The Bible and the Billionaire

Nehemiah row houses stretch for blocks in East New York, Brooklyn. | Photo by Gilbert Santana

On a blustery Halloween day in 1982, 6,000 people dressed in their Sunday best gathered with New York City Mayor Ed Koch on a vacant lot in Brownsville, Brooklyn. A year later, in December 1983, a small crowd of politicians and businesspeople, led by Koch and New York State Governor Mario Cuomo, assembled on another vacant lot five miles away in Windsor Terrace. Though very different in tone and character, these gatherings shared a common purpose. The showy displays marked the groundbreaking of something decidedly prosaic: modest new row houses for moderate-income families.

These events lie at the origins of a new movement to affordably house New Yorkers in the wake of massive political and economic restructuring at both the municipal and federal levels. In this milieu, two independent groups — one led by a coalition of Brooklyn churches, the other by the city’s business elite — worked to revive blighted neighborhoods through affordable homeownership, transforming streetscapes with a slice of suburbia. The attached row house became the new face of affordable housing in New York City at the end of the 20th century, a low-rise residential vernacular standing in explicit contrast to the towers and superblocks that had defined mid-century subsidized housing. The effort presaged the contemporary favor for small-scale, mixed-income subsidized housing communities nationwide. But the story of how the affordable row house came to New York reveals an essential turning point in policymakers’ prescriptions for the ailing city and the role of government in providing shelter.

Lead art from the December 1982 City Limits cover story on the Nehemiah program’s groundbreaking in Brownsville, “East Brooklyn’s Second Rising” | Graphic by Jim Sleeper via City Limits Magazine ; original photo by Luis Nazario

Rebuilding New York City

A shrinking city set the stage for a subsidized row house building boom. In the 1970s, New York City’s population fell by over ten percent — more than 800,000 people. Unsustainable borrowing had sparked a fiscal crisis, while suburbanization, white flight, antiurban federal policy, deindustrialization, and job loss drained the city of its residents. Combined with a national recession, the city’s poverty rate climbed; by the end of the decade, more than one in five New Yorkers was living in poverty.

Counterintuitively, an affordability crisis also set in: Though the city’s population had fallen every year of the ‘70s, the working-class housing stock had also declined dramatically, prey to disinvestment and abandonment. Low- and moderate-income housing was increasingly hard to find as the vacancy rate remained at what was considered an emergency level. By 1985, more than 175,000 families were on the public housing waiting list while rising rents and evaporating federal housing assistance were creating a crisis never before seen in New York City: family homelessness.

These trends were exacerbated by the loss of housing stock. In 1976, the city changed its policy to foreclose more quickly on tax-delinquent properties, aiming to discourage landlords from abandoning their buildings. The move had the opposite effect: Over the next decade, the city became landlord to more than 100,000 units of tax-foreclosed so-called in rem housing, about half of which was occupied. Other buildings were lost to fire — a result of earlier cutbacks in fire services and a rise in arson — leaving some city streets reduced to rubble and empty building shells.

Brownsville, Brooklyn, in 1972. Some New York City streets were lined with vacant lots and abandoned as the city took ownership of tax-foreclosed properties and acres of land. | Photo by Winston Vargas via Flickr

The media used colorful language to describe what remained: “moonscapes,” “scorched earth,” and “war zones.” Of course, the losses were not evenly distributed. The south and central Bronx, central and eastern Brooklyn, and upper Manhattan — neighborhoods home primarily to lower-income Blacks and Latinos — were the hardest hit. The Bronx lost more than 20 percent of its housing stock, and “South Bronx” became international shorthand for urban decay. In Brooklyn, Brownsville lost 40 percent of its population between 1970 and 1980. Early community-led efforts to rebuild were already underway — Father Louis Gigante’s Southeast Bronx Community Organization and the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation were renovating apartments by the late ‘60s — but the level of abandonment was still immense. While proposals for “planned shrinkage” were quickly discarded, some still doubted that parts of the city would ever recover. Today’s growth was nearly unimaginable.

