A new book explores the fight—past, present, and future—to realize NYC's public and affordable housing

Projects in Progress

A new book explores the fight—past, present, and future—to realize NYC's public and affordable housing

I can trace my interest in New York City’s public housing to a very specific moment back in 2005. New to the city, on a visit to the Queens Museum of Art, I marveled at the “Panorama of the City of New York,” the great model of the city built by Robert Moses for the 1964 World’s Fair. While taking it all in—the Manhattan grid and Central Park, the bridges and piersand waterfront, the city’s terrific expanse—I wondered about the many clusters of red towers cropping up all over the five boroughs. “What are those?” I asked a friend. “The projects,” he answered. “What do you mean the projects?” I asked. “Public housing,” he said—“It’s where the poor live.” I blushed.

Affordable housing, its state, and most pressingly, the lack of it, has been a concern in New York City for more than a century. Most recently Mayor Bill de Blasio has made it a central focus of his administration, promising to create and preserve 200,000 affordable units over ten years. That’s a monumental goal. In 2015, as we learn in the introduction to Affordable Housing in New York, a wonderful new book edited by Nicholas Dagen Bloom and Matthew Gordon Lasner, 8 percent of the city’s rental apartments (some 178,000 units) were still in government-owned and -operated public housing developments, with hundreds of thousands more New Yorkers living in complexes like Co-op City, privately-owned, below-market buildings developed with governmental aid and subsidies.

Bloom and Lasner, and the exquisite group of contributors they assembled for this volume, look into the first hundred years of projects, programs, policies, communities, and individuals that brought to life this one-of-a-kind housing stock. They focus on what they call “below-market subsidized housing,” noting that “affordable housing,” a term that is in wide use today and one that they use in the book’s title, is “a comparative term that can be stretched to include many kinds of housing”—much of what today is called “affordable,” in fact, can hardly be afforded by working-class families, let alone the poor. Anyone who tries to understand how below-market subsidized housing works in New York City is faced with a mind-boggling tangle of terms and myriad city, state, and federal programs, laws, subsidies, stimuli, grants, tax credits, and abatements, not to mention rent regulations and alternative ownership models. This book offers a way to untangle and understand these terms and their histories.

The volume begins at the turn of the 20th century, when housing the urban poor was essentially a private, philanthropic endeavor. In 1926, in response to mounting pressure due to the abysmal nature and magnitude of the problem, Governor Alfred E. Smith opened the way for governmental involvement in housing with the Limited Dividend Housing Companies Act, the nation’s first law to offer tax exemptions to developers of affordable housing and, most important, to allow the use of eminent domain for site assembly. Organized in six chapters that trace a roughly chronological trajectory, the book offers critical overviews of different waves of housing development as well as a series of essays that analyze case studies of representative communities and short sketches of key figures and programs. Most interestingly, the book tackles this history with what the editors call a “humanistic, longitudinal,
large-scale approach,” training “a humanistic lens on discussions usually dominated by designers, social scientists, and policy analysts.” By analyzing about three dozen housing projects of different 
eras in their social and historical context, the book sheds new light on this multifaceted history without falling into the trap of becoming an obscure laundry list of housing policies.

The housing supplied over this troubled century, as the country was being radically transformed by two world wars, several immigration waves, and the Great Depression all the way to the Great Recession, never seems to meet the demand. Displacement, racial segregation, and the stigma of poverty were (and remain) persistent problems. It is especially frustrating to realize how far behind we are lagging as a society when one considers that, to this day, we cannot meet a goal set 80 years ago by Langdon Post, a housing activist appointed by then-mayor Fiorello La Guardia to head the newly created New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), who claimed that the First Houses, a public housing complex built in 1936 in the Lower East Side, were “the first dwellings which are predicated upon the philosophy that sunshine, space, and air are minimum housing requirements to which every American is entitled.”

Many of the people that advocated and fought for public housing were larger-than-life personalities. Their battles, as well as their successes and failures, were big, and we live to this day with the legacy of their work. (The stories of New York City housing activists told in this book could well be optioned for a movie.) Women, in particular, were central for bringing about the much-needed changes in housing policy in New York City and beyond. In addition to an essay on the writer and urban activist Jane Jacobs, a revealing essay is dedicated to Mary Kingsbury Simkhovitch (1867–1951), a housing activist who played a key role in “transforming the Progressive Era movement for settlement houses and tenement regulation into a local and national movement for tenement destruction and public housing construction.” Developing her ideas on housing management based on the work of another important woman, the 19th-century London social reformer Octavia Hill, Simkhovitch became “the force behind maternal systems of tenant management.” She also worked with the housing reformer Edith Elmer Wood and with Catherine Bauer Wurster, a leading public housing advocate and author of the influential 1934 book Modern Housing, with whom Simkhovitch drafted many of the provisions for the United States Housing Act of 1937. Closer to us, we read about Yolanda Garcia’s work as the leader of the Bronx coalition Nos Quedamos and about Rosanne Haggerty’s innovative approach to “supportive housing” with the organization Common Ground.

Bloom and Lasner argue that, despite many setbacks and shortcomings, New York City’s efforts are ultimately a success story: There are lessons to be learned from the complex process of building and preserving, physically and socially, publicly subsidized housing. If the book is a historical study of the city’s first century of below-market housing, its larger aim, the editors write, is that of “securing more resources for a second.”

One of the book’s happiest merits is that it tries to put a face to the hundreds of thousands of people who live in the projects—with a powerful photographic essay by David Schalliol. Affordable Housing in New York also lets us hear some of the voices of public housing residents. A revealing essay is dedicated to “Hip Hop and Subsidized Housing.” Hip-hop’s genesis can be traced to a 1973 party in General Sedgwick House, a Mitchell-Lama rental
complex built in 1969 in the Bronx. In the words of Jay Z, who grew up at the Marcy Houses in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant, “Housing projects are … these huge islands built mostly in the middle of nowhere, designed to warehouse lives. People are still people, though, so we turned the projects into real communities, poor or not.” Meanwhile, he continued, “even 
when we could shake off the full weight of those buildings and just try to live, the truth of our lives and struggle was still invisible to the larger country.”

Affordable Housing in New York is a worthy step toward lifting this veil of invisibility.

Affordable Housing in New York: The People, Places, and Policies That Transformed a City
Nicholas Dagen Bloom and Matthew Gordon Lasner
Princeton University Press, $39.95