The history of affordable housing in the United States has always centered on efforts—research, architectural prototypes, and creative financing—undertaken in New York City. From early philanthropic models like the late 19th century Cobble Hill Tower Homes, the 1911 Vanderbilt-sponsored Cherokee Model Apartments, and the 1930s Amalgamated Dwellings on the Lower East Side, virtually all early advancement in housing reform in this country began in New York City.
Beyond philanthropic models, New York has also birthed the most important organizations advancing the cause of affordable housing—from the Phipps Houses to the Regional Planning Association and the Rockefeller-era Urban Development Corporation. These organizations not only realized models of affordable housing like Sunnyside Gardens in Queens and Via Verde in the Bronx but theorized creative options for affordable housing in capitalist economies like the United States. It is no mistake that New York alone of all American cities has a diverse array of housing options for low- and even moderate-income residents that is the envy of the rest of the country.
In the tradition of these New York advocacy organizations there is a new group that promises to continue New York’s leadership in the field of affordable housing. The organization—Institute for Public Architecture (IPA)—was founded in 2009 by architect Jonathan Kirschenfeld (for which he has just been honored by the New York State AIA with the inaugural Henry Hobson Richardson Award). Its mission is not focused simply on housing, but on the larger subject of promoting socially engaged architecture. In its first year of programming it organized an exhibition and discussion on Marcus Garvey Village in Brownsville, Brooklyn and an exhibition, Low Rise High Density, that highlighted an obvious but all-too-often overlooked condition of urban housing focused on scale and density.
In an attempt to keep the spotlight on housing—specifically the crises of affordability affecting most American cities and New York in particular—the institute organized a symposium, Total Reset, based on New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio‘s recent promise to reset the city’s public and affordable housing policies. Total Reset brought professional planners, scholars, architects, and housing organization directors together with housing and neighborhood activists. The symposium, held at Columbia’s Studio X, began with three case studies: the “Vienna Model” on contemporary municipal housing in the Austrian capital (which I presented) and new New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) Turnkey and Modernization programs by James McCullar; “Reimagining Brownsville” by Nadine Maleh; and finally Rick Gropper and Richard Weinstock of L+M Development Partners presented their firm’s facade restoration and refinancing of a 1,093-unit Mitchell-Lama residential complex in Far Rockaway, Queens.
Then, more importantly, the symposium was opened up to activists from community organizations and leaders of various New York housing authorities to discuss the real, on-the-ground problems of maintaining and creating housing in the city. The discussion focused on issues of what to do with public housing in the face of drastic federal funding cuts amid enormous housing shortages and needs. Several panelists talked about the anchoring role that public housing has played in poor communities and how this is threatened by the lack of support and ongoing infrastructure improvements. One of the most controversial issues tackled by panelists was the role that the discourses on privatization would have on the city and that human needs should come before corporate profits.
The afternoon was left for Peter Marcuse, the long-time Columbia planner who made the argument that for housing to really work there is a need today “for a fundamental rethinking and considering of all social benefits of housing not just having a focus on profits.”
Another panelist, Nicholas Bloom, suggested that the institute’s next housing meeting should take place in a NYCHA facility. That’s exactly what the organization plans to do next fall. There is no other city where the conversation on public housing is taking place at the level that the IPA intends and that’s why New York will continue to lead the country in creative ideas and solutions to house that part of the population locked out of the private marketplace.