“Sometimes, when you start a community-development project—even when people like your goals—nobody agrees with anybody. Everyone thinks it should be done some other way. Tempers can flare. My job in these cases is to get people who hate each other to work together,” says Carol Lamberg.
Carol has to coordinate plans with tenants, neighborhood leaders, real estate lawyers, city officials, architects, contractors, community boards, major funders, and government agencies so that they can reach what she calls “a compromise without selling out. The original goals must stay intact.” She is executive director of the Settlement Housing Fund, a nonprofit organization that has built affordable housing, schools, commercial spaces, and community centers in neighborhoods in New York City since 1969. She was present at the creation, “when our founder, Clara Fox, wrote a proposal to obtain funds from a foundation to create a nonprofit housing corporation. The proposal was successful, and then Clara had to do something.”
That “something” became the Settlement Housing Fund. “In order to create affordable housing, especially now, we often need to put together “a continual witches’ brew of financing—state, local, and federal grants and operating assistance, private investors, and more. We also need to raise funds for our own operations from various fees, foundations, individuals, and a yearly fund-raiser.”
According to the organization’s website, the fund has developed more than 8,700 apartments in 57 projects throughout New York City. “Our overall model consists of mixed-income rental buildings for families. We have also developed housing for the elderly, permanent and transitional buildings for the homeless, housing for people living with AIDS, and cooperatives and condominiums, in developments ranging in size from 3 to 1022 units. The buildings that we own are mixed-income family developments in Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Manhattan.”
“When you’re starting to look at a possible development, you have to have some imagination and think how this dilapidated site will look with a new building and new uses,” Carol says. “You have to get the community on board, get the financing, work with developers and architects, then convince a whole lot of government agencies and prepare documents for their review.”
How difficult is that?
One of SHF’s newest projects, done in partnership with the School Construction Authority, is the New Settlement Community Campus—a pre-kindergarten through 12th grade public school with an attached community center and pool, in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the Bronx. “We started with our board and capital grants from the city, then we arranged an investment that provided new markets tax credits for investments in low-income neighborhoods,” Carol says. “The investment netted about $3 million of the $15-million cost. But that required 191 documents to be reviewed—documents that were technical beyond belief.”
The New Settlement Community Campus—two public schools plus community spaces, a pool, dance studios, outdoor play areas, a health clinic, and a green-roof learning terrace.
Is it draining to do this job—to focus, year after year, on exquisitely detailed financial statements and complicated housing law; to blandish donors; to persuade neighborhood committees into consensus with developers? “No, I don’t think so,” Carol says. “It’s like putting a puzzle together—it’s exciting when you get it done. The neat thing is that you get to see the buildings. They’re up, they’re clean, there’s no graffiti, they’re safe . . . they’re there for you to see, unlike work in other fields, where you wonder if you’ve really achieved anything.”
The fund’s newest residence, Semiperm, provides semi-transitional housing for 23 formerly homeless mothers and their children. It took decades to persuade the city that this was an approach worth trying. For 30 years, Carol went around to different people saying, “Here’s what we need to have happen. We have housing and we have a shelter. And we see that some people go into our housing from a shelter that are just not quite ready, and they need some assistance. And so what I’d like to have is semi-permanent housing where they can stay two to five years and develop the skills they need to be good tenants and to be self-sufficient.” Carol brought her vision into being in 2008.
How Semiperm works.
“We try hard to make the neighborhoods we build in be great places to live, whether it’s creating commercial buildings, a supermarket, a health clinic,” Carol says. “Our buildings are visible and architecturally nice. Interior layouts are very important to us; we design from the inside out. The architecture may be simple, but we like the room sizes to be livable—nice layouts with light and air.”
And they are well maintained; the fund underwrites carefully so that the buildings will have enough porters to keep them so. Settlement Housing Fund has lost some project bids lately, Carol explains, because it is careful to add realistic maintenance costs into its proposals.
The tenants respond by keeping the buildings clean. “We are careful in our tenant selection, and it’s a lengthy process to conform to government regulations.” Carol says. “There are some wonderful very low-income tenants who can be extremely law-abiding and pay their rent on time. It is great to have them.
“We’re looking for new ideas, new sites, new ways of getting support,” Carol says. “We’ve done affordable housing in most communities in the city, and our buildings have a positive effect on their neighborhoods. We hope we can continue to do this work forever. The main requirement of this job—and it will still be the main requirement after I retire as executive director in December—is, ‘Keep the mission in mind, and never give up.’”