Morrisania — At the bottom of a hill on 168th Street is the old Morrisania Hospital, an elegant yellow-brick structure surrounded by apartment blocks in the South Bronx. The city abandoned the building during the fiscal crisis of the mid-1970s, and for 20 years the once-grand hospital sat empty and windowless, its interior a ruin open to the elements.
Nancy Biberman, president of the Women’s Housing and Economic Development Corporation, recognized the building’s potential, and a gut rehab produced 132 apartments for low-income and formerly homeless families, with health- and child-care centers, plus a commercial kitchen for small start-up businesses. The 1997 project won accolades, but soon WHEDco faced an unanticipated crisis.
“This building was going to tank the organization,” recalls Biberman, who says tenants routinely opened their windows in the winter to cool down overheated rooms. “We literally saw money blowing out the windows, and it was bleeding us.” Raising rents was out of the question. “But it would be irresponsible to continue to let things go. We would have gone bankrupt.”
The solution was an energy-efficient retrofit of the building, now known as Urban Horizons. But once WHEDco began to realize savings on such measures as low-flow water fixtures, energy-efficient appliances, and compact-fluorescent lightbulbs—and tenants saw their electricity bills decline—the search for green solutions turned into a permanent, evolving process. The organization even hired a sustainability manager.
WHEDco’s experience with Urban Horizons may ultimately be a valuable example in a city with an old housing stock and little available land. It provides one roadmap for existing structures to comply with stricter laws, as the Bloomberg administration implements regulations to make multifamily buildings more energy efficient and to stop the use of the most polluting grades of heating oil. The new rules will reduce energy consumption and bring down costs over the long term, but they also could put a more immediate strain on affordable housing.