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The Long, Complicated History of Affordable Housing in New York

A new book and exhibit take a look at the programs, buildings, and people that have brought the system to where it is today—and what still needs to be done.

The Amsterdam Houses, Manhattan (David Schalliol/Affordable Housing in New York)

The ends of subway lines are often thought of as mysterious places, separate from the rush of the rest of New York. But just across the street from the terminus of the 3 train at 148 Street and 7th Avenue are the Dunbar Apartments, one of the earliest examples of affordable housing in New York City—a concept which to this day affects hundreds of thousands of residents and is very much at the epicenter of the city’s current politics.

Affordable housing in New York is inseparable from its long and complicated history. “It’s a layered, sedimentary system,” says Nicholas Dagen Bloom, a social science professor at New York Institute of Technology. Developments from each decade dating back to the turn of the 20th century exist now alongside each other, governed and financed through myriad means. When it comes to affordable housing, there is no one story to tell.

A map of affordable housing sites in New York, color coded by subsidy type. (Courtesy of Matthew Lasner)

Each of the city’s housing complexes contain within it a legacy of change, conflict, and opportunity that’s both site-specific and representative of the era in which it was built.

Affordable Housing in New York, a book published last year and co-edited by Bloom and Matthew Gordon Lasner, a professor of urban studies at Hunter College, presents a comprehensive look at this system that has so substantially impacted the fabric of the city. Broken up into six roughly chronological sections beginning in 1926, the book—and corresponding exhibit on display through May 15, 2016 at Hunter Harlem East Gallery—present case studies of select housing complexes alongside the programs, politics, and key players of each time period. It’s an immersive experience, one which will be supplemented through the spring with talks from architects, historians, and New York City Housing Authority representatives, as well as walking tours of sites like the Dunbar Apartments.

With Mayor Bill de Blasio’s eye trained on his plan to rezone sections of the city and introduce 200,000 new affordable units over the next decade, the book and exhibit ride the wave of heightened interest in the direction of housing in New York. Yet what Affordable Housing in New York demonstrates is that the future cannot be imagined without an understanding of the past.

The Dunbar Apartments, Harlem, Manhattan (Eillie Anzilotti)

1920s: The early days

Prior to 1926, government involvement in below-market-rate housing was, at best, an abstract concept. Most city leaders believed affordable housing to be the responsibility of private investors. But reformers like Edith Elmer Wood and Clarence Stein, looking to Europe’s model of state-subsidized housing, argued that the private market alone could not sustain New York’s need for accessible housing of a decent standard—a need that had been thrown into relief by the ongoing harsh conditions of the city’s slums and tenements.

Supporting their vision was the then-governor of New York, Alfred E. Smith, who on May 10, 1926 passed the Limited Dividend Housing Companies Act, a law based on Stein’s proposal to grant developers property-tax abatements in exchange for agreeing to limit their profits to six percent annually in order to lower tenant costs.

Financially, the bill was a success: the first project developed under it, the Amalgamated Cooperative Apartments in the Bronx, lowered the per-tenant cost by approximately $2.10 per room in 1927—the equivalent of $450 in 2013.

But the 1926 law resulted in only slightly more developments than the continued efforts of private investors, among them John D. Rockefeller, who in the same year forewent Stein’s tax abatements and independently built the Dunbar Apartments for African American families, proving (in his mind) that government involvement was not necessary to create affordable housing. This tension between public and private interests would, over the next several decades, spiral through a range of developments and housing programs.  

1930s-40s: Government housing grows

Any resistance to government subsidies dissolved in the aftermath of the stock market crash of 1929. The New Deal’s subsequent investment in below-market-rate housing culminated in the Federal Housing Act of 1937, which offered long-term, low-interest government loans for public housing. That, combined with the establishment of the New York City Housing Authority in 1934, led to larger projects like the Red Hook Houses in Brooklyn and Queensbridge Houses in Queens—built, like Dunbar before them, at the outer edges of the city. Simultaneously, slum neighborhoods were “cleared” and their residents scattered to make room for more new developments.

A 1942 NYCHA public housing progress report. By that time, the housing authority had built apartments for 13,180 families. (General Research Division/The New York Public Library)

In an effort to brand public housing as a permanent and desirable way of life, NYCHA oversaw tenant selections for the new buildings, allotting only 5-8 percent of units to welfare families; the same rationale governed the initial lack of enforced income ceilings, which NYCHA hoped would sustain economic diversity across the developments. Rent for these units was collected weekly; an apartment in the Queensbridge Houses in 1941 cost, including gas and electricity, $5.70 per week—$185 adjusted for 2013.

