Low-Income Housing in the Bronx Gets Healthy and Green

Sep 9, 2013, 1:58 PM

In the 1970s and 80s, residents of the Bronx, one of New York City’s five boroughs, were so anxious to leave the crime-ridden area that many residential and commercial buildings—once majestic and architecturally rich—were torched and empty for decades. Now fifty years later there’s a waiting list of thousands for Via Verde, a new low- and middle-income Bronx housing complex that opened last year. Many features set the complex apart from almost any other housing development in the United States, including an emphasis on greenery from almost every vantage point of the building. This helps create a calming and beautiful atmosphere for the residents, many of whom grew up in crowded housing projects where any nearby parks were usually too dangerous to enjoy.

Why is housing important for health? A lack of affordable rental housing can push more tenants into substandard or overcrowded living situations. Living in unaffordable housing also leaves fewer resources for the things that can keep a family healthy, such as healthy food or preventative health care. Low-income housing also has a reputation for being unhealthy, and for good reason—more than 6 million housing units in the U.S. have deficiencies such as lead paint hazards; allergens, dampness and mold that can trigger asthma; and unsafe structural issues that can cause falls and other injuries. Via Verde and other similar efforts seek to change all that, with housing that is not only affordable but also safe, healthy and even environmentally sound and sustainable (which in turn also saves on costs).

The design for Via Verde was the winner of a 2006 competition hosted by the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development; the New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects; the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA); and the Enterprise Foundation. It was New York City’s first juried design competition for affordable and sustainable housing.

Innovation Leading to Sustainability

The goal of the competition was to promote affordable, sustainable and mixed-income housing by using an innovative design on a site that was difficult to develop. Via Verde’s site fit the bill. The complex is built on a former brownfield site—an area that may be contaminated by chemicals which need to be removed before any development of the site. New York City paid for the cleanup.

The project was a joint venture of two architecture firms, a real estate development firm and Phipps Housing Services, a New York City-based non-profit which develops low- and moderate-income housing. And while the site was actually condemned by New York City in 1972, it now includes a 20-story tower and midrise duplex apartment building for low-income housing, as well as 2- to 4-story co-op townhouses for residents earning 80 to 100 percent of the area median income.

At the complex, the garden begins at ground level, spirals up as a series of roof gardens and ends in what the design team calls a sky terrace.

“We grew out of nature,” said Jonathan Rose, head of one of the project’s development companies, in an interview with The New York Times in 2007 when the project was announced, adding that the team decided to “wrap the building with a garden, beginning with a contemplative space and moving from very private to increasing levels of communality.”

Re-thinking Housing Amenities and Benefits

The architects configured most of the living spaces for cross-ventilation. Residents can buy their own building-approved air conditioning units or rely on sun shades and ceiling fans. Solar panels and heavy insulation cut down on energy needs and the rooftop gardens recycle rainwater. Stairwells, which tenants see in their hallways before they get to elevators, have bright paint and wide windows to let in light, making them safer and more likely to be used, according to Max Ruperti, the property manager.

He has managed low-income properties before and takes tremendous pride in his new responsibility as he shows a visitor the building’s amenities. The units in Via Verde were offered to the public through a lottery: for the 151 rental apartments there were 7,000 applications. All of the buildings amenities— including a natural light-infused fitness center, the gardens, an amphitheatre, a rentable community room and a concierge—are available to all residents, except for a gardening program that is open to all co-op owners and a set number of rental tenants by lottery. Tenants of the retail space are also slowly filling—a dry cleaner came and went, and Ruperti hopes to bring another in soon.

Emphasizing Health

The retail space also includes a family medical practice staffed by the Montefiore Medical Center, a Bronx stalwart hospital. The health staff, which includes doctors, nurses and a social worker, anticipates 15,000 visits each year by 6,000 patients.

Ruperti managed hospitals and low-income housing earlier in his career, and knew that nonprofit hospitals have a responsibility to their community in order to keep their nonprofit status. With that in mind, he approached Montefiore and secured fitness instructors a couple of days a week at the building’s fitness center. Zumba classes just started.

Ruperti knows that just having a beautiful building doesn’t suddenly erase domestic, income, health and other issues that-low incomes residents can face. On a recent Thursday, he watched a two-year-old practice his jump shot against a side of the building—even though ball playing in common areas is not allowed because of the risk of accidental injuries. Weighing the physical activity advantage, Ruperti decided to give the boy a few minutes of play before reminding the mom of the building’s rule.

He makes sure to introduce himself to every tenant, and is more likely to be walking the buildings than be sitting in his office. This helps increase the chance that a tenant will confide in him about personal problems that he may be able to help with before a problem—such as a mistake in necessary paperwork for low-income housing—becomes a reason for eviction. And, in the year since the building opened, no one has been asked to leave. Recently the building added a weekly produce box program through a neighborhood gardening group for $10; residents who get federal nutrition assistance get a $2 discount.

Living Sustainably

While the focus by visiting delegations is often on the greenery—which includes a flourishing vegetable and herb garden as well as fruit and fern trees that will be used at Christmas—Via Verde’s concept is much more than just a pretty roof over peoples’ heads. Developer Jonathan Rose has called Via Verde “an intensively green, energy-efficient building, but also a sustainable community that focuses on the quality of life and health of the families who will live here.” In a statement released during the development stage of the building, Rose said that “to create vibrant, dense cities, we need models that integrate housing and health, food and family, security and sociability, reflection and restoration as integrated systems. Via Verde demonstrates that such integration is possible.”

Researchers are currently studying the health impacts of Via Verde’s innovative design to help illustrate the value of affordable housing investments, as well as to provide information on how housing can be leveraged to increase physical activity, which could lead to long-term reduction in the rates of diabetes and heart disease. New York City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, together with other partners including Columbia University, are conducting a study funded by the National Institutes of Health and the MacArthur Foundation to quantify the benefits of newly constructed housing financed under the New Housing Marketplace Plan. They’re looking at whether innovative buildings such as Via Verde produce measurable gains for adults and children when compared to other types of affordable housing.

So, do other communities need a $100 million in grants to replicate Via Verde’s benefits? Rick Bell, policy director of the New York City chapter of the American Institute of Architecture, says all communities can take advantage of some of Via Verde’s hallmarks, such as well lit staircases. Bell says those staircases, lit by natural light in the day, not only save on electricity but “also give people a sense of security, of knowing that they can be seen if anything went awry or the psychological sense of security.”

“And that’s totally scalable,” says Bell. “You can have a change of that kind in a building with 20 families instead of 200, which allows for material changes of that nature to become affordable and logical.”

Bell says other design features at Via Verde “should be more prevalent, such as outdoor usable space that’s shared by people who might not otherwise come into contact, even in more homogeneous residential structures of smaller size. People don’t always get to know their neighbors. Having social space, green space, where people can sit and watch a movie, but also just sit and read the newspaper, sit outside and not feel like they’re encroaching on someone else’s domain. Those are scalable, those are replicable, those could happen anywhere.”

Bell’s favorite Via Verde design feature? The homework desk in every kitchen.

“What an ingenious idea that right next to the kitchen, there’s a little bit of a counter where if there is a kid in the family, she or he could be doing their homework under the supervision of a caregiver, a parent, a grandparent, somebody else, while the meal is being prepared... just a small little detail, but really well thought out.”

Bell is also a fan of the laundry rooms on the ground floor with windows that look out to the play space. “That means....if there’s a caregiver who’s watching a young child on the play equipment outdoors, they could do that without trepidation. They’re not in some basement saying, oh, I got to keep the kid in the stroller until the rinse cycle is done.”

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This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.