Home Improvement

Revitalization of Cottage Place Gardens public housing

Katharine Reece MFA ’12

Home Improvement

“When I go into Cottage Place Gardens, I see the people I grew up with,” says Linwood Lewis (psychology). “Worthwhile people dealing with a lot of problems. This is the poker hand they were dealt—most of the possibilities that are before them are bad ones.” Lewis grew up in public housing in the Bronx and has been volunteering for social justice causes in Yonkers for almost two decades. Now he’s part of a team that’s working to revitalize the Cottage Place Gardens public housing and the surrounding area of Yonkers.

Public housing, often pejoratively referred to as “the projects,” was established by the federal government to provide decent and safe rental housing for low-income families, the elderly, and people with disabilities. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is responsible for these units, but decreased funding over the years has taken a toll. Cottage Place Gardens, which includes 14 low-rise buildings on the west side of Yonkers, has suffered from poor infrastructure, high crime rates, and isolation from the surrounding community, Lewis says.

"It’s all about empowering the people to take back control of their own neighborhoods.”

Home Improvement

Yonkers recently received a substantial grant from HUD to transform Cottage Place Gardens and the surrounding neighborhood. The city will build two new, mixed-income apartments on an old public school site, and eventually demolish and rebuild two deteriorating buildings at Cottage Place Gardens. But first, Lewis is partnering with Community Voices Heard (CVH)—a member organization of low-income people, predominantly women with experience on welfare—to gather community feedback about the project. Four of his students who had prior experience working in Yonkers are assisting as well.

Working in Yonkers is a challenge, Lewis says, because the city government has historically ignored people’s needs, even during previous revitalization efforts, so people are wary of participating. But for this project, the Municipal Housing Authority is prioritizing the opinions of current residents and confronting the lack of empowerment. A number of residents are active on the planning team (which includes representatives from the Municipal Housing Authority, Yonkers Department of Planning and Development, CVH, and Lewis).

Gathering evidence is also critical. Lewis partnered his students with CVH members, and the pairs went door-to-door in Cottage Place Gardens, equipped with a questionnaire on an iPad, to survey residents about their current housing concerns and their ideas for improving the neighborhood. The problems residents are reporting are complex and systemic, Lewis says. The surveyors have heard from residents about vermin problems, the difficulty of raising a family on minimum wage, and safety issues in the neighborhood.

The planning team is now working to collate the survey data and identify the most salient strengths and challenges facing the community. Lewis is optimistic about the project’s potential to make a positive and sustained difference to the area. “In the long term,” he says, “if we are able to empower the residents to speak up, and provide them with the avenues and resources to do so, then I would consider that a success. It’s all about empowering the people to take back control of their own neighborhoods.”