Up From The Ashes
From Rebuilding Civil Society. A Symposium from: The New Democrat, volume 7, number 2 March/April 1995.
Nehemiah Plan Homes
Public housing in New York City was filling up rapidly in the early 1980s, in part with thousands of working families for whom home ownership was a costly, distant dream. Meanwhile, large tracts in Brooklyn and the South Bronx, abandoned by the middle class in the 1970s, lay in ruins. The streets and sewers in these rubble-strewn areas remained intact, however, providing a solid foundation on which to rebuild.
Some 15 years later, the Nehemiah Plan Homes has constructed more than 2,800 low-cost homes in these ravaged areas once synonymous with urban decay. Single-family brick rowhouses-some 60 percent of whose owners come directly from public housing-now occupy lots that, in many cases, were either seized for nonpayment of taxes or simply abandoned.
The Nehemiah project (named after the Old Testament prophet who led the rebuilding of Jerusalem in the 5th century B.C.) is the brainchild of New York developer I.D. Robbins, who by 1980 had retired as a builder and was writing a column for The Daily News. Robbins that year persuaded the tabloid's editor-in-chief to run a five-page section illustrating his own prototype for affordable housing and explaining how it could be inexpensively built.
The newspaper received a record 3,000 letters in response, including one from the nonprofit Industrial Areas Foundation expressing an interest in sponsoring Robbins's plan. It offered a no-interest, five-year loan from a local affiliate, East Brooklyn Churches, to finance construction.
By 1983, Robbins had begun building two-story rowhouses, most of them on lots seized by the city. Buyers purchase the lots for $1 and the homes for about $60,000. A key component in financing the purchases is a one-time, interest-free loan from the city of between $10,000 and $15,000, which buyers must repay first upon reselling the property. These "capital grants" reduce the size of each mortgage, so that families earning just $20,000 annually can buy homes with down payments of about $5,000. To finance the balance, the State of New York Mortgage Agency arranges first-time mortgage loans at below-market rates.
The churches have recovered their entire initial investment of $8 million, along with a surplus for additional construction. And, Robbins said, "We've had not one single default." Moreover, the program as a whole has freed up desperately needed space in public housing and allowed the city to resume collecting taxes on previously vacant lots.
Based on Robbins's firm belief that piecemeal urban rehabilitation generally yields little over time- neighborhoods are declining and individual properties require continuous upkeep-Nehemiah Plan Homes are built on contiguous parcels of land, hundreds at a time, to save construction costs and foster a sense of unity.
"These were some of the worst neighborhoods in America. Some were scenes of total devastation," Robbins said. "The streets, the sewers, libraries, and churches were all there, but there weren't any people. We put the people back."
"And when you put a couple of thousand families in a neighborhood who work and take care of their kids," he added, "then you've made a basic change for the better and given hope to people who did not have much hope before."
Sarah Jackson-Han is an editor of The New Democrat
South Bronx Nehemiah
817-C Trinity Ave.
Bronx, N.Y. 10456.
Also see East Brooklyn Congregations Build Nehemiah Homes
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