How West Farms Was Won

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Vacant land was once the scourge of West Farms. Trash collected on it, drugs dealers used it to run their businesses, and community groups in this South Bronx neighborhood begged, pleaded, and stomped their feet to get City Hall to do something about it–fence it, build on it, or even just pick up the trash once in a while.

Vacant land was also the first thing that Meaghan Shannon-Vlkovic saw when she started work at West Farms’ Aquinas Housing Corporation in 1990. On her first day on the job at the housing development nonprofit, she got off the train at East Tremont Avenue and walked down to the corner of Vyse Avenue. In front of her rose a horizon of two decades of arson, neglect and abandonment.

“Standing on that corner, all you saw was vacant land,” Shannon-Vlkovic says now.

Ten years later, all that has changed in this little neighborhood just south of the Bronx Zoo. Now the view from that corner includes more than a hundred handsome dark gray three-story townhouses. The commercial strip along nearby 180th Street is coming alive, albeit slowly. Driveways are filled with minivans, and the sidewalks are crowded with mothers with baby strollers.

Here’s how dramatic the change has been: An urban planning study found in 1993 that 20 percent of the district was vacant lots, far above the citywide average of 6 percent. By 1998, according to the local community board, only 7 percent of the land districtwide was left vacant. Empty lots still dot the neighborhood, but they are almost all spoken for, says Ivine Galarza, the district manager of Community Board 6. “We don’t have much land to build on,” she says, adding that much of what is left is in the hands of private developers.

It’s great news. But the boom brings an unexpected dark side for local housing groups. For the first time that anyone can remember, they are running out of vacant land.

During the South Bronx’s long real estate nightmare, it was easy to find places to build low-cost housing. In the words of one developer, you could just throw a dart at the map. Generally, it was also relatively easy to convince the city government, which owned most of that land, to turn it over for next to nothing for the purpose of building new apartments for poor and working-class people.

Now that times are good, though, Aquinas is finding that it may have worked its way out of a job. The more it builds, the harder it gets for the organization to keep building–even though there are still thousands of people on their housing waitlists. The developers at Aquinas, like other nonprofit housing builders, find themselves struggling to control what little property is left–and wondering how they will ever begin to address the pressing need for more cheap housing.

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West Farms’ history follows the same cycle of growth and collapse that is familiar in the South Bronx. A rural area turned urban by the 1904 subway expansion, it became a predominately working-class Jewish neighborhood by the 1950s. Then, as whites moved out and Puerto Ricans moved in, the population dwindled, dropping from 17,000 to 12,000 between 1970 and 1980. Stable apartment buildings became empty shells, and the main commercial strip on 180th Street was all but abandoned.

By the late 1980s West Farms began to rebound, as new homes were built and people moved back. But once the life to the neighborhood returned, West Farms developed another, more prosaic problem: a housing crunch.

Citywide, apartment vacancy rates are still painfully low, and homes in the South Bronx are especially likely to be jam-packed. According to Census Bureau statistics, up to 20 percent of all households in the South Bronx are officially “overcrowded,” hosting more than one person per room.

One big problem is the huge demand for senior housing. Last year, Aquinas opened a 98-unit apartment building for seniors in West Farms, but it put hardly a dent in the group’s waiting list, now at 400 people. Another local organization that runs senior housing has 1,200 people on its waiting list.

That leaves few options for people like 75-year-old James Bryant, who lives in a one-bedroom apartment near the Grand Concourse. He pays $365 a month to live in this dilapidated city-owned building, but with monthly social security payments amounting to $517, he is also going broke.

For now, Bryant can only hope, and wait out his turn on the Aquinas list. The thought of living in West Farms brings a smile to his face–in that neighborhood, he would have access to trains and subways, and have more open space to take long walks. “It would be nice to get away from here,” he says, sitting in his living room. “I’m having a hard time.”

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As vacant land becomes a coveted resource rather than an albatross, another strange thing has begun to happen. These long-neglected parcels are sparking turf wars, like the one that played out in Community Board 6 last spring.

At the May board meeting, four different housing groups showed up to get approval to build on two plots of land. One of the lots, in West Farms, had been earmarked for senior housing by two groups: Aquinas and another local nonprofit, the Tremont Community Council Home Attendant Services.

Standing on opposite sides of the room like two lawyers before a judge, the group’s two executive directors spent more than an hour pitching their plans to the board–and taking swipes at one another.

Shannon-Vlkovic complained that Tremont’s Tony Martinez had met with the chair of her board “behind her back” and that he had accused Aquinas of acting in an “underhanded” way. Martinez, for his part, denied there was a “conspiracy” but implied that one of his consultants had leaked information to Aquinas. The fray apparently overwhelmed the board chair, who wound up pleading with the two groups to come to some kind of agreement themselves.

Other nonprofit directors in the neighborhood say such a dispute is almost unprecedented. “I don’t remember until recently where two organizations indigenous to the community literally made proposals for the same parcel or building,” says Joe Cicciu, executive director of the Belmont Arthur Local Development Corporation, one of the groups that has built low-income housing in that community district. “I guess that is a harbinger of the future.”

The two executive directors eventually made their peace, working out a deal: Tremont got the lot, since it technically had submitted its proposal first. But they joke now about the “Manhattanization” of West Farms and the South Bronx. “I hope that we don’t get to that point,” says Cicciu. “I don’t believe that we will.”

Increasingly, though, housing groups in both the Lower East Side and in Bronx neighborhoods like West Farms find themselves asking these same questions (see sidebar, “Land’s End”). Should that vacant lot become a park or a place to live? Will a two-family townhouse or apartment building better serve the neighborhood? Should we pave over a community garden for senior housing?

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The crunch isn’t limited to vacant land. The stock of city-owned buildings is also disappearing in the South Bronx, housing groups report. Across Community Board 6–which includes West Farms, East Tremont, Belmont, and Bathgate–most of the apartment buildings that the city took possession of in the last decades have now been turned over to community groups to rebuild and manage.

But the demand for places to live has remained strong, meaning that housing groups in West Farms and elsewhere are hard-pressed to find entirely new ways to develop new affordable housing.

Shannon-Vlkovic says Aquinas has already started this process. She wants to work with privately owned buildings that are in “distress” and provide better services to Aquinas-owned buildings. She also thinks local organizations that now provide the same social services can collaborate on programs. “If we run out of land, we have to make sure that the housing in this community is inhabitable and affordable,” she says. This shift in focus is going on in other South Bronx neighborhoods as well.

“Your mission changes once an area stops being regarded as depressed and starts to rebound,” says Jeanette Puryear, executive director of the Mid-Bronx Senior Citizens Council, which is based south of West Farms near Yankee Stadium. “In some ways, you go on to the much harder job–trying to find people work, trying to change the mix of businesses in the area. Those are the challenges that many groups are facing as they try to go beyond the bricks and mortar.”

Matthew Strozier is a reporter for the Stamford Advocate.