It was on this scorched earth that affordable row housing would be built. Two different efforts to rebuild the city through low- and middle-income homeownership were born in 1982. East Brooklyn Congregations (EBC), the coalition of church leaders who broke ground in Brownsville, employed Saul Alinsky’s radical community organizing techniques to strong-arm and cajole local government in equal measure toward reviving struggling Brooklyn neighborhoods. They named their affordable housing program after Nehemiah, the Old Testament prophet sent by the King of Persia to rebuild Jerusalem. Today, 20 blocks surrounding that first house in Brownsville are lined with hundreds of uniform two-story red brick row houses, many with red or green aluminum awnings over their front doors. The group that assembled in Windsor Terrace dug the ceremonial first hole of the New York City Housing Partnership, an organization founded by billionaire David Rockefeller to bring private sector resources to affordable housing. That first project yielded 17 three-story, two-family homes of red brick and tan siding, each with a built-in garage.

Between 1987 and 2000, the Nehemiah and Partnership programs accounted for almost 80 percent of all new city-subsidized housing construction, according to analysis by the Association of Neighborhood Housing and Development (ANHD). During that period, more than 15,000 Partnership and Nehemiah units were produced versus fewer than 300 new homeownership units subsidized outside of those two programs. Low-scale row houses were the hallmark of the city’s new outer-borough housing. Popular in New York City since the 18th century, row houses are a quintessentially urban form. But these new houses projected a more suburban culture. Mostly two or three stories tall with low densities, large setbacks, and parking pads and garages prominent in the front, these houses were a stark departure from the city’s street-oriented brownstones. In that regard, both the Nehemiah and Partnership houses reflected the challenges — and perceived solutions — of their time, in line with shifting housing and urban policy.

Swimming with Changing Tides

In the 1970s and ‘80s, a drastic reduction in federal housing funding changed who would affordably house Americans, and how. In 1973, President Nixon declared a moratorium on most federal housing programs, including public housing. Only some programs were subsequently revived and at decreased levels. During the Reagan administration, the federal housing budget was slashed by more than 70 percent, with low-income programs the hardest hit. Most federal housing construction subsidies were eliminated. The government turned to the private market for both demand-side programs, like Section 8 rental vouchers, and supply-side programs, like the Low Income Housing Tax Credit.

Diminished federal support for low-income housing was coupled with a renewed emphasis on homeownership. “Homeownership can be a source of pride and stability, influences that will extend to the homeowner’s job and family life,” Nixon declared in a 1968 statement. This view, of course, was not new. A century of housing policy had championed homeownership, in part for its perceived moral value: Owning a home was commonly thought to provide not merely shelter and economic gains but social and psychological benefits. Popularly considered a pathway to the middle-class and its attendant work ethic and family values, it was the backbone of the American Dream.

A new wave of federal enthusiasm for homeownership began in the late 1960s, seen as a tonic for urban unrest and explicitly racist federal housing policy. The Kerner Commission, convened in 1967 to investigate the cause of uprisings in Detroit, Watts, and other cities, recommended that the federal government extend homeownership opportunities to “provide many low-income households with a tangible stake in society for the first time.” The 1968 Housing and Urban Development Act established multiple programs to encourage low- and moderate-income homeownership. The Section 235 program provided mortgage insurance for homeowners living below the median income, and was the first major initiative specifically aimed at homeownership for the urban poor.[1] The establishment of Ginnie Mae, which gave government backing to moderate-income mortgages, and passage of the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act, which obligated banks to make community development investments in low-income communities, amplified private sector involvement.

Homeowners have personalized the plain Nehemiah homes over time with elaborate fences, plantings, and other embellishments. | Photo by Gilbert Santana

Small Is Big Again

Changing currents in architecture also favored low-rise homes. Animus replaced enthusiasm as designers, housers, and policymakers repudiated the towers and superblocks that had dominated since the 1940s. In particular, the modernist tower-in-the-park style of housing that had become the face of public housing in East Coast and Midwest cities was diagnosed as the root of poverty’s perceived pathologies. As early as the ‘50s, doubts about the high-rise were raised by influential housers like Catherine Bauer, who deemed it an acceptable solution for the wealthy, single, or elderly but not suitable for families with children. Those sentiments became louder and sharper in the postwar era. In 1961, historian Lewis Mumford pilloried “the sterile, space-mangling high-rise slabs” found in Europe and America in The City in History, while author and activist Jane Jacobs decried single typology neighborhoods and modernist planning in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. In his influential (albeit disputed) 1972 book Defensible Space, architect Oscar Newman declared: “It is the apartment tower itself, which is the real and final villain.” He correlated taller buildings with higher crime rates, a charge that continues to influence American subsidized housing policy today.

