Culture And Society FIRST PRIZE B
Work title: Social Bonds and the Sun Light Exchange
This proposal is a clever reminder of how any given site’s hidden economical potential can be used to stimulate and regenerate social responsibility. Using an idle vacant lot as so many in big metropolises today, the project leverages seed money from on-site billboards and solar energy production, so as to address youth homelessness, disparity of cultural opportunities and other pressing social issues. Local authorities would thus build and maintain an after-school cultural center able to divert New York’s South Bronx youths from a cycle of poverty and risk. Simultaneously, designers and other contract professionals are seen as stakeholders benefitting from the program’s future social gains, in the form of dividends from funds saved by the government. Ultimately, the combination of innovative financial strategies allows for new design opportunities, while also providing for the exercise of social responsibility through architecture.
New York City owns an estimated 600 acres of vacant lots acquired by local government due to the unpaid taxes of previous property owners. Surprisingly these empty parcels are left idle in one of the most aggressive real estate markets in the world. At the same time, the city is wrestling with many social issues, one of which is income disparity and the growing plight of those that belong to more vulnerable communities. Homelessness has always been a challenge in New York, but what makes this problem even more compelling is the homeless of those under the age of 18. There were an estimated 22,625 homeless children and teenagers in November 2013 in New York City, nearly one half of the homeless population. Although many of these young people go to school during the day, they return to various forms of transitional housing, shelters or to the streets in the evenings. The youth at risk face significantly higher rates of challenges later in life from substance abuse and gang violence to incarceration and the repeated cycle of poverty once again.
The city decides to initiate a cultural exchange program in the South Bronx as an after school program to mentor some of the youth at risk. Although the city lacks capital to finance the program directly, it decides to leverage the economic potential of the empty lot spaces. A non-profit entity is set up that manages billboard space throughout the city on the empty parcels. Companies are motivated to use this new marketing venue as they are able to advertise in desirable locations but can apply the cost as a tax deduction and not a marketing expense. Enough capital is generated within a year for seed money to begin redevelopment of one of the vacant lots. An empty parcel is chosen in the South Bronx within walking distance of four homeless shelters and within a 2,000ft radius of another seven. Youth at risk would be coached after school and learn valuable artistic and theatrical skills along with related self-exploration activities. The center reaches out to approximately 300 young individuals annually. Within several years, a study on a control group reveals decreasing incarceration rates, lower rates of welfare, food stamps and other government assistance among the alumni youth of the programs in the area. The programs are making a positive impact not only on a social level, but on a measurable, economic one as well.
Although the city can only pay a nominal fee to designers and other contract professionals in the beginning of the project, it decides to include these professionals as stakeholders in the income generating portions of the program. The cultural exchange center produces two streams of income to make the program sustainable. The first stream of reoccurring income is that of solar energy production which not only provides most of the power to the small facility, but also feeds electricity back into the electric grid when the building is not in use. The solar energy income begins immediately once the building is constructed. The second stream of income comes in the form of a social impact bond. This model of funding allows investors who put capital in social programs upfront to receive future dividends from government funds that would have otherwise been allocated to remedy the social ills. In the case of the South Bronx, future dividends are paid out to stakeholders from the decreased welfare costs, food stamps, costs related to high incarceration rates and the like. Although these dividends are paid out several years later, they can be significant, even doubling the initial capital made by the investor. Although the model is fairly new, this type of investing is now being used in the US, UK and Australia among both public and private sector investors.
This combined strategy of using empty lot space for advertising, producing renewable energy and paying contractors in the form of social impact bonds allows the city not only to capture non tangible value and convert it to currency, but also to protect and improve the livelihood of those most at risk.