South Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation (SoBRO)

SoBroSoBRO is committed to providing affordable housing and other services to the South Bronx.

By Jim Harris

In the 1970s, the South Bronx was nationally known for all the wrong reasons. The New York City neighborhood, which had previously been a place for working-class families, had deteriorated into poverty and crime.

Hundreds of thousands of residents fled the area, and those remaining witnessed the destruction and abandonment of many of the area’s homes and businesses. For many people, the words of legendary sportscaster Howard Cosell, spoken during the 1977 World Series as television cameras captured images of fires raging in the area surrounding Yankee Stadium, said it all: “Ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning.”

During that time, a group of local business executives and community leaders took on the urgent task of trying to reverse the neighborhood’s decline. The South Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation, known as SoBRO, formed in 1972, initially focused on preventing further job and business losses by supporting business and industrial development efforts.

As the neighborhood started to show improvement, the organization evolved its mission to address other community needs including helping people secure grants to build or grow their businesses, providing job training and offering youth programs, President and CEO Phillip Morrow says.

Community Partners

During the 1990s, SoBRO began to partner with the city and state governments to address another critical need in the South Bronx: housing. The organization develops and manages housing units targeted to low and moderate-income residents as well as the disabled or homeless. 

SoBRO secures the funding for its projects through sources including tax credits, state and local subsidies and private financing. The organization partners with a number of general contractors to build its projects, and occasionally teams with private developers in joint ventures. “Developers in the area will ask us to assist them to get the financing they need to make projects feasible,” Morrow says. sobro box

The organization’s experience with different funding sources and its ability to partner with other agencies and developers is one of its greatest strengths. “I feel that we are a leader among community development organizations in the city,” he adds. “As a real estate developer, we are not the biggest nor the wealthiest, but we are experienced in how to do deals and how to run our organization as a business.”

SoBRO relies on its partnerships and experience to help it through several significant challenges including the rising cost of construction in New York City. “It’s gotten out of hand. Three years ago costs were $160 per square foot, and today you can’t get prices below $260,” Morrow says, noting that costs on prevailing wage jobs where union craftspeople are hired can go as high as $400 per square foot.

“It could potentially cost you $400,000 to build a unit that rents for $400 a month – that requires huge subsidies to make it work,” he adds. “The city is very aggressive with its housing production program and is trying to step up to that challenge by increasing funding.”

Gentrification is another New York City housing trend that is creating some concern in the South Bronx. Morrow cites several neighborhoods in nearby Brooklyn – most notably Williamsburg – as examples of areas where rising property values have displaced many longtime residents. “Our position is that having some high to middle income people moving into the neighborhood isn’t bad, but we don’t want to see low to moderate income folks being forced out,” he adds.

Touching Lives

SoBRO has 188 units now under construction, and hopes to close another 200 units before the end of the year. The rental housing projects overseen by the organization typically range in size from 20 to up to 150 rental units.

SoBRO’s ongoing projects include building units for low-income veterans and the homeless. The organization is working on closing a 125-unit multifamily complex in upper Manhattan in addition to its work in the South Bronx. Potential plans include the possibility of co-op projects that would give residents the opportunity to own, as opposed to just rent, their units, Morrow says.

The organization has completed hundreds of units in its history. In addition, SoBRO has served more than 20,000 students through its youth programs and helped create and retain more than 40,000 jobs for area residents.

“As a community organization, we try to take a holistic approach to the problem of poverty. We have an array of programs that address the things that prevent people from being successful, and that help them become self-sufficient,” Morrow says. “We hope that we will make a difference in the lives of the people we touch and help them attain the American dream.”

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