Solving New York’s Affordable Housing Crisis, Even During a Pandemic
When New York City went into lockdown in the spring of 2020, many human service nonprofits had to find new ways to serve those in need, and Project Renewal was one of them. The 55-year-old nonprofit aims to end the cycle of homelessness and recently opened Bedford Green House, a 117-apartment building in the Bronx that includes an aquaponics farm, library and community medical clinic. It’s a project the nonprofit had in the works during the lockdown, and as its CEO Eric Rosenbaum tells New York Nonprofit Media, there are more to come.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What is the mission of Project Renewal?
Project Renewal’s mission is to break the cycle of homelessness by enabling individuals and families to renew their lives with health homes. And what that means in practice is that we provide a full range of housing, from shelter and transitional housing, which lasts around three to five years, to supported and affordable permanent housing, at around 1000 people per night. in shelter and housing with a purpose, particularly on single adults with a history of mental illness, substance use disorders, and incarceration. And then we bring wraparound services into that housing environment that include a full spectrum of health care including primary care, psychiatry, addiction treatment, etc., and workforce development programs. work that helps people, many of whom may have no work experience. and very little education, learn both the life skills that prepare people for work, as well as the job skills that enable them to obtain jobs with the potential for long-term career advancement.
You opened one of New York’s first support and connection centers. How did it go for your organization?
We were very happy to be one of two non-profit organizations that were selected to do this, [and be the] first in town. The model comes from other settings where it is called a diversion center. Diversion is when the police encounter someone on the street who is behaving erratically, who might be under the influence of substances or alcohol, who might be behaving a bit aggressively. The police generally respond with a criminal justice and preventive approach. [approach], since that is what they are trained to do. So instead of taking that person to the police station or doing what a normal criminal justice response would be, the Support and Connection Center is a place where they can be taken to instead. And they are greeted by a peer with lived experience, who can establish a rapport immediately. They are offered a visit by a nurse to check their state of health, they are offered a meal, a shower, a bed, and they can stay for up to five days and sometimes a little longer. And during this time, we strive to connect them with whatever services they need, so they can break the cycle that for many of these people is a turning cycle. [door] system that goes from a street to a psychiatric hospital, to go to a shelter, to prison, then back to the street. The goal is to interrupt this cycle. One of the ways we do this is that while people can stay with us for five days or more initially, once they’ve been with us they can come back under what looks like an open door policy. whenever they want support. This allowed us to help them break this [aforementioned] cycle, which is not very useful and often very expensive, and [we] bring people more on the path to permanence and independence.
How was it for Project Renewal during the pandemic?
The first and most immediate impact was the recognition of deep inequity. In so many systems, it really struck us. First, we looked at our own employees, because at the very beginning of the pandemic, when there was very little information, there was very little access to masks or PPE. And of course, there was no vaccine or test. These are our frontline workers who still had to come to work every day, who had to take public transport whether it was working or not, and who had to expose themselves to the virus, even at a time when their families and communities were being very disproportionately affected by COVID. And it was obvious to us how unfair it was that we were asking our front-line workers, who are among our lowest-paid employees, to take these kinds of risks when other employees, those in positions more administrative and often earn higher salaries, were able to be effective in their work in a more protected environment [by] work abroad. We are therefore committed to trying to solve this problem in any way possible. And in particular, we have done this by increasing paid leave so that people have more access to leave; offering hazard pay and other bonuses or pay increases to at least recognize the inequity and take steps to address it. Another big impact was related to race, as these frontline workers are very disproportionately black and brown. In the first summer of the pandemic, the murder of George Floyd really, really accelerated our understanding of these issues and how they added disproportionately to the impacts that the pandemic itself had had on these communities.
When New York imposed a curfew and the subways were shut down overnight, we were still operating 24/7. Our staff still had to come to work and the hurdles to get there were even greater. . Sometimes our staff members were challenged to be on the streets when all they were trying to do was get to work. When New York City moved 10,000 people from mass shelters to hotels, our workforce was once again challenged because neighborhoods were furious that former luxury hotels were being taken over by homeless and new to these neighborhoods. We operated the Hotel Lucerne, which was in the news for months, and then our employees took the brunt of the neighborhood anger over the placement of our guests in that hotel. So it added more and more insults to our workforce. And it was hard on the client. However, being in a hotel environment has actually taught us a big and important beneficial lesson: having access to a safe and private physical environment, where a person is more in control of what is happening around them, reduces anxiety. It had a really positive impact, reducing the number of drug overdoses we were reversing, or reported substance use. This reinforced for us the need to try to ensure that the shelter is as safe as possible and that we all provide as much privacy as possible to people we have seen in the hotel environment how beneficial it was.
What has Project Renewal been up to over the past few months?
We had a lot of projects in our pipeline, slowly simmering, half in the background. But we were expanding our portfolio and one of the things we were advocating for very strongly during the pandemic was the conversion of hotels into permanent accommodation. We saw that these hotels were unlikely to return as hotels, were likely to remain closed, or were in financial difficulty because they could not service their debt. Since homelessness fundamentally results from the lack of deeply affordable housing, we saw early on the opportunity to turn some of these hotels into housing in a way that could really dramatically reduce homelessness. So we worked on one of the first hotel conversion projects during the pandemic. Unfortunately, this conversion was killed by the previous administration just weeks before we were due to complete the acquisition and begin the conversion.
But we had other projects in our pipeline. We [recently] took the ribbon cutting for Bedford Green House, which is a 117-unit LEED Gold-certified apartment exclusively for people who have been homeless or low-income in the Bronx with an amazing rooftop greenhouse where residents can grow their own vegetables and fish in a self-contained ecosystem. This is the kind of community building we want to do for people, not only to give them the key to an apartment, but also to help them be part of a larger community that can help support them.
We will be inaugurating other projects this fall, including part of the redevelopment of the Greenpoint hospital. We will be renovating a former nurses dormitory and homeless shelter to replace an existing shelter on this site. We are going to open the second phase of Bedford Green, which is literally on the land directly behind the first, where we will add another 116 apartments. During this time, the city passed us the deed to a shelter we operate in East Midtown Manhattan, so that we can redevelop this site into a brand new tower that will have 130 affordable apartments for people with low income, one of the few opportunities to do this in East Midtown, with a brand new shelter to replace the existing one and a street-facing health care center that will provide primary care, not only to residents of the building , but to people in the immediate vicinity. And as always, in all of our healthcare facilities, regardless of ability to pay. Our healthcare is accessible to everyone.
What are your hopes for the future of Project Renewal?
We will increase our footprint and the number of people we are able to serve by approximately 50% over the next few years, so we are building organizational capacity to ensure we are resilient and compensate our team.
I’m incredibly excited about the future of Project Renewal. I would like us to be a leader in the development of affordable and supportive housing for the very low income, because it is the solution to homelessness for New York City. We cannot effectively address homelessness until we create housing faster than we are increasing homelessness. [Also] during the first week of the pandemic, we immediately switched to telehealth. About half of our clinical staff were quarantined or sick themselves, but they carried on as they could continue to provide services. So clinical care didn’t suffer and it became a big thing for us.