World War II only increased the need for housing. Postwar planning efforts led by Robert Moses prioritized volume to accommodate the rapidly growing population. This was the era of “towers in the park”; tall, red-brick structures sprung up in the midst of the city, no longer consigned to the fringes.   

An aerial map of tower-style complexes including the Lillian Wald and Jacob Riis houses along the East River in Manhattan. (Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division/The New York Public Library)

1950s-70s: A system under fire

By 1959, NYCHA had commissioned a total of 148,583 affordable housing units. But for all its progress, the housing authority had failed to establish a system for relocating those displaced by the new complexes. Affordable Housing in New York describes the “humanitarian and public relations embarrassment” created by displacing and scattering tenants with only “haphazard assistance.”

A poster illustrating the problematic cycle of slum clearance and relocation. (General Research Division/New York Public Library)

In response, NYCHA built more towers and began stratifying occupancy by income bracket. Structures were built specifically to house the less financially solvent, and the projects grew to be synonymous with poverty and emblematic of the city’s racial divides. Both socially and architecturally, they drew criticism.

Simultaneously, the city sensed it was losing its grip on the middle. Fearing mass departure to the suburbs, the New York state government introduced programs like Mitchell-Lama in 1955 to support limited-dividend developments; cooperatives like Co-op City, geared toward moderate-income families and similar to those of the 1920s, were also built during this era. Architecturally, these complexes were a departure from the brick towers, and differed also by incorporating amenities like hospitals and cultural centers, which were lacking from the lower-income projects.

A 1965 rental brochure for Highbridge House, a Mitchell-Lama development. It reads: “Highbridge House gives city living back to the people in the middle...the families who have been caught between ‘project housing’ for which they couldn’t qualify, and private housing which they couldn’t afford.” (Courtesy Real Estate Brochure Collection, Columbia University)

1973, Bloom says, “was a watershed year.” Mired in steep inflation amid a rapidly diminishing nationwide assessment of public housing, the federal government withdrew from all housing interests. The Community Development Act of 1974 ushered in Section 8 housing and the housing choice voucher program. The role of private investors was again privileged in the housing market; nonprofits like the Nehemiah Development Corporation bought up city-owned lots and developed smaller complexes. To this day, public housing remains a multifaceted, decentralized system; the federal government never reinvested.

The Nehemiah Houses in Brooklyn in 2014. (David Schalliol/Affordable Housing in New York)

1980s-present: An eye toward the future

Affordable housing has an undeniably fraught and complex history; its portrayals in popular culture are often grim. But it’s crucial, Lasner says, to “move away from an abstracted understanding of public housing” and account for the totality of the institution; to recognize the ways in which New York fought—stubbornly and creatively—against the national tide in order to keep alive this system that currently houses upwards of 1.2 million people.

By 1972, other cities like St. Louis and Chicago had begun tearing down public housing. But New York, Lasner tells CityLab, recognized that “it would be unlivable for so many without these buildings.”

Yet, in the aftermath of government divestment, the city has struggled to keep up with demand. The book notes how:

Old troubles that recall the era of Jacob Riis [at the turn of the 20th century]—some potentially quite hazardous like overcrowding and the habitation of unauthorized basements and partitioned rooms—became serious problems again for the first time in decades.

Even de Blasio’s relatively aggressive below-market housing plan pales in comparison with what could be done with deep government subsidies. Affordable Housing in New York takes a firm stance here: the editors cite numerous possibilities, among them resuscitating state housing programs like Mitchell-Lama and sourcing loans from Albany, currently awash with billions of dollars in surplus tax revenue and borrowing capacity. Speculative plans lining the Hunter East Harlem exhibit walls nod to the fact that architects and urban planners must continue to devise creative ways to add housing units without compromising quality of life.

Local schools’ speculative plans for the future of affordable housing in New York. (Natalie Conn/Courtesy of Hunter East Harlem Gallery)

“There’s a lot of bitterness around the state of public housing today,” Lasner says. “There’s a feeling that it’s sort of hopeless or futile.” But looking at the history, he adds, “you see that it was never easy—in a sense, we’ve always faced this struggle.” Affordable Housing In New York makes it clear that giving up now is not an option.

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