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02.17.2014
The Rent is Too Damn High
RKTB's affordable housing in Brooklyn could serve as a model for New York City.
Courtesy RKTB

In his mayoral campaign, Bill de Blasio often pointed to New York’s lack of affordable housing as an example of how the city had become a “Tale of Two Cities.” He cited the fact that 50,000 New Yorkers sleep every night in shelters and that “almost one third of the city’s households spend at least half of their income on rent.” If elected, he promised to build or preserve “200,000 affordable housing units over the next decade.” But unlike fifteen or twenty years ago, when the city had blocks of open land in Brownsville, East New York, and the South Bronx on which to build, the city is today essentially fully occupied with only scattered empty lots. It will take some thoughtful planning to achieve the 50,000 new units he is calling for, but a new project by architecture firm RKTB could be an innovative model for how to fulfill this affordable housing quota.

The project, Monsignor Anthony J. Barretta Housing, is located on Pacific Street in East New York beside the architecturally impressive church Our Lady of Loretta, which is abandoned. The church was built for an Italian American community in the early 1900s, apparently on land farmed by the first Italian settler in America. Several years ago, the diocese of Brooklyn tried to raze the church and build 88 units of desperately needed housing for low-income residents in the neighborhood. Though the area is now primarily Latino and African-American, the Italian American community who passed though the church rallied to save the building—at least temporally. The group, which included New York builder Frank Sciame and his cousin Joe Sciame, the president of Italian Heritage & Culture Committee, developed a plan with a local developer to preserve the church structure and tear down the adjacent church buildings.

Enter RKTB and architect Carmi Bee, who has been building infill affordable housing in New York for several decades. Together with the archdiocese and the Community Preservation Corporation as developer, RKTB designed a building with 64 units of housing for $185 per square foot. The project, said Bee, “takes advantage of the constraints in the building code,” thereby lending affordability to each project. A single stair eliminates not only the need for an elevator, but also a second means of egress, and the sloped roof means an additional flight of stairs up to the roof is not needed. Another energy and cost saving feature of the prototype plan is the double-exposure layout, which provides cross ventilation. Careful material selection also helped keep costs low while achieving LEED-certification. Part of the RKTB model for affordable housing involves working “as of right” under the existing zoning and building codes with the intention of filling in vacant lots, specifically within districts that would yield 50–110 dwelling units per acre. Within the first week of the project’s opening, 5,000 families applied for 64 apartments. This statistic brings home clearly the pressing need that New York City has for good quality affordable housing.

William Menking