The South Bronx Overall Economic Development Corp. (SoBRO) announced that it has hired a replacement for its longtime director Philip Morrow, who retired last March. Steven Brown, who has spent his whole career running nonprofits geared towards affordable housing and job training, was named president and CEO of the organization this month.
Brown, 62, was first brought on as interim director last July. Most recently he served as executive director of Building Skills New York, a nonprofit that trains low-income New Yorkers to work in the construction and management trades on affordable housing projects. He also spent 10 years running the Yonkers-based Greyston, another supportive services nonprofit.
Brown is no stranger to the area. He served as vice president of The NYC Housing Partnership during the 1980s and ‘90s, when the city was trying to help the South Bronx recover from more than a decade of arson and neglect by building small, owner-occupied houses on city-owned parcels. Returning after all those years and seeing sprawling developments sprouting everywhere, Brown says he barely recognized the area.
“Back then there was significant abandonment,” he recalled. “It was the beginning of the end of disinvestment. I come back and it’s like, ‘oh my God.’”
“It’s interesting how far we’ve come,” he said, pointing out a window of SoBRO’s Bergen Street building to a parcel across the street where the La Central complex will soon be built, with about 1,000 apartments. “There aren’t too many of these. The vacant land’s gone. ”
In his new position, Brown will manage a staff of 90 full time and more than 100 part time employees, and a $15 million budget, mostly from city grants. In addition, SoBRO earns some revenue from more than 600 apartments it manages. He says that one of his goals is to “stabilize the organization.”
Nine staffers have been laid off since last spring during the reevaluation process. As part of that assessment, Brown says it remains to be seen “how engaged we’ll be in housing, and what kind,” though affordable housing will remain a priority. In recent years, some residents have criticized the organization for being too cozy with developers and not having the best interests of the neighborhood at heart.
Youth development, after schools programs and job training will also remain, he said, especially “preparing young people for jobs of the 21st century. We’ve got to look more at technology.”
Beyond preparing young people for the work force, he added that an urgent task will be to identify industries that offer “decent paying jobs that are going to exist in 20 years. Retail? That’s not the future.”
So, what is the future of work for young people in Mott Haven?
“The state has made a huge commitment to the film industry,” he said, pointing out that Silvercup Studios’ move to Port Morris is one indicator of the entertainment industry’s interest in the area. “It’s one of the largest tax incentives the state gives.”
Environmental remediation—-and there’s plenty of that to be done in the area, he pointed out—- is another growing field in which workers can make a decent living. “People have to clean those up.”
The chair of SoBRO’s board of directors, Jean Smith, said the board is confident it has found the right person for the job.
“Brown has dedicated his professional life to programs and causes that serve vulnerable populations,” said Smith in a statement.