Pushing the “Reset” Button on Public Housing

NYCHA Resident Association President Reginald Bowman talking to other panelists | photo courtesy of the Institute for Public Architecture

“A Total Reset,” the title of a roundtable convened last week by the Institute for Public Architecture refers to the dramatic language Mayor de Blasio has used to describe his intention to start fresh in the city’s approach to public and affordable housing. Fortunately, the roundtable — described as a discussion about “ambitious, achievable ideas for public housing” — did not completely reset the conversation about housing. The almost 20-person exchange between scholars, New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) representatives, city officials, and professional architects, planners, and developers was preceded and informed by four presentations of historical and contemporary precedents in the field.

The case studies offered a nice variety of perspectives and background: Bill Menking of The Architect’s Newspaper presented “The Vienna Model,” highlighting the dramatic production of government-built housing in the Austrian capital under its socialist control after World War I; architect James McCullar described three of his New York City residential projects, including a mixed-income infill development for the Lower East Side of Manhattan; Nadine Maleh of Community Solutions explained the community planning and development work of the Brownsville Partnership in Brooklyn; and Rick Gropper and Richard Weinstock of L+M Development Partners presented their firm’s restoration and refinancing of a 1,093-unit Mitchell-Lama residential complex in Far Rockaway.

HUD does not appear to believe that public housing can be a successful enterprise when it is funded predominantly at the federal level.The conversation that followed was informative and covered a wide range of issues in housing development, maintenance, preservation, and policy, but two general themes held the attention of the group and jumped out to me. The first was about nationwide financing strategies in a political climate that is increasingly hostile to public housing. In a time when federal support for public housing continues to shrink, the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) does not appear to believe that public housing can be a successful enterprise when it is funded predominantly at the federal level. Marc Jahr, a consultant for Community Development Futures and the former president of the New York City Housing Development Corporation, described Public Housing Authorities (PHAs) as “federal enclaves in the middle of municipal cities,” because of the extent to which current PHA funds are almost exclusively federal. Jahr cited some alarming figures about declining financial commitments to PHAs from HUD: in 1994 HUD distributed about $3.23 billion; by 2014, that figure was $1.77, without adjusting for inflation.

In the context of this stark financial picture, the conversation briefly turned to HUD’s Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD), which the group discussed with what seemed to be guarded optimism. This relatively young federal program allows PHAs to convert a distressed property to a form of project-based rental assistance (such as project-based Section 8 vouchers), which in turn enables the PHA to leverage limited private equity investment for capital improvements and avoid displacement of its residents. In essence, the intention of the program is to allow PHAs to access badly needed funds from the private market, while keeping PHAs in control of their buildings. As its name implies, the program is still being piloted — the number of unit conversions is capped at 60,000 — but HUD’s commitment to the program is steady, and if the assessment of the demonstration goes well, they will likely significantly increase its funding and scope.

One criticism of the program, which no one explicitly acknowledged, is that allowing banks to lend into PHA projects ultimately allows those banks to decide which PHAs get money and how much. Risk-averse banks will provide the most credit to projects that offer the most security for their investment — specifically, developments that reside on valuable land and are already in pretty good condition — and not based on the widely divergent needs of the existing housing stock nationwide.

The conversation about RAD also raised the idea of guaranteeing municipal funding for public housing in New York City. Reginald Bowman, president of NYCHA’s Resident Association, explained that for years a central goal of the tenant association has been to secure a NYC line item budget for NYCHA. Nicholas Bloom, a housing historian at the New York Institute of Technology, seconded Bowman’s call, saying that given the vagaries and instability of federal funding, a true “total reset” would mean making public housing a central part of the city’s overall budgeting process.


Exterior and interior views of The Gasometers, adaptive re-use housing in Vienna

The second major theme of the roundtable was the idea that the conversation about public housing needs to move beyond the level of individual units or buildings, and to start engaging public housing campuses, neighborhoods, and community development initiatives. For instance, Cecil House, General Manager of NYCHA, commented on the housing authority’s controversial land lease proposal saying that he did not feel the concept of the program was “fundamentally wrong,” but that the goal of leasing underutilized open space on NYCHA campuses should be to “solve broader problems” for existing residents, such as improved security and access to services and resources. Though he did not address what this might look like specifically, the comment seemed to be an indirect acknowledgement of the fact that underused public space and the prohibition of any commercial activity from the ground floor of NYCHA buildings may have contributed to public safety concerns in larger campuses and to the social and economic isolation of their residents.

Shomon Shamsuddin, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, picked up on this idea as well, arguing that much is lost in the conversation about public housing in New York City when we focus too narrowly on buildings and not on the “expanded site” of their neighborhoods. Institute for Public Architecture founder Jonathan Kirschenfeld agreed, saying that he felt more focus should be given to the problem of re-engaging NYCHA campuses with their surrounding urban fabric. Gabriella Amabile, an assistant commissioner at the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), suggested interagency collaboration might be a useful way forward in this regard, reminding the group that HPD has real estate resources adjacent to or very nearby NYCHA campuses, with budgets and bylaws that are more flexible than NYCHA’s — HPD, for example, can secure ground floor commercial tenants in their buildings.

This summary only scratches the surface of what was a long and lively discussion. The full two and a half hour program goes into greater depth, but is only a glimpse into an extremely complex topic. Watch the full video for more detail.


Gabriel Silberblatt is an assistant editor at The Architectural League and Urban Omnibus, living in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Follow him  @GPS_NYC