Residents considered plans for the neighborhood in the community room at Patterson Houses in November.

NYCHA residents dream big

Mott Haven public housing residents are vying for a grant from a federal program that will provide big money for a few lucky communities nationwide.

Residents considered plans for the neighborhood in the community room at Patterson Houses in November.
Residents considered plans for the neighborhood in the community room at Patterson Houses in November.

Safety and youth top grant-seekers’ agenda

Tenants who live in public housing continue to debate the best uses of a cool $30 million for them and their fellow residents.

For now, however, the massive haul is just a dream.

The residents are vying for federal housing money under the Choice Neighborhood Initiative, working together to create a proposal that could win a competition among public housing residents applying from around the country. They have been brainstorming since last summer to devise a plan that would  improve living conditions for area residents while appealing to investors.

At a meeting at Patterson Houses on East 143rd Street during the last week of October, about two-dozen residents told the non-profit group working to help them secure the funding that the local priorities that must be addressed are safety, youth programs, health care, senior services and jobs.

Monique Spears, vice president of the tenants association at Betances Houses, said that engaging young people is the key. Spears said she wants to see the return of Boys and Girls Clubs.

One thing Spears said she does not want to see more of are drug treatment programs. She says Mott Haven is saturated with those.

The need for added security is another concern she said she and her neighbors often discuss.

“You don’t see housing police too often. They should be there all the time,” she said.

Giselle Gavin, the tenant association president at Betances, agreed that new plans should address young people, who are too often overlooked, she said.

“Not enough is done for the children,” said Gavin. “We have to have more programs that are educational.”

Gavin also expressed concern for employed single parents of young children—but above all, for the children themselves. She hopes the competition will yield government money that can fund new local recreational opportunities and centers.

“We have to keep them occupied until the parents come by,”  she said.

For Loretta Fleming and Delores Graham of St. Mary’s Houses in Melrose, health concerns overshadow all others.  The two close friends have helped spearhead a grassroots initiative in their buildings to provide advice and referrals to fellow residents with HIV, asthma and diabetes.

“There are so many people who are pre-diabetic. They don’t have the education to know to eat well and exercise,” said Fleming.

“If you don’t have your health…” Graham sounded a familiar refrain.

But although they said health is the key, improved housing is not far behind among their concerns.

“We hope that the housing situation gets better. You have to wait so long to get repairs done,” Fleming said.

For longtime Patterson resident Primitiva Cruz, 66, safety outweighs all other concerns.

Pointing to her key to the building, she said, “We have this for nothing.”

“The doors are always open,” she said, adding that “too many drug addicts” wander the building’s  halls. “We need protection.”

Gavin said that although she was pleased that some residents were attending the brainstorming sessions regularly to discuss their ideas, too many are staying away.

“There are lots of people who talk about what they want, but they don’t come to the meetings,” she said.

The Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), a non-profit that helped the South Bronx rebuild after the devastation of the 1970s,  is working with the tenants  to help crystalize their concerns into a proposal. LISC will submit a master plan back to the community next spring, then present it to NYCHA before it goes on to the government’s department of Housing and Urban Development for consideration.

“We’re talking about really transforming a neighborhood here,” said Zarana Sanghani, the group’s director. But, she said, even if a proposal fails to win the big prize, the ongoing discussions among residents will help shine a spotlight on local needs and, perhaps, attract some investment.

“We are talking with business partners and seeing what types of resources they are interested in investing here in the neighborhood,” she said.

For more information about the program and future meetings, visit LISC’s website at and click on Choice Neighborhood Mott Haven in the Programs tab.

Additional reporting by Steven Trader. 

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