Op-Ed | Building opportunity and serving community through affordable housing

Photo via Getty Images
Photo via Getty Images

In recent years, “development” has become a dirty word. And while much of the discourse around development has been driven by individuals advancing bad faith arguments, some of the criticism is valid. Too often, developers have failed to honor their commitments, leaving communities feeling cheated. These bad actors have fostered a legitimate skepticism toward development in communities across the five boroughs that hurts sincere efforts to solve growing challenges like our city’s housing crisis.

Moving forward in a way that truly helps people is going to require earning trust, and that starts by offering a new approach. As a collective of mission-driven partners, we’ve advanced efforts that do just that: designing projects that generate beautiful housing that’s deeply affordable and provide community benefits that are meaningful.

One community in which we’ve been working for decades and where we plan to bring 174 high-quality units of deeply affordable housing is Inwood, where housing is desperately needed. From 2010 to 2020, the total number of housing units across Manhattan increased by 7.9 percent. In Inwood – during that same period – the number of new apartments increased by a mere 2 percent, significantly less than almost every other neighborhood across the five boroughs.

As a coalition of partners – made up of the Community League of the Heights, The Children’s Village, Housing Workshop, Alembic Community Development, and Ranger Properties – we are excited to play a small part in changing the tides in Inwood.

Coined The Eliza at the Inwood Library, the project will build housing above a community treasure: The Inwood branch of the New York Public Library (NYPL), which after serving the Northern Manhattan community for decades is getting an upgrade that is designed to meet the evolving needs of Inwood’s families and children. The Eliza brings 174 deeply affordable housing units that area residents can be proud to call home – homes that any one of us would be proud to live in. The project also brings a broad array of meaningful community benefits.

The NYPL began serving the Northern Manhattan neighborhood of Inwood in 1902. Since then, however, Inwood has evolved with the world around it, and the needs of local families and children have evolved too — particularly during the last 18 months. We live differently, we learn differently, and the community gathers differently.

To design a community-centered plan that brings new affordable units to the area, we knew that this shifting terrain needed to be taken into account.

So, we’re working with the New York Public Library, city agencies, and non-profit organizations to build The Eliza, bringing a 20,000-square-foot, two-story modern library, a STEM Learning Center, new technology, internet and WiFi access, a 6,800 square foot universal Pre-K facility, and a community center with a teaching kitchen.

The community center will offer programs that reach children, youth and adults of all ages, bringing the synergy of a modern public library team and a community center staff focused on one mission: the people in our community.

These project benefits, among various others, will allow this longtime community resource to continue to serve its Inwood neighbors in a way that supports, nourishes, and benefits our community in a meaningful way.

It’s often said that quality affordable housing isn’t just about putting a roof over someone’s head; it’s about something far greater – honoring an individual’s dignity, offering a solid foundation to lead a positive life, creating a safe, healthy place to raise a family and cultivating a neighborhood that one can be proud of, the list is endless. So, why shouldn’t the way we build affordable housing reflect these factors as well?

The Eliza at the Inwood Library offers a model for that creative and holistic approach – building beautiful affordable housing that we would want for our children and families in a way that enhances already existing neighborhood resources.

From our perspective — after nearly a combined century of working in the Inwood community — this project represents public-private partnership at its best. We can’t wait to bring this project to fruition, and we feel blessed to have the opportunity to continue to serve, support, and learn from the residents who call Inwood home.

Inwood deserves beautiful and affordable housing. Anything less would be an unnecessary compromise.

Stennett is the executive director of Community League of the Heights and Kohomban, Ph.D, is the president and CEO of The Children’s Village

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