Bronx Church Fights to Keep Neighborhood Affordable

(L-R) Bobby Britt, Frederick Crawford and Ruben Diaz Jr. look on at a ceremony breaking ground at a new housing development. (Joshi/Bronx Ink)

(L-R) Bobby Britt, Frederick Crawford and Ruben Diaz Jr. look on at the ground-breaking ceremony. (Joshi/Bronx Ink)

East Morrisania was at its lowest point when Bobby Britt moved there 31 years ago. After a meeting with his pastor at the Union Grove Church in the mid-1980s, Britt set about rebuilding the community. Though his efforts were successful, he also saw many parishioners being priced out of the community. On Friday, Britt saw the first step in stemming that tide, a housing development aimed at low-income neighborhood residents. Construction on the Fletcher C. Crawford Housing Development, which is expected to provide 84 units of low-income units, began with a ground-breaking ceremony. East Morrisania’s population ballooned by more than 63 percent between 1990 and 2000, according to Census data. But much of the growth was in younger, more affluent residents, causing rents in the neighborhood to grow. Lester Souder, a deacon of the church, estimated that as much as 50 percent of the church’s membership is economically disadvantaged. Congregants are leaving the neighborhood in droves, unable to afford the rising costs of living there. Many are opting to live in more affordable boroughs or to leave New York completely. “They lost their housing. They lost their apartment. They lost their sense of who they were when they moved out of the Bronx area,” said Frederick Crawford the current pastor of Union Grove and the son of Fletcher Crawford, the pastor who initially gave Britt the directive to rebuild the neighborhood. To stem the parish’s exodus from East Morrisania, Britt turned his efforts to building affordable housing on a plot of land next to the church. After years of work, he succeeded in securing financing, and the church is now partnered with Macquesten Development to build the development, which will cost $27 million. “This is a place where people are going to be able to afford and continue to invest in their futures in the Bronx,” said Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., who was on hand to celebrate the groundbreaking. Diaz presides over one of the nation’s poorest urban counties, where more than 25 percent of the population was below the poverty level in 2008, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Public housing in the Bronx is not meeting the needs of the economically depressed population. “There’s always more of a demand for low- and middle-income housing in the Bronx,” said Joan Tally, a senior vice president for the New York City Housing Development Corp., which helped finance more than 81 low-income projects in the Bronx, including the Union Grove construction. Since 2004, the City of New York has invested $1.9 billion in the borough in the form of bonds and corporate subsidies through the Housing Development Corp. However, Tally said, “There’s never enough funding to go around.” For now, money is not a problem for the construction of the Union Grove project, which is expected to be finished a year from now. Church leaders expect the new building to maintain and even grow the parish’s membership rolls. “We’re trying to build our city back,” said the younger Crawford.