Adaptation and Experimentation: New Housing for New York

Last week, Mayor Bloomberg announced a new pilot program, called adAPT NYC, to develop a building of 275-300 square foot apartments on a City-owned property on 27th Street between 1st and 2nd Avenues. These “micro-apartments” are smaller than the current minimum legal size for a living unit in New York. If successful, this experiment might prompt the easing of some of the zoning regulations and housing codes and standards that constrict the amount (and inflate the cost) of New York City housing units. The program has received local and international press coverage, including articles in the The New York TimesThe Wall Street JournalBloombergInhabitatCurbed and televised reports on NY1 and The Today Show.

The Mayor, in announcing the initiative, explained that “We want people to come here to start their careers here, to start out here, to start their families here. If they can’t afford to live here, then that’s a problem.” Stated in this way, the Mayor is clearly aware that supply is not meeting demand for the kinds of people the City wants to attract, but adAPT NYC also seems to be informed by an awareness that real estate demand is not uniform. It’s not just young professionals who can’t afford to live in New York. Across the socio-economic and demographic spectrum, the housing options available to New Yorkers are nowhere near as diverse as the households and real estate preferences of New Yorkers themselves.

Part of the groundwork for this policy move was laid by an advocacy project initiated by the Citizens Housing and Planning Council (CHPC) called Making RoomTo expand the scope of what policymakers thought possible or desirable, the Architectural League, building on our legacy of efforts to increase housing choice in New York such as Vacants Lotsor Urban Life, partnered with CHPC to develop a design study. We invited four teams of architects to propose new types of housing units that ignored regulatory roadblocks to innovation. The site conditions and demographic profiles offered to the teams as source material emphasized the diversity of those individuals and households whose specific needs are not met by the real estate options available on the market: single adults who want to live alone, joint and multi-generational families who want to live together, and groups of unrelated single adults who want to live alongside each other, sharing resources and maintaining privacy where possible. The video below (produced for a UO feature that introduced the design study) describes the context of the mismatch between housing regulations and contemporary needs. In it, CHPC executive director Jerilyn Perine offers a challenge to policymakers that goes beyond the specificities of housing policy to invoke the central challenge of our time: “The greenest thing any person can do is to live in a small space, or live in a shared space, and use mass transit to get to work. That really should be where New York City is setting the bar very high and creating the most innovative housing models in the world. That’s not happening right now.”

adAPT NYC, as its name suggests, is an attempt to enable the housing stock to adapt to new needs as well as new possibilities. As such, it bears the potential to restore our city’s legacy as a leader in housing design. Therefore, the moment seems apt to revisit this legacy, to learn from those instances when policy priorities and architectural acumen aligned in the service of social challenges and resulted in something new and noteworthy appearing on the urban landscape. Over the next two weeks, Urban Omnibus will look at some significant, under-represented examples of New York as an innovator in housing form and policy. This week, Karen Kubey will examine the past and potential future of low-rise high density housing by revisiting the example of Marcus Garvey Park Village in Brownsville, Brooklyn, and next week Susanne Schindler and Juliette Spertus will compare the design thinking behind two high-density developments in the Bronx, Co-op City and Twin Parks. Sharing these historical cases affirms our commitment to unpacking the sociological assumptions and design philosophies behind a rich history of architectural experimentation, as well as our belief that this history bears important lessons for future adaptations.

Cassim Shepard was the founding editor in chief of Urban Omnibus.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.