From “Providing Housing” to “Building Communities”: a brief History of the Albany Housing Authority

The Yarbrough Homes and Urban Renewal in Arbor Hill

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The Yarbrough Homes and Urban Renewal in Arbor Hill

In May of 1971, work was finished on NY-9-5. Located at the corner of Livingston Avenue and North Pearl Street, the Ida Yarbrough Homes offered two types of public housing units. The two seven story towers were designed to provide 224 units for low-income elderly. The towers had features specifically designed for that population, such as centrally linked emergency pull switches and a nurses station. The remaining housing at Ida Yarbrough was low-rise, family type construction. This consisted of 129 units with three, four, and five bedroom layouts. The Ida Yarbrough homes were named for a locally famous, African-American community leader and civil rights activist. Yarbrough, who had passed away in 1969, was once quoted as saying, “You don’t leave a community if it doesn’t have exactly what you want. You want to build it yourself.”33 Yarbrough was a founder of the Albany Inter-Racial Council as well as its first woman president.

The Yarbrough Homes was also a turnkey project. The “ready to rent” arrangement was intended to free up the AHA from the obligations of oversight, but the lack of state supervision in this case became a specter that haunted the site for years to come. In many places the construction had been rushed or components had been improperly installed. Among these were plumbing problems that led to flooding and roofs that developed severe leaks due to improper assembly. In February of 1977, the AHA announced that it had discovered too many flaws and that it planned to file suit against the general contractor.34

The site selection for the Yarbrough homes was part of a much larger urban renewal project in Arbor Hill. The Urban renewal efforts were an attempt to revitalize the neighborhood through the construction of new buildings to replace those that were substandard or too costly to repair. Urban renewal could be subtle, imperceptibly altering the actual physical layout of an area, or it could be dramatic, involving new road layouts and different styles of buildings or approaches to land use. The plan for Arbor Hill involved drastic changes. As early as 1958, the neighborhood was targeted as an urban renewal area.35 Throughout the early sixties, a major, comprehensive plan for Arbor Hill was developed and refined. By 1963, the project took shape and was divided into three stages. The first stage involved removing some of the existing grid system and building the Manning Boulevard extension as a continuation of Ten Broeck Street.36 The first phase also involved the construction of housing of three different types: garden apartments, a private high-rise development, and public housing. The first phase was designed to increase Arbor Hill’s housing stock and provide a greenbelt within the city. The second phase included the building of a school, a park, and some additional housing. The final phase involved some scattered site rehabilitation and renewal between Clinton and Livingston Avenues.

Ultimately, only the first phase of the urban renewal project would be completed. The Ida Yarbrough Homes were constructed to make up the public housing component. The garden apartments were built by the Dudley Park Association, which was formed by the Albany Episcopal Cathedral of All Saints and the Morning Star Baptist Church. The Dudley Park Apartments were a 263-unit development keyed to offering affordable housing. Also built as part of the Arbor Hill Urban Renewal Project was Ten Broeck Manor. Planned by the New York State Urban Development Corporation (UDC), this two-site project was constructed by the F.D. Rich Housing Corporation. The development consisted of two-story apartments and was called a “country village” by the developers.37 These apartments still exist, but are now known as Skyline Gardens and managed by Interstate Realty Management. A few other elements of the urban renewal project were put in place at various times. The Whitney M. Young Jr. Health Clinic was finished in 1970 and the new Arbor Hill Elementary School was completed in 1973. In 1986 a short-lived shopping center was also constructed.38

Community interactions take place in the context of the neighborhoods of which they are a part. When it was decided that Ida Yarbrough would be placed in Arbor Hill, the intention was to provide affordable housing that would allow families in the neighborhood to remain. Simply living in a neighborhood, however, does not create community. Peter Blau, a noted sociologist, stated that opportunities for contact determine the probability of social associations.39 Blau suggested a few structural factors that influence the probability that individuals will have opportunities to interact. One that relates to public housing is the impact of proximity. For individuals to interact they must share some kind of close physical proximity at some point. Applying this to communities, for bonds to form, individuals who reside there must have regular face-to-face contact with one another. Homes with visible individual street entrances increase the likelihood of this taking place.

