New York City needs a public housing renaissance

House in Brooklyn, designed by Marvel Architects. | Marvel

Public housing today could be so much better—architecturally
and urbanistically—than it was in the 20th century

If you want to contemplate a healthy future for public housing
in the United States, you could visit Brooklyn’s Ingersoll
Houses, a cluster of red brick apartment buildings completed in

The 20 buildings, ranging from six to 11 stories, occupy a
23-acre site in Fort Greene, squeezed between Myrtle Avenue and the
Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. There’s an old-fashioned charm to the
complex, with its mature shade trees and meandering pathways. And
on what is surely the most desirable spot on the property,
kitty-corner from Fort Greene Park, stands Stonewall House, a newly
completed 17-story building that exemplifies one approach to
revitalizing New York City’s 300-plus public housing

Although the building sits on NYCHA property, it’s technically
not public housing. Instead, Stonewall House is the first building
completed for NextGen NYCHA, a program intended to make New
York’s housing authority financially stable by developing open
space surrounding its buildings, including parking lots and
playgrounds. Because of the mid-20th-century modernist belief in
the virtue of open space between apartment towers, NYCHA has
custody of a unique supply of New York City’s rarest commodity:
undeveloped land.

At Ingersoll, one of those undeveloped spaces was leased for 99
years to BFC Partners, a for-profit developer, and SAGE, a
nonprofit that addresses the needs of the elderly LGBT community.
The result is a handsome, 100 percent affordable building designed
by Marvel Architects, better known for upscale projects like
Pierhouse in Brooklyn Bridge Park.

At the opposite end of Ingersoll, a very different approach to
the future of public housing is underway. Developers Maddd Equities
and Joy Construction agreed to pay $25 million to NYCHA for the air
rights to Ingersoll, allowing them to build 31- and 33-story towers
on property adjacent to the complex. The developers have promised
that 25 percent of the units in the otherwise market-rate towers
will be affordable, and that $25 million will be earmarked for
badly needed repairs at Ingersoll.

Both deals are illustrative of the current challenges to shoring
up NYCHA complexes, which house roughly half a million New Yorkers.
In a city where affordable housing is always in short supply,
NYCHA’s properties contain over 173,000 units permanently
reserved for low-income tenants. In practical terms, they’re
irreplaceable. But because most of the complexes are between 50 and
80 years old, and the federal government has had little inclination
in recent years to kick in for upkeep, NYCHA has a $32 billion
backlog of what it calls “unmet capital needs.” Lead paint
needs to be removed, furnaces must be replaced, and elevators
desperately need repairs.

Public housing complexes in other American cities are similarly
stressed, so for those involved with low-income housing, a pressing
question is, “How can we upgrade what we already have?” But a
project like Stonewall House suggests another question that is, in
some ways, harder to answer: Why don’t we take all the lessons
we’ve learned about public housing—its successes and
failures—and apply them to building new public housing?

The process of redeveloping NYCHA land is politically fraught,
and there have been some misfires. A controversial attempt to
shoehorn a new 50-story building—half market-rate and half
subsidized—into the site of a playground at the Holmes Towers
complex on the Upper East Side has prompted fierce pushback from
tenants of the complex; so, too, has an alarming plan to demolish a
couple of buildings in Chelsea’s Fulton Houses to make more room
for market-rate development.

Why don’t we take all the lessons we’ve learned about
public housing—its successes and failures—and apply them to
building new public housing?

The Fulton plan is now being reconsidered by a working group
that meets weekly and includes NYCHA residents. Any deal that would
involve leasing or selling NYCHA land would have to involve a
“honest conversation” about the trade-offs, insists Betsy
Maclean, co-executive director of Hester Street, a nonprofit
community-planning organization that’s been running the Chelsea

Maclean, who has also been “participating in a national effort
to reimagine public housing” organized by the Ford Foundation,
acknowledges that the effort is all about the future of the
existing housing complexes. When I suggest that the future should
include new public housing, she tells me that’s not really on her
agenda, adding, “There’s such a lack of super-transformative
radical thought like that, about how you interrupt the real estate

Why would we need more of a type of housing that was, for
decades, written off as dysfunctional, and that acted as a
notorious generator of racial and economic segregation? Because we
don’t have nearly enough. As of last year, more than 181,000
families were on NYCHA’s waiting list for an apartment. Another
138,705 families were on a list for Section 8 housing, privately
managed NYCHA properties. NYCHA has a 1 percent vacancy rate and a
2.5 percent annual turnover rate—in other words, most people on
those waiting lists will be on them forever.

