our ‘Bronx View’, and that freedom is really a privilege – to be able to work towards our mission and to change as the Bronx changes and its needs change,” she reflected. UNHP strives to center this “Bronx View” in our initiatives to assist and empower neighborhood residents, to utilize research to preserve multifamily housing, and to renovate our buildings in ways that save energy. The housing and financial challenges that Bronx residents face are unique and require specialized attention and approaches, and for that reason we endeavor to develop programs, services, and solutions that meet the specific needs of this community. We thank all the participants of the webinar, our community partners, and our generous donors for their confidence and support in our collective quest to preserve and develop affordable housing solutions for all.