Concerns about the high-rise made their way into public policy. Section 207 of the 1968 Housing Act prohibited new high-rise elevator public housing for families unless “there is no practical alternative.” In New York, the state’s Urban Development Corporation and the nonprofit Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies experimented in the early ‘70s with low-income housing alternatives in low-rise, high-density forms. Seeking a compromise between towers and suburban sprawl, the groups produced prototypes that sought to induce “both a sense of community and a sense of propriety,” showcased in a 1973 MoMA exhibition titled “Another Chance for Housing: Low-Rise Alternatives.” (Kenneth Frampton’s design for the low-rise public housing development Marcus Garvey Village, shown in the exhibition, was built three years later just five blocks from Nehemiah’s future first houses in Brownsville.)

Both the Nehemiah and Partnership programs sought to convey middle-class stability in sometimes tumultuous conditions, using the row house typology to project mainstream values of personal responsibility and upward mobility. Even when divided into multiple units, the row house form presents as a single-family home, the apogee of domestic ideals. When built in large numbers, the uniformity of the row and clearly defined block structure created physical order, which was meant to translate to social order as well. “You won’t see spray paint here. You don’t hear loud music. People respect each other here,” Nehemiah resident Dawn Brown told the New York Daily News in 2012.

There were also practical reasons for building row houses. The simple, small form and party walls drove down construction costs, making it a “pragmatic expression of the reduction in resources for social housing,” as Richard Plunz describes in his history of New York City housing.[] In a reversal of the rationale that favored high-rise public housing in the 1940s, elevator buildings were no longer the most cost effective solution. Thanks to advances in building technology including partial prefabrication, the modern row house was now relatively cheap to produce. That the cost of land was a non-factor in the outer boroughs of the 1980s was also crucial. When land prices are high, cost efficiency demands a higher volume of units. Here, where lots often hadn’t even been assigned a market value, the construction and financing costs were the primary considerations. Smaller was not only better, but cheaper.

The location of Partnership New Homes and Nehemiah developments built through 1999 | Republished from: Ellen, Ingrid Gould, et al. “Building Homes, Reviving Neighborhoods: Spillovers from Subsidized Construction of Owner-Occupied Housing in New York City” (2001) courtesy of the author

A New Municipal Commitment

Together, the Partnership and Nehemiah had a near-monopoly on new affordable construction in the 1980s and ‘90s, and their one- to three-family row houses lined streets that a few years earlier were pockmarked with vacant lots and buildings. They did not accomplish this alone: Though both efforts started independently, they received significant stimulus with the launch of Mayor Koch’s Ten Year Plan for Housing in 1986. While the Bronx burned during his first term, Koch only made housing a priority at the end of his second. When he did, it was a sweeping effort. The largest and most expensive housing program ever undertaken by an American city at that time, the Plan aimed to create or preserve 252,000 units. It continued through two subsequent mayoral administrations, with ultimate expenditures of $5.1 billion. About 63 percent of the funds came directly from the city’s capital budget, the first time that level of municipal funds had been committed to a housing program and representative of new local pledges in the face of federal drawdown.

Koch saw homeownership as a vehicle to rebuild neighborhoods, retain the city’s middle class, and bolster the economy. He had asked his housing department to put together a homeownership program for vacant city land as early as 1978. “The Koch housing program was primarily an economic development, not a welfare program,” writes Jonathan Soffer in his biography of Koch.[3] Despite the free fall in federal housing funds and a developing family homelessness crisis, Koch focused on housing the next rung up — the middle class. “Koch aimed to rebuild areas devastated by abandonment and neglect into neighborhoods that were viable and self-sustaining” and would not require additional public subsidy or investment. The move was pragmatic: by transitioning public obligations to the private sector, long-term responsibility for “sustaining” housing, including maintenance and staffing, was also transferred off the city’s books.

