The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
June 19, 2018

How communities are reimagining abandoned youth detention centers

June 19, 2018

Due to steep declines in youth incarceration, hundreds of youth facilities have closed since 2000. Many of these facilities, which can negatively impact community health and be physical reminders of the harms caused by incarceration, remain empty and unused. But not all of them.

Today, we released a brief highlighting stories from six localities repurposing closed youth prisons (i.e., youth correctional facilities and detention centers) for community revitalization. One of these communities, Hunts Point in the South Bronx, is transforming the closed Spofford Juvenile Detention Center (also known as the Bridges Juvenile Detention Center) into a campus for 100 percent affordable housing, retail, and light industrial space.

The work in Hunts Point shows the strides some communities have made toward repairing the painful legacy of youth incarceration and prioritizing community needs over commercial benefit.

Closed youth prisons can fill gaps in housing affordability

With many cities facing housing affordability crises, Hunts Point provides an innovative model for leveraging vacant land to increase housing access.

Despite Hunts Point’s proximity to wealthy Manhattan neighborhoods, 62 percent of the community lives below the federal poverty level, making it part of the country’s poorest congressional district.

Affordable housing is out of reach for most residents, with 69 percent of Hunts Point renters spending more than 30 percent of their income (PDF download) on rent. And despite high prices, 79 percent of Hunts Point homes (PDF download) are riddled with maintenance defects that can lead to poor health outcomes.

architectural rendering of the repurposed youth detention facility

Architectural rendering of the repurposed Spofford Juvenile Detention Center,  via NYCEDC.

The Hunts Point repurposing project is an integral part of a larger effort to correct these inequities and promote sustainable development, land use, and employment opportunities within the South Bronx. Its commitment to 700 new 100 percent affordable housing units demonstrates how land once notorious for poor conditions and abuse can be reclaimed by community residents for positive use.   

Ensuring new jobs benefit local residents

While national unemployment rates are improving, access to jobs is unequal. In Hunts Point, one in six adults (PDF download) is unemployed.

To ensure that new jobs—which will include 1,600 temporary construction jobs and 177 permanent jobs—benefit existing residents, developers are partnering with long-standing community-based organizations, like Sustainable South Bronx and BronxWorks, to provide residents training and opportunities to acquire repurposing jobs.

This intentional partnership is a step in the right direction toward repairing the economic ramifications produced by local prisons, which include rising inequality rates and concentrated poverty.

The importance of listening to communities

Hunts Point is one example of how communities affected by incarceration are informing strategies for neighborhood revitalization.

With an incarceration rate more than twice New York’s citywide rate (PDF download), Hunts Point residents are familiar with the harms of incarceration. They spent years rallying for Spofford’s closure, came together to encourage positive repurposing plans, and remained engaged in informing repurposing plans. In doing so, Hunts Point residents have helped shape a large-scale project to promote affordable housing, local job growth, and neighborhood revitalization.

Although more work is needed to revitalize communities affected by incarceration, Hunts Point provides an example for how communities can reclaim vacant prison land to promote positive, sustainable growth.

Spofford Juvenile Detention Center/Photo via Google Maps.

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