The situation isn’t any better nationally, in part because
public housing’s history effectively ended over 20 years ago. A
1998 amendment to the Housing Act of 1937, drafted by North
Carolina Sen. Lauch Faircloth and signed by President Bill Clinton,

capped the number of public housing units
in the United States
at close to 1.28 million, the number that existed on October 1,
1999. That ceiling is spelled out in
a list
of hundreds of local housing authorities across the
country, each with its own Faircloth limit: In New York City,
it’s 178,001; in Auburn, Alabama, the number is 18. At the time
those caps kicked in, the U.S. population was 279.3 million; now,
it’s around 329.4 million.

by Spencer Platt/Getty Images A NYCHA complex in Brooklyn.

Since the caps were imposed, the ability of working people to
afford housing—not just in expensive big cities, but in much of
the country—has diminished. The newly released State
of the Nation’s Housing Report
from Harvard’s Joint Center
for Housing Studies cites a 2017 study showing that there were
“37 affordable and available units for every 100 extremely
low-income renters,” and “58 units affordable and available for
every 100 households’’ of very low income renters.

It’s not surprising that we’re beginning to hear calls for a
restart of public housing, mostly from the political left. A 2018
paper called
Social Housing in the United States
, issued by a small
left-leaning think tank called the People’s Policy Project,
points out that countries like Finland and Sweden do a great job of
creating and maintaining subsidized housing. It argues that we
could do the same here: “Local governments, supported by the
federal government, must build a very large amount of affordable,
mixed income, publicly-owned housing, initially by developing
existing publicly-owned land,” the document concludes, calling
for 10 million units of housing in 10 years.

If you go by recently introduced legislation, the topic of
public housing is becoming fashionable. In September, Brooklyn
Congressmember Nydia Velazquez
a bill called the “Public Housing Emergency
Response Act’’ that would appropriate $70 billion to address
the capital repair needs of existing public housing nationwide,
including $32 billion earmarked for NYCHA’s unmet capital needs.
While the bill has yet to be voted on—and in fact seems unlikely
to become law—Velazquez sees it as a starting point in a much
larger conversation about public housing. “My legislation would
allow for long overdue repairs in existing public housing, and we
must simultaneously be looking to expand the availability of public
housing,” she said in a statement. She, too, is interested in
undoing the Faircloth Amendment in the interest of developing
“net new housing.”

In addition to Velazquez’s September bill, Minnesota Rep.
Ilhan Omar debuted a trillion-dollar Homes for All Act in November;
much of the money is earmarked for 9.5 million new units of public
housing. And in early February, Vaughn Stewart, a member of the
Maryland House of Delegates, introduced his own Homes for All
package which would change restrictive zoning in certain parts of
the state to allow more affordable housing, and build thousands of
units of mixed-income social housing.

But those who are intimate with the business of affordable
housing—people whose work suggests to me that we could build
great public housing if we wanted to—are less enthusiastic about
the concept. I checked in with Jonathan Rose, a prominent developer
of affordable housing whose current projects include Sendero Verde,
a mixed-income cluster of 709 apartments and community gardens in
East Harlem. Developers like him have prospered in the current
environment, partnering with nonprofits and local governments to
fund and build housing.

“I think that, in general, affordable housing owned by the
private sector has done much better than public housing in the
USA,” he says. When I suggest that we should be able to do things
differently today than we’ve done in the past, Rose sends me to a
passage in his 2016 book, The Well-Tempered City, in
which President Harry S. Truman’s efforts to pass a bill to
alleviate postwar housing shortages were subverted by Congressional
Republicans, including a young Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who backed
“lobbies for the home builders, real estate brokers, and mortgage
lenders.” In 1949, a public housing bill passed, but
“Republicans forbade the creation of mixed-income communities,
mandating that public housing could be rented only to the poor.”
As a result, the housing subsidies for middle-class families were
mortgages for single-family homes and, Rose writes, “the effect
on public housing communities proved to be devastating; instead of
becoming healthy, diverse, mixed-income neighborhoods, they became
ghettos of concentrated poverty.”

It’s an ugly history. And Rose contends that elected officials
from either party are unlikely to do it better next time—if there
is a next time. “Democrats “have defended union rules for
public housing workers that makes public housing much more
expensive and often less functional than privately developed
affordable housing,” he argues. “And so neither Republicans nor
Democrats have the courage for a massive re-do.”

One of the original New Urbanists, Berkeley-based architect
Peter Calthorpe, was hired by HUD in the 1990s to reinvent public
housing for a program called HOPE VI, replacing large-scale
high-rise development with more cheerful mixed-income low-rise
neighborhoods, such as Denver’s Curtis Park or Oakland’s
Mandela Gateway. When I called to see if he’d like to take
another shot at reinventing public housing, Calthorpe countered
with a proposal to repurpose California’s plentiful strip malls,
suffering from the decline of retail, converting them to dense
ribbons of housing.

