Late last month, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont unveiled the Green New Deal for Public Housing Act, which aims to mend the country’s crumbling public housing stock of close to one million units. Budgeted at $172 billion, the legislation proposes retrofitting measures that would increase energy efficiency and improve health, safety, and comfort for nearly two million people.
According to Daniel Aldana Cohen, who headed research for the bill, this represents just a portion of the work that needs to be done to tackle the affordable housing crisis. He advocates the construction of 12 million new units of “social green housing” within the next decade, which would ostensibly be funded by the $2 trillion infrastructure package the Biden administration teased back in April. (In addition to climate considerations, Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders’s plan seeks to stimulate American job growth while also upholding high labor standards.) Such an undertaking would present an opportunity, Aldana Cohen said, to “make the United States work more like the best [housing] models around the world.”
For Aldana Cohen, who also directs the Socio-Spatial Climate Collaborative, or (SC)2—a hub for critical social science research on the climate crisis at the University of Pennsylvania—Vienna’s social housing program stands out as a particularly admirable prototype. In an (SC)2-sponsored event in mid-April, he invited the former deputy director of the Vienna Housing Fund to discuss the progressive agenda that has surely contributed to the city’s rank as the most livable in the world. There, 77 percent of housing is rental, and 60 percent of all residents live in social housing. Public procurement is a boon for the architecture, a rich interlace of imaginative forms, pleasant colors, and patches of greenery. Made possible by generous subsidies, active government planning, and strong public influence on the private sector, these housing blocks show what state-sponsored design competitions can yield when they prioritize social inclusion.
Something akin to this model is not out of the grasp of the United States. A related event hosted by (SC)2 and the Pratt Institute in New York had only to look uptown to find a Viennese analog. Located in the Bronx’s Melrose Commons neighborhood, Via Verde has 222 units of low- and middle-income housing along with accessible green roofs, a vegetable garden, and community spaces, including a shared courtyard. Developed by the Phipps Houses Group and Jonathan Rose Companies, and designed by New York-based Dattner Architects and the global studio Grimshaw Architects, the LEED Gold–certified building is the result of a 2006 competition cosponsored by AIA New York and the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development, and organized by an independent interdisciplinary committee.
According to Karen Kubey, a visiting professor at Pratt who was involved in orchestrating the competition, an ethical procurement process opened the door for architects from around the world to submit truly inventive designs. “We wanted to make sure we were not exploiting labor,” said Kubey, “so compensating designers for their work was critical. Too often firms spend thousands of dollars on designs that will never be used.” A robust federal grant program, she noted, would make more competitions like this possible, creating quality green social housing at scale.
Aldana Cohen suggested that the embrace of the term “green social housing” among advocates, policy makers, and designers alike signals a shift in thinking. He defines public housing as “mixed-use and mixed-income housing that is integrated within the fabric of communities across whole urban and rural regions.” The label also indicates the inextricable link between the housing and climate crises: Home energy use contributes nearly one-sixth of the country’s heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions.
Contemporary projects in Europe—such as a Stirling Prize-winning Norwich council estate, a Passivhaus development by Mikhail Riches, and the work of Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal, the Pritzker Prize’s most recent recipients, for instance—provide inspiring examples of what green social housing could be in the United States. Sendero Verde, a sequel of sorts to Via Verde also spearheaded by Jonathan Rose Companies, with with L+M Development and Acacia Real Estate Development, promises to bring that European sensibility to East Harlem; when completed, it will be the largest Passive House–certified development in the country. But as Aldana Cohen points out, it will take a lot more than designing beautiful buildings to create change. “If architects really want agency, they will have to get in the trenches and join with people in other walks of life,” he said. “Organizing makes a huge difference.”