The Koch program had a come one, come all approach: The city would dispense land, buildings, and funding to private groups coming forward with financially and politically viable plans. Rehabilitation of distressed apartment buildings was the centerpiece of the initiative. Only about 15 percent of units constructed between 1986 and 1997 were new units, yet nearly all of those were one- to three-family row houses built mostly in marginalized neighborhoods in Brooklyn and the Bronx. Koch’s plan specified a preference for single-family homes: “Our housing development programs now favor rehabilitation over new construction where possible, and where we need new construction, we generally build low rise, low density housing.” As new construction filled in former “moonscapes,” row houses were often the most visible manifestation of a recovering city.

Corner of Mother Gaston and Belmont Avenues, Brooklyn, 1988 | Photo by Camilo José Vergara

Prophets

Of the two organizations responsible for the new row houses, the Nehemiah program was the more dogmatic, hewing to strict principles about form, tenure, and cost. The housing initiative originated with an acerbic retired builder. I.D. Robbins was single-mindedly fixated on the row house as a solution to the city’s affordability crisis, calling the offer of homeownership to lower-middle-class households “a challenge — and an invitation — to join the mainstream of American life,” in a 1979 article for the New York Daily News that came complete with actual blueprints. Robbins alighted on the single-family row house as the “ultimate solution to the housing crisis,” broadly speaking. “Now, both the high cost of construction and the social frictions of high-density communities suggest we go back to where we started — and take another and more respectful look at the two-story, single-family row house,” he argued.[4]

As he continued to make his case as a Daily News columnist, Robbins caught the attention of Industrial Areas Foundation organizers working with East Brooklyn Churches (EBC, later East Brooklyn Congregations), a coalition of religious leaders founded in 1979 to empower residents to tackle local issues including crime, schools, and housing. IAF leader Michael Gecan brought Robbins to Reverend Johnny Ray Youngblood and the EBC strategy team to hatch “five inviolable rules” for a new housing program: the group would produce only single-family homes, the homes would be owned rather than rented, the homes would be attached to one another, they would be built by the thousand rather than in small numbers, and the group would manage this all without gifts or grants from the public sector.[5] Though eschewing direct federal support, EBC was far from fiscally autonomous. The construction financing came from a multi-million dollar revolving loan fund that pooled donations from EBC congregations. But the group relied on generous public subsidies that have become the hallmarks of private sector affordable housing: free land, cheap financing, and property tax abatements. Specifically, the city donated the land, provided a $10,000 interest-free loan (to be repaid on sale), and gave 20-year property tax abatements — amounting to a subsidy of about $20,000 per Nehemiah house.[6]

For the first phase of Nehemiah houses, in Brownsville, Long Island-based architect James T. Martino delivered an aggressively plain design. Robbins was bullish on the typology: “High-rises are fine on Park Ave., but not for poor people,” Robbins told the Daily News, echoing earlier concerns about the suitability of the form to family life. Each house is a two-story brick box 18 feet wide and 32 feet deep, with a backyard and a front concrete parking pad and small patch of grass. While fully embracing small-scale housing, Nehemiah was neither infill housing nor the low-rise, high-density model that some housers advocated. By trying to assemble full blocks and a willingness to demolish existing buildings, Robbins’s approach had shades of urban renewal: Rehabilitation is “the legacy of the soft, muddle-headed Jane Jacobs cult of the ‘60s,” he told the New York Times in 1987. At just 15 units per acre, the sites were planned for efficiency and ease of construction. Most of the blocks have a row of houses down each long block face and none on the short ends, avoiding the added costs and complications of turning corners. Inside, kitchens were placed at the front of the house to keep regular eyes on the street. EBC had clear social goals: empower residents to regain control of their neighborhoods. The mandatory homeowners’ association was one way to instill collective responsibility.

The original 700 Nehemiah houses, completed in the mid-1980s, blanket 20 blocks of Brownsville. | Photo by Gