Artist Elizabeth Hamby works on a mural with a young resident at Betances Community Center on Oct. 17.

NYCHA plan enters home stretch

Some fifty residents gathered at the Betances Houses Community Center on a recent Friday evening for a night of film screenings and performances, and to discuss updates to the Choice Neighborhood Initiative, an ambitious plan to attract federal and private funds to help upgrade living conditions.

Artist Elizabeth Hamby works on a mural with a young resident at Betances Community Center on Oct. 17.
Artist Elizabeth Hamby works on a mural with a young resident at Betances Community Center on Oct. 17.

Tenants eye home and neighborhood upgrades

Warm chatter and the smell of buttery popcorn wafted through the Betances Houses Community Center on Brook Ave. on a recent Friday evening as some fifty residents gathered for a night of film screenings and performances. Many had also come to discuss updates to the Choice Neighborhood Initiative, an ambitious plan to attract federal and private funds to help upgrade living conditions in and around Mott Haven public housing complexes.

The arts event that accompanied the discussion was the latest stop along the South Bronx Culture Trail, an ongoing series led by the Hunts Point community center Casita Maria Center for Arts and Education, to celebrate the area’s history and culture. 

An official from the New York City Housing Authority, Tanya Dempsey, introduced a short film documenting the rise of Nene Ali, a 16-year-old spoken word artist from the neighborhood. In addition, artist Elizabeth Hamby led a mural painting workshop.

As a representative of the unpopular agency that runs the city’s housing projects, Dempsey knew she was fighting an uphill battle in trying to win over the locals to participate in the housing initiative.

“Trying to bring NYCHA into the community and the community into NYCHA, it’s not an easy feat,” she said.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has promised to change the way the city handles public housing, and to make the notoriously bureaucratic housing agency more accessible for residents. Recent changes Dempsey said she has implemented as program development director under the new regime include weekly office hours for residents to come air grievances about maintenance problems, and monthly planning meetings with tenant leaders.

Last summer, the former head of a nonprofit housing agency was named to head the agency. Shola Olatoye, Dempsey’s new boss, has vowed to improve relations between her agency and public housing residents. By the end of this year Olatoye needs to have a plan for the agency’s future, and the funding to make changes.

So far, so good, said Betances House resident Claudio Perez, 45, who served on the neighborhood transformation planning committee.

“What has changed is that the community has a voice; we have a voice with NYCHA,” said Perez. “We have a person that can go to the big heads in NYCHA and advocate for us in this community.”

Last year NYCHA partnered with a Manhattan-based non-profit and Mott Haven and Melrose public housing tenants to devise a plan to submit to the federal Housing and Urban Development department as part of the Choice Neighborhood Initiative. Under the guidelines of the program, public housing tenants from 20 areas around the country are vying for a pot of about $400 million from the federal government and private investors to spruce up communities. HUD has said it will select ten of those proposals.

After a two-year process that has cost $300,000, NYCHA submitted Mott Haven’s “transformation plan,” a 170-page report, in October. They hope to show HUD that investing in the South Bronx will translate into major quality of life improvements, and to demonstrate that local and city officials support the project.

The proposal is centered in five local complexes: Mitchel, Betances, Patterson, Milbrook, and Mott Haven Houses. Ideas include rehabbing the block around the Betances Houses near 148th St. and St. Ann’s Ave., implementing a comprehensive diabetes prevention program in partnership with the Department of Health, and creating a program to help students and parents navigate the college application process.

Despite NYCHA’s efforts to improve relations with residents, some at the October event said they’re reserving judgment until they see if the agency will walk the walk, not just talk the talk.

Linda Duke, 69, a Mitchel House resident who has served on several planning committees, said that the residents involved aren’t necessarily representative of the whole community; rather they are the same local residents who are always active. More outreach could make for better representation, she said.

“I don’t feel like there were enough people involved,” she said, “But it seems to be like that with everything.”