The Yarbrough Homes, like other tower projects, suffered from having solely communal entrances. Further, security procedures actually barred other members of the community from access to the high-rise portion unless they already knew a tenant. Distance can be physical, but it can also be perceived. Cul-de-sacs, enclosed housing, or structures that depart from those commonly found in a community can serve as perceived barriers to interaction. The struggle comes in that these are common features in multiple unit housing, as they tend to heighten the sense of security for residents. However, communities can interact through the sharing of community resources such as parks, community centers, or local businesses. The nature of The Yarbrough Homes made community interactions like this critical. The failure to implement phases two and three of the urban renewal program meant that some community features that were planned would never come to fruition or be only partially completed.

Still, Yarbrough tenants have found ways to interact with the larger Arbor Hill community. For a long time the Arbor Hill Community Center, located at 50 Lark St., offered an opportunity for resident interaction. One resident explained, “We used to go up to the center…the big center. I used to belong there until they tore it down.” Although the old community center was demolished in 2000, residents of Ida Yarbrough Homes continue to use the new community center in the renovated Engine 2 Company fire station as a way to meet with others in the community.

The NYS-137 Projects

In October of 1973, NYS-137-B was completed in the South End and designated Creighton Storey Homes. This low-rise development was designed for families and had a blend of two, three, four, and five bedroom layouts. The general contracting work had been done by Continental Multiplex, and the final price tag for the development was $4,040,732.

NYS-137-C was a seventeen-story tower at 45 Central Avenue. Designed by Blatner, Mendel, Mesick, and Cohen as another project for seniors, it contained 158 one-bedroom apartments. Built by OR-DI Construction Corp and completed in the fall of 1974, the tower was named the Townsend Park Apartments. It was constructed at a total cost of nearly four million dollars. Unlike Westview, Townsend Park Homes is a more traditional tower block shape. Their location near the Public Library, Art Institute and Washington Park instantly made them one of the more desirable housing options for Senior Citizens. 40 Also, unlike Yarbrough, Townsend had been closely monitored by the State during construction. This precluded many of the structural problems of the Yarbrough high-rises, slowed their aging and reduced recurring maintenance demands.

The large amount of public housing built in Albany in the early seventies was unusual. By that time most of the country had stopped building public housing tower blocks. Other tower projects in the US had seen disruption far worse than that experienced at Thacher and Lincoln Park Homes. One of the most famous cases, Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis, was torn down in 1972 at a loss of 300 million dollars. In 1973, President Nixon declared a moratorium on federal funding for all housing and community development projects. The fact that Albany was building a large portion of its public housing at that time evidenced the city’s unique character in two ways in particular. First, the South Mall project had created a sense of urgency for public housing. Rockefeller’s involvement in scrapping the first NYS 137 project fueled additional demands for public housing. Coming to a head in 1969, there was a major effort to get new housing projects started. This allowed the AHA to push through the Yarbrough and Westview Homes construction before Nixon’s moratorium took effect. Second, the state provided funds at a time when federal funds were being curtailed. Still, the moratorium affected Albany. Two projects did not receive approval in time and were never built. One was a 225 unit elderly project to be built next to the Westview Homes. The second was 125 units of scattered units designed to meet the need for family housing.

The Awkward 70’s and the Rise of the Tenant Associations

While the early seventies saw the construction of a large number of units of public housing, it could also be considered the most tumultuous period in the Albany Housing Authority’s history. In the spring of 1970, under pressure from the tenants, the Housing Authority terminated Seiden Security and Investigation as providers of security for the Thacher Homes. Thacher residents said the guards were virtually non-existent and when they were present, they harassed residents and used aggressive tactics to police the buildings. The Thacher Homes had been labeled by many as the worst housing in Albany. There had been reports of several muggings and widespread vandalism. The tenants of the Thacher Homes did not want another private security company in the building. They demanded that a tenant based security patrol be established to provide both jobs for tenants and assurance that the guards had a vested interest in the security of the buildings. Difficulties also arose over the maintenance of these buildings. Due to the combined effects of vandalism and age, many AHA projects were in need of substantial rehabilitation. All these factors combined placed a substantial strain on relations between the AHA administration and its’ residents.

It was out of these clashes that the tenant associations in each of the projects were born and gained strength. Father Peter Young remembers the tenants coming to him for assistance in working with the AHA. He recalls, “It started with the problems of the playground, and it evolved from one thing to another.” Soon Thacher, Lincoln, and Whalen Homes all had well organized and vocal tenant associations. These three tenant associations formed the core voice of the residents in their dealings with AHA. The Albany Tenant Association Council was created for the purpose of presenting unified demands to the AHA.

In early 1971, two lawsuits were filed against the Albany Housing Authority. The first dealt with the manner in which the Authority assessed extra rent for damages done to the interior and exterior of units. The second contended that the Authority’s eviction process was unfair in that evictions often took place at a moment’s notice.41

Matters continued to worsen. The Housing Authority was in the process of applying for a two million dollar modernization grant from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). In June of 1971, fearing that the grant would not be used to address the issues about which they were most concerned, the Albany Tenants Association wrote a letter requesting HUD block the grant until the Housing Authority could guarantee the incorporation of their demands into the rehabilitation plans.42 Negotiations for a tenant security patrol dragged on. The debate stemmed from the Housing Authority’s desire to retain ultimate control over who was hired or dismissed.

While security issues were the biggest concern for the residents of the towers, those in the Whalen Homes wanted new roofs and other sorely needed upgrades. Tired of wrestling with the Housing Authority, Julia Corazzini, the president of the Robert Whalen Tenant Association, announced at the end of October that residents of the Robert Whalen Homes would engage in a rent strike, withholding their November rent if their demands were not met.43 The Housing Authority chairman at the time, Eugene Devine, stated there was really nothing that the AHA could do without the modernization money. The rent strike at the Whalen Homes would continue for almost three years.

In frustration, the Housing Authority tried to evict those Whalen residents who were striking. The date of December 31, 1971 was marked for those residents who had withheld their rent to be dispossessed. The cumulative effect of these numerous problems took its toll on Executive Director Robert Bender and he resigned on December 23rd 1971, citing ill health. His resignation was so sudden that a replacement had not yet been identified. Bernard Granger would eventually be sworn in later in 1972 as the Executive Director of the AHA.

Granger took charge of an Authority in rough shape. Tenants of the Thacher Homes, angered that a tenant security force was still not in place, joined the rent strike in February of 1972. The County Court Of Appeals had stayed the eviction of the Whalen families, but required them to post a $6,500 bond to the court. The tenants, unable to pay the bond, turned to two priests who paid it on their behalf.44 The tenants continued their reassurance that the withheld rent money was being placed in an escrow account and would be turned over to the Housing Authority when their demands were met.

The tenants involved in the rent strikes continued to point to three critical issues that needed addressing. First were capital improvements including new roofs for the Whalen Homes. Second, the tenants wanted a resident member of the Albany Housing Authority governing board. Third, they wanted their own tenant-manned force to provide security at the sites.

The AHA was hard pressed to resolve these issues. The ability to make massive repairs to the projects was tied to the HUD modernization grant that had been delayed. Also, after a meeting with striking tenants, Mayor Corning flatly refused to appoint a tenant member to the Albany Housing Authority Board of Commissioners.45 The Housing Authority could only negotiate on the tenant security force, hoping that their efforts would end the strike.

The main point of debate regarding the security force was that tenants wanted a force controlled, staffed and managed by residents. After discussions with the Housing Authority, and realizing that total control was impossible, the tenants proposed an employment committee comprised of five housing authority representatives and four tenant representatives. Problems stemmed from whether or not the employment committee would ultimately be able to control the hiring and firing of tenant patrol members. Edward Kennell, vice-chairman of the Housing Authority, explained early on in negotiations that the AHA could not surrender total control to tenants for any program that involved the Authority’s funds.46

The ongoing rent strike presented an enormous challenge to the AHA. The withheld rent money placed an unmanageable strain on the Housing Authority’s budget. In May of 1972 the details of the Tenant Security Patrol were ironed out. The idea for the employment committee was dropped. The program would include a tenant supervisor and be staffed by tenants. Dennis Tarantino, president of the Albany Tenant Association Council and the Lincoln Park Tenants Association, was to be the temporary first supervisor until another tenant could be trained.47

By December of 1972, HUD had awarded the Albany Housing Authority the first $300,000 of its modernization funds. In addition, the total size of the modernization grant had been increased to three million dollars.48 In February of 1973, some tenants of the Whalen Homes made a good faith payment of their rent. The Housing Authority was inching closer and closer to a resolution.

In April of 1973, another milestone was reached. Mayor Corning chose Philip Rappaport as the first tenant member of the Albany Housing Authority governing board.49 A retired chef and member of the Albany Housing Authority Resident Affairs Council, Rappaport had been one of the original tenants of the Lincoln Park Homes. His appointment put the final issue of the rent strike to rest. Although the strike did not officially end with Rappaport’s appointment, it quickly lost its momentum. All told, it would result in roughly $80,000 dollars of rent being withheld.50

A bias suit launched against the Housing Authority would shatter the brief respite. Tenants of the Thacher Homes filed a class action suit claiming that the Housing Authority purposefully concentrated black tenants in the Thacher Homes, while discouraging them from entering into North Albany projects such as the Corning Homes.51 In hearings held in January of 1974, Bernard Granger would be called on to explain the Housing Authority’s tenant screening process.52

The Authority was also engaged in attempting to collect back rent from the tenants who took part in the rent strike. Several families, including leaders of the strike, had left the projects unannounced, giving no notice of their intentions or any forwarding address. Some of the families owed several thousand dollars in rent. Those who remained were left to negotiate repayment with the Housing Authority.53

Frustrated with the financial state of the AHA, and weary of the variety of problems most housing projects faced, Bernard Granger resigned on October 1, 1974 after roughly three years as Director of the Housing Authority. Into his shoes stepped Joseph F. Laden, a man who would ultimately hold that position for the next sixteen years.
The Laden Years and the Renewal of the AHA

Although the Authority was struggling financially, Laden came to the new post with enthusiasm and resolve. His first act was to trim the overburdened budget. His cuts were drastic, but deemed necessary to make the Authority viable. One of the positions he eliminated was that of Assistant Executive Director.54 He also cut approximately 100 maintenance positions and some of the recreation programs that the Authority had been sponsoring. The city eventually intervened, restoring a portion of the reduced maintenance staff and recreation programs under its budget.55

With some of the financial pressure off the Authority, Laden focused on program development. The most immediate concern was to make numerous improvements to the Thacher, Lincoln Park, Whalen and Corning Homes, including the installation of new kitchens and repair of the elevators. In 1974, federal legislation opened another avenue for the Housing Authority. The 1974 Housing and Community Development Act created the Section 8 program which allowed housing authorities across the nation to subsidize qualified tenants rents with federal funds while they lived in private housing. Participating landlords, after approval, could be guaranteed tenants, and also be assured rents at up to 120% of fair market value. The AHA quickly began making this known through local newspapers in an effort to attract landlords to participate and increase the overall availability of publicly assisted housing within the city.

In 1975, the AHA had another first. Eugene Devine passed away after a several month long illness, leaving the position of Housing Authority Chairman vacant. In his place, Edward Kennell was elected Chairman. Already the first minority on the Housing Authority Board and one of its founding members, Kennell would now be the first black Chairman. His history of municipal service was impressive. Not only had he been a president of the Albany Inter-Racial Council, but he had also been the Deputy Director of the Albany Urban Renewal Agency for fourteen years.56 When he was first appointed to the AHA Governing Board in 1946, he was the first black to serve on any upstate New York Housing Authority.

Another advance came in 1976 with the expansion of the Housing Authority Board of Commissioners to include two positions reserved for residents. Two years prior, in 1974, a bill introduced by State Senator Walter B. Langley required that all New York housing authorities have at least two tenant commissioners. Rather than require the Mayor to make appointments, the AHA amended its bylaws to add two tenant elected positions to the Board of Commissioners. Unlike appointed board members whose terms were five years, the elected tenant members were to serve for two years and receive a maximum salary of $1,500.

The first tenant elections took place on June 8, 1976. They were heated battles, with ten candidates running for the two posts.57 In the end there were more surprises in store for the AHA. The first two elected Resident Commissioners were women, making them both the first elected members of the Housing Authority, and the first women members. Eva Toombs, elected to represent the projects in the northern portion of the city, was an elderly resident of Westview Homes. Gwendollyn Taylor, chosen to represent the southern projects, worked as an inspector for the Albany Building Department and lived in the Ezra Prentice Homes. The new representatives were paid $75 per board meeting attended.58

Laden showed himself to be a creative and caring Executive Director. He emphasized the importance of getting the AHA involved in federal and state supported pilot programs. In 1975, Albany was chosen to participate in a federal pilot project known as the Work Incentive Program, under which the maintenance staff could earn additional income based on exceeding established production and productivity standards.59 The program was predicated on one that had been developed in British public housing and consultants that had implemented the program in London came to Albany to provide support and assistance. The initiative was ultimately credited with doubling the efficiency of the maintenance staff.60

In 1977, Laden proposed a novel approach for revitalizing the South Mall. He recommended turning the Thacher Homes into student housing. His reasoning was that students were more suited to tower living and also had money to spend in the downtown area. The recouped money could be used to relocate the residents in the Thacher Homes to housing more suited for families.61 Unfortunately, the federal government disapproved of the concept62

Laden also tried to find creative uses for the land purchased as the location of the original NYS-137, which was never built. The area was bounded by Madison Avenue, Eagle, Grand, and Philip Streets.63 The Housing Authority had been leasing the land to the state for additional parking, but the value of the land was estimated at three million dollars.64 That money could be used to offset operating costs or build a modest amount of low-income housing. Plans to sell the land did not work out, but Laden was not discouraged. He re-leased the land to the state and sought urban renewal money to turn a portion of it into a site for a farmer’s market.65

In late May of 1978, the elderly community and the AHA would get a shock. The State Broadway Company requested an increase in their lease charges for the Hampton Hotel. This prompted a general inspection of the structure to see if it was in need of rehabilitation. During the inspection, the Albany Fire Department discovered that the building violated several sections of the fire code. The problems were sufficiently critical that the building was put on a 24-hour fire watch until all the seniors were evacuated. Joseph Laden had no choice but to cancel the federal lease on the building and move all the seniors out. Two elderly women had already died in a fire at Westview Homes, and no one was prepared to risk the lives of residents by exposing them to this potential danger. The seniors living in the old hotel were heartbroken. The Housing Authority was able to find homes for all of them in either the public senior developments or the privately run South Mall Towers. Over a decade later in 1993, the Hampton Plaza would be sold to the state and converted for use as office space.66

Under Laden, the Housing Authority began to investigate the use of alternative energy sources. In an effort to reduce utility costs, the AHA sought and obtained a 2.2 million dollar grant for a public housing project that would use a passive solar power system.67 Nicknamed the “Solar Village”, it was hoped that solar power would maximize rent revenue by reducing the cost of utilities, consistently one of the most expensive elements in public housing operations. At the time the grant was awarded, no specific site had been chosen. Site selection for the solar village would later prove to be an insurmountable challenge for the AHA. One of the more inventive conservation plans involved mounting a windmill atop Westview Homes to reduce the amount of power that had to be purchased for the project.68

In 1981, the Housing Authority took part in a pilot program to help low-income households find appropriate social services. Often in the past, families had been unaware of programs and opportunities in which they could participate because those programs and opportunities were fragmented and administered by agencies that the families were unfamiliar with. Albany was one of six cities chosen to host a Family Supportive Services Information Fair.69 The Fairs, sponsored by HUD, were designed as a venue that local agencies could use to target a specific population and expose them to the myriad of social service programs that were available. By connecting social agencies with their clients, the Fair’s goal was to improve the quality of life for low-income families. The Fair also represented a growing trend of viewing housing authorities not only as providers of housing, but as umbrella organizations helping to provide a broad range of support services to their clients.

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