Bringing a new look to affordable housing

A Q&A with Jeremy Kohomban of The Children’s Village on the nonprofit’s latest development.

Jeremy Kohomban, president and CEO of The Children’s Village

Jeremy Kohomban, president and CEO of The Children’s Village The Children’s Village

As The Children’s Village opens The Eliza in Inwood, Manhattan, which is the newest addition to its residential portfolio, the nonprofit is bringing a fresh look to urban affordable housing. With its 174 units equipped with state-of-the-art amenities, The Eliza will stand on top of a new public library – the 20,000-square-foot space now redesigned by veteran architect Andrew Berman. The building also boasts pre-kindergarten facilities operated by the New York City Department of Education, in addition to an extensive community learning, a STEM and teaching kitchen center operated by The Children’s Village and its co-developer The Community League of the Heights.

Designed by architect Chris Fogarty of Fogarty Finger, with the intention of being an integrated community building, The Eliza marks a departure from uninviting affordable housing structures. But above all, the new building is an extension of The Children Village’s holistic treatment model. Over its 170-year history, the nonprofit has helped shape the city’s foster care landscape, helping children and teens find support systems suited to their needs. Today, the nonprofit remains advocates for unaccompanied minors making their way into the foster system.

New York Nonprofit Media spoke to Jeremy Kohomban, president and CEO of The Children’s Village, about misconceptions surrounding the foster care system and how residential care sites like The Eliza help create long-term solutions.

What are some misconceptions of the foster care system that can be especially damaging?

One is the ongoing argument between the right type of foster care and the need to abolish foster care completely. Now, this abolishing movement has to end. We’ve got to find a balance, because this conversation puts tremendous stress on the workforce. And none of us want to come to a job where we think that what we’re doing is socially unjust. So the pressure on the workforce, with this ongoing conversation, and some of the extreme positions that are being taken on both ends are pretty incredible. My hope is that in the next year or two, we’ll find the middle ground because – yes, we don’t want needless family separation, but at what point do we intervene? Because there are times when kids need that additional support.


How can preventive measures be effectively implemented?

Poverty, whether it’s rural poverty impacting white families, to urban poverty impacting Black and brown families, is a real issue. But closely tied to this poverty problem is also the segregation problem. Where we live, and where our children go to school is a game-changer. Take a look at New York, take a look at where all our (foster) kids are coming from. They’re coming from segregated communities with schools that are incredibly stressed, and in some cases completely failing. We have to address both. So it’s not just about poverty alleviation; we also have to begin to figure out how to desegregate these communities.

Speaking of affordable housing, what led to the start of The Eliza?

When we sat down to discuss The Eliza, the four of us said, “Where do we want to live?” Where would we want our parents, our children, to live if we were building something, and what would it look like? We wanted to build something high quality, beautiful that we could live in. So we didn’t look to the people that typically do affordable housing. We looked for people that do high market value projects. It’s in a beautiful neighborhood with a strong Spanish, new immigrant, African American, old German, Jewish, Irish community. In fact, we think of it as a very racially integrated neighborhood that represents a great diversity of New York. It was a labor of love. We believe that the amenities that we built into this space, the quality of the build, sets the bar for what true affordable housing can look like in New York City.

What are your thoughts on some of the opposition faced during the construction of The Eliza?

The challenge here is that because of the history of segregation, the image of affordability is so deeply tied to a visual of poor quality, high density, inner city living. And when you talk to neighbors about affordability, their minds immediately go to these pictures and images that have been built over the last 100 years of segregation and separation, and nobody wants that. The Eliza is a good example of when we build beautiful spaces, places where you and I and our parents can live, we begin to change the perception of what affordability is all about. Think about it, every story about affordability is NYCHA housing, the so-called projects, the so-called ghetto – so I don’t blame people for having images of affordability that are both unpleasant while feeling that the community will be burdened. When we build new beautiful spaces where our community takes pride in living, where their families, children and parents can be members of our community, I think we win the battle in the long run.

What do you say to those who see foster care as a pipeline to juvenile justice and crime?

This is another common misconception that has been perpetuated by certain policies, or maybe the media. So there is a disproportionate impact: A lot of Black families lose their children faster, and their children languish in the system for longer. They go from the lowest levels of care, which is prevention, to the highest levels of care, which could be Rikers Island, and they exit with the worst outcomes. So absolutely, there are structural issues. But we’ve done a good job. When I graduated from college and came to New York to do this work, we had 45,000 children in the foster care system in New York, and now we are under 7,000 kids. So clearly, we are doing something better, but we do have ways to go. 

In your experience, how are foster children impacted by drug use?

It’s not prevalent within the system. But increasingly, we think about 35% of our families touched by child welfare and foster care, are nationally impacted by substance abuse. I think it’s safe to assume that in our teenage population, we can see a growing prevalence of substance abuse, starting with some of the substances that have been recently legalized.

What’s causing this rise in substance abuse among teens?

One is if you come from a family where substance abuse was prevalent, it’s a propensity that you will pick it up. The other group is stress: a way to deal with mental health, anguish. And the third is boredom. Now, that’s usually an opportunity for us to act, because we can do more to make sure that young people are engaged. A big problem we have in our preventive arena, when we work with young people who are bored, is that they’re bored because they’ve been expelled from school, or they missed so much of school during the pandemic that they don’t feel comfortable going back. So they’re not always getting expelled, but they’re also intentionally stepping back because they don’t know how to reconnect with the class that moved on.

How has this sense of disconnection impacted the mental health of teens in foster care?

None of our kids want to be out there committing crime and missing school. They want to succeed, they want to have homes, they want to have families. But they’re stressed because they don’t see a path that gets them from here to there. So the young person that was disconnected from education during the pandemic, and is afraid to return to class because she will be embarrassed because she’s so far behind, is completely stressed. One of the things that our team focuses on is trying to bring those kids off the street back into the classroom. because once they’re in with a little bit of support, we can help them get back into the structure of education. When you think about race, structural racism, the lack of integration – education is a path. So why lie to our young people? They need an education.

How are you integrating migrant children or unaccompanied minors into the system? How are they faring?

It’s not easy for them, but we are following the same trajectory, as we do with our domestic children. The first is to make sure that kids have families because kids who are not connected to family are always at risk. Family is your protective function. So our job is to get you back to your family, or if your families are unable to be there for you, to create a family. That’s our No. 1 priority. With migrants in New York City, we follow a slightly different approach. We start by providing legal services and the asylum petition to get that legal piece out of the way, because the asylum petition then allows you to get the work permit. And then most importantly is helping families move out of these massive impersonal shelters into communities with people who speak their language, and maybe come from their village, to tell them how to navigate their journey in the United States. Immigrants can’t learn that from the government; immigrants learn from each other.

Do you ever feel like the needs of these migrant children might compete with the needs of children existing in foster care?

There is no competition here. We have the resources to take care of everyone. Here is my fear, though. In the absence of a legal pathway for these migrants, and also a lot of undocumented residents, we are creating a second-class workforce in the United States. People who work without authorization are always at risk. They have no due process protections, and they’re always afraid they’ll be caught and penalized, or even deported. And we have millions of people that have no legal pathway. And as citizens, we should scream against that because people who are taking advantage of cheap migrant labor are not looking out for their best. There are people who would be happy to always have a second-class unprotected labor force. And our migrants are doing terrible work, including our children. As a country, we are so much better than that.

What are some solutions that you want to see implemented in the foster system?

We need to do more for our foster parents. They’re amazing, but we need more foster families for teenagers. We need to think more about bringing groups who are credible messengers: young people who have come out of the system that are helping us serve the ones that are in the system today. It’s the biggest shift and the most exciting shift I have seen in our work, because people who are closest to the problem often are closest to the solution. Our workforce is also stressed. This is hard work. Our staff who are on the front lines, our social workers, our clinicians, are our front-line practitioners. They are doing self-sacrificial, difficult, difficult work, and we need to do more for them.