Revealing a Housing Legacy Hidden in Plain Sight

By Thomas Mellins

 

When, in early 2014, I started to curate an exhibition for the Museum of the City of New York on affordable housing, the subject was already a “hot” topic. It was widely acknowledged by government officials, developers, and the public alike, that attaining decent, affordable housing in a city identified worldwide with stratospherically expensive penthouses in the sky, could be challenging, if not nearly impossible. During the time that I worked on the exhibition, Affordable New York: A Housing Legacy, the topic only got “hotter.” It is difficult today to turn on one’s computer, open a newspaper, or even discuss the current state of life in the city with a friend, without having the subject of affordable housing come up.

New York’s housing situation, deemed a crisis by some, has come into sharp focus recently in part because Mayor Bill de Blasio has made it a principal focus of his administration’s efforts to address the gulf between the city’s “haves” and “have-nots.” The mayor’s Ten-Year, Five-Borough Plan, announced in 2014, aims to “build or preserve nearly 200,000 affordable units, and help both tenants and small landlords preserve the quality and affordability of their homes.” (The government defines housing as affordable if its cost does not exceed one third of the residing family’s income.)

ADVERTISING TACTICS: Poster by the Federal Art Project promoting planned housing as a method to deter juvenile delinquency, c. 1936-1938. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
ADVERTISING TACTICS: Poster by the Federal Art Project promoting planned housing as a method to deter juvenile delinquency, c. 1936-1938. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In light of affordable housing’s importance as both a current issue and the subject of ambitious plans for the future, it is perhaps surprising that some basic facts about it are unknown to many New Yorkers. For example, there is a vast quantity of it in the city. An estimated 1.2 million New Yorkers live in homes subsidized by government programs aimed at individuals and households with demonstrated financial need. This number comes close to the combined populations of Boston and Washington, D.C. New York’s subsidized housing is also architecturally varied, ranging from redbrick “towers-in-the-park” developments, to individual apartment buildings, row houses, and even detached, single-family houses.

Perhaps most significantly, many New Yorkers do not realize that the city has been working to address a lack of affordable housing for at least a century and a half. Today’s housing advocates, in both the public and private sectors, stand on the shoulders of generations of government
officials, developers, and community activists who rendered affordable housing both a cause and an industry in New York.

While affordable housing has been, and continues to be, successfully built across the United States, New York has long stood out as an innovator in the field, claiming many “firsts,” from the nation’s first tenement house law, established in 1865, which set minimum standards for light, ventilation, sanitation facilities, and fire prevention; to the first limited-dividend cooperative housing developments, built in the late 1920s, in which residents, in some developments self-identified as “cooperators,” sacrificed future profits from apartment sales in favor of low purchase prices and maintenance fees; to the establishment of the New York City Housing Authority, the nation’s first public housing authority, created three years before the federal government’s United States Housing Authority. In more recent decades, with new large-scale public housing developments no longer being built, New Yorkers have pioneered innovative ways for government to encourage private developers to build affordable housing.

I was pleased to find rich documentation of the subject, from photographs, ephemera, and video, to architects’ drawings and models. It was fascinating—and challenging—to try to present the complexities of affordable housing to a broad audience in a lucid and compelling manner. To the extent that Affordable New York may increase visitors’ understanding of the city’s rich affordable-housing heritage—a legacy in some ways hidden in plain sight—I hope that that new appreciation will help inform contemporary and future efforts to provide decent housing for all New Yorkers.


 

Thomas Mellins is the Curator of Affordable New York: A Housing Legacy at the Museum of the City of New York.

 

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