Interviews & Profiles

Solving NYC’s affordable housing crisis, even during a pandemic

How Project Renewal pressed on to serve its clients during COVID-19.

Gary Hershorn / Contributor - Getty

When New York City went into lockdown during the spring of 2020, many human service nonprofits had to navigate new ways to serve those in need, and Project Renewal was one of them. The 55-year-old nonprofit aims to end the cycle of homelessness and recently opened Bedford Green House, a 117-unit apartment building in the Bronx which includes an aquaponics farm, a library, and a community medical clinic. It is a project that the nonprofit had in the pipeline during the lockdown, and as its CEO Eric Rosenbaum, tells New York Nonprofit Media, there are more to come. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What is the mission of Project Renewal?

Project Renewal’s mission is to break the cycle of homelessness by empowering individuals and families to renew their lives with health homes. And what that means practically is that we provide a full spectrum of housing - everything from shelter to transitional housing, to permanent supported and affordable housing - to more than 2000 people a night with a focus on single adults with histories of mental illness, substance use disorders, and incarceration. And then we bring wraparound services into that housing environment that include a full spectrum of health care, including primary care, psychiatry, substance use treatment, etc., and workforce development programs that help people, many of whom may have had no experience with work and very little education, gain both the daily living skills that prepare people to be able to work, as well as the professional skills that allow them to get jobs that have long term career advancement potential.

You opened one of New York City’s first Support and Connection Centers. What was that like for your organization?

We were very excited to be one of two nonprofits that were selected to do this, [and be the] first in the city. The model comes from other environments where it's called a diversion center. The diversion is when police come across someone on the street who's behaving erratically, who might be under the influence of substances, or alcohol, who might be behaving a little bit aggressively. Police usually respond with a criminal justice-oriented and prevention [approach], since that's what they're trained to do. So instead of taking that person to the precinct or doing what a normal criminal justice intervention would be, the Support and Connection Center is a place where they can be brought instead. And they're met by a peer with lived experience, who can establish rapport immediately. They're offered a visit by a nurse to check out their health conditions, they're offered a meal, a shower, a bed, and they can stay for up to five days and sometimes a little bit longer. And during that period, we work to connect them with the services that they need, whatever that is, so that they can break the cycle, which for many of these people is a revolving [door] system that goes between the streets to a psychiatric hospital, to go to a shelter, to jail, and then back to the streets. The goal is to interrupt that cycle. One of the ways in which we do that is, even though people can stay with us for five days or more initially, once they've been with us they can return in what is like an open door policy whenever they want the support. It’s allowed us to help them break up that [aforementioned] cycle, which is not very helpful and often very expensive, and [we] get people more on a path towards permanency and independence.

What was it like for Project Renewal during the pandemic?

The first and most immediate impact was the recognition of profound inequity. In so many systems, it really hit us. First of all, we were looking at our own employees, because at the very beginning of the pandemic, when there was very little information, there was very little access to masks or PPE. And of course, there was no vaccine and no testing. It was our frontline workers who still had to come to work every day, who had to take public transportation whether or not it was running or available and had to expose themselves to the virus, even at the same time that their families and their communities were being very disproportionately affected by COVID. And it was obvious to us how unfair it was that we were asking our frontline workers, who are among our lowest paid employees, to take these kinds of risks when other employees, those who work in more administrative roles and often earn higher salaries, were able to be effective in their work in a more protected environment [by] working remotely. So we made a commitment to try and address that in whatever ways were possible. And in particular, we've done it by increasing paid time off so that people have more access to leave; by providing hazard pay and other bonuses or increases in compensation to at least acknowledge the inequity and make some moves against it. Another big impact had to do with race because these frontline workers are very disproportionately Black and brown. In the first summer of the pandemic, the murder of George Floyd really, really accelerated our understanding of these issues and how they disproportionately added to the impacts that the pandemic itself had had on these communities. 

When New York City went on curfew and the subways were shut down overnight, we were still a 24/7 operation. Our staff still had to come to work and the barriers to getting there were even greater. Sometimes our staff members were challenged by being out on the streets when all they were trying to do was go to work. When New York City moved 10,000 people from congregate shelters into hotels, our workforce was challenged yet again because neighborhoods were infuriated that former luxury hotels were being occupied by people who were homeless and new to those areas. We operated the Lucerne Hotel, which was in the news for months, and then our employees bore the brunt of the neighborhood's anger at the placement of our clients in this hotel. So it just added more and more insults to our workforce. And it was tough on the client. However, being in a hotel environment actually taught us a great and important beneficial lesson: That having access to a safe and private, physical environment, where a person is more in control of what goes on around them, reduces anxiety. It had a really positive impact, reducing the number of drug overdoses that we were reversing, or the reported use of substances. It reinforced for us the need to try and make sure that shelter is as safe as possible and that we're all offering more privacy wherever possible to people we saw in the hotel environment just how beneficial it was.

What has Project Renewal been doing in recent months?

We had a lot of projects in our pipeline, which were kind of slowly, semi-simmering away in the background. But, we were expanding our portfolio and one of the things that we were advocating for really strongly during the pandemic was the conversion of hotels to permanent housing. We saw that these hotels were unlikely to come back as hotels,  were likely to remain shuttered or in financial trouble because they couldn't meet their debt service. Given that homelessness fundamentally results from not having enough housing that is deeply affordable, we saw early on the opportunity to transform some of these hotels into housing in a way that could really significantly reduce homelessness. So, we worked on one of the first hotel conversion projects during the pandemic. Quite sadly, that conversion was killed by the prior administration just weeks before we were scheduled to close on the acquisition and begin the conversion. 

But we had other projects in our pipeline. We [recently] had the ribbon cutting for Bedford Green House, which is a 117-unit LEED Gold certified apartment exclusively for people who have been formerly homeless or are low-income in the Bronx with an incredible rooftop greenhouse where residents are able to grow their own vegetables and fish in a self-supporting ecosystem.That's the kind of community building that we want to be doing for people so that we're not just getting them a key to an apartment, but also helping them become part of a larger community that can can help sustain them. 

What’s next? 

We're going to be breaking ground this fall on some other projects, including part of the Greenpoint Hospital Redevelopment. We're going to be renovating an old nurse's dormitory and a homeless shelter to replace an existing shelter on that site. We are going to break ground on the second phase of Bedford Green, which is literally on the lot right behind the first one, where we'll be adding an additional 116 apartments. During this period, the city conveyed the deed to a shelter that we operate in East Midtown Manhattan to us, so that we can redevelop that site into a brand new tower that will have 130 low-income affordable apartments, one of the few opportunities to do that in East Midtown, along with a brand new shelter to replace the one that was there and a street facing health care center that will offer primary care, not only to the residents of the building but to people in the immediate neighborhood. And as always, in all of our healthcare facilities, regardless of the ability to pay. Our healthcare is accessible to everyone. 

What are your hopes for the future of Project Renewal?

We're going to be increasing our footprint and the number of people that we are able to serve by about 50% within the next few years, so we're building organizational capacity to ensure that we're resilient and that we're compensating our staff. 

I'm incredibly excited about the future of Project Renewal. I'd like us to be a leader in developing ultra low-income, affordable and supportive housing, because that is the solution out of homelessness for New York City. We're not going to be able to address homelessness in a meaningful way until we're creating housing faster than we're making people homeless. [Also] in the first week of the pandemic, we switched to Telehealth right away. About half of our clinical staff were either quarantined or sick themselves, but they continued the way they were able to continue to provide services. So clinical care didn't suffer and it's become a big thing for us.”