“El Camino Real runs through the heart of Silicon Valley. You
could put a quarter million households on that street alone,”
reasons Calthorpe. And how to pay for this housing? It’s a
sleight of hand, much like “inclusionary zoning” in New York
City, which allows market-rate developers to build taller in
exchange for affordable units. Calthorpe’s theory involves
upzoning the strip malls, “which is a windfall for the property
owner.” In return, the owners “have to provide 15 or 20 percent
inclusionary housing.”

Even Brooklyn-based architect Andrew Bernheimer, whose firm is
committed to the design of low-cost housing, is skeptical. His
firm’s recent projects for private developers (including Rose)
include a Bronx building that will provide 115 affordable units for
seniors, and Caesura Brooklyn, with 123 mixed-income apartments
atop the headquarters of the Mark Morris Dance Group. Another
recently completed building, One Flushing, has 230 apartments, all
affordable with some units reserved for seniors. “Construction on
this building was done very smoothly. Right on schedule,” he
says. “Two years from closing to end of construction. Really good
developer, really good builder.” He compares that to a small
library renovation his firm has been working on for a city agency.
“We started our design in 2013 or 2014,” he explains. “The
construction’s going to be completed this year—it’s a few
thousand feet of interior space.”

Architects The exterior of Stonewall House, which was designed to
respond to the adjacent NYCHA complex.

Even someone who’s ardent about the value of affordable
housing doesn’t trust the government to do it right. Sen.
Elizabeth Warren, the standard-bearer of Big Structural Change,
whose campaign website features a $500 billion plan to increase the
supply of affordable housing, seems to be advocating better funded
versions of what we do now: “A big chunk of that investment
leverages private dollars so that taxpayers get the most bang for
their buck,” notes her plan.

But the reasons I’d like to see a renewed federal public
housing program are two-fold. First, a building effort driven by a
fully funded national housing policy—one predicated on the idea
that today’s housing situation is an emergency—could generate
enough units to significantly reduce or even eliminate the
shortage. While, ideally, the feds would be working cooperatively
with local governments, they would also have the clout to build in
areas otherwise resistant to housing. Perhaps big government could
do what local officials won’t; consider the failure in January of
California’s state senate to pass SB 50, a bill that would have

allowed increased housing density
in proximity to transit. This
is a situation in which an enlightened federal government (meaning
not the current version), wielding either carrot or stick, could
intercede. Maybe the solution wouldn’t be blunt old tools like
urban renewal or eminent domain, but sharp new ones like targeted
incentives for upzoning.

And second, public housing today could be so much better
architecturally and urbanistically than it was in the 20th century.
The historic housing projects were the output of a generation of
architects and planners seduced by Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse,
who believed that widely spaced arrays of tall buildings would fix
society’s woes. But today, we have talented architects all over
the country who understand that good residential design prioritizes
the connections between buildings and the street, between one
building and another, and between all kinds of people. Today’s
planners prize the vitality of mixed-use developments and know a
tremendous amount about how to make outdoor spaces attractive and

Just look at Stonewall House and the way Marvel’s architects
get mileage out of small gestures. Guido Hartray, a founding
partner at the firm, describes a design process that involved
figuring out how to “fit a building on this site and make it hold
this really important corner and address the street, but also
respond to the NYCHA complex.” The solution was an outward-facing
entrance for the residents on the street side, and an entrance to
the community center opening onto Monument Walk, one of
Ingersoll’s interior thoroughfares. With only eight units per
floor, many apartments feature big corner windows—nice for the
residents—and passersby might appreciate the way slight
variations in the color of the bricks give the building texture,
like a subtle mosaic, and the way that the community center
animates the building’s immediate surroundings.

The real obstacle to renewed public housing isn’t the present
administration—not in the long run, anyway. Instead, it’s that
most of us, across the political spectrum, have internalized the
idea that the government can’t do anything right. We’ve bought
into decades of propaganda about the superior skills of the private
sector. But without a government with big, ambitious, clear-eyed
policy goals, none of our immense problems—transportation,
resilience, climate change, you name it—can be addressed in any
meaningful way. While corporations can surely help execute a
national housing plan, setting the agenda is our job. It may be a
hard fact to accept right now, but the government is us. And the
“public” in public housing is also us. Perhaps if we can
rehabilitate the idea of “public,” the political will and the
housing might follow.

Source: FS – All – Real Estate News 1
New York City needs a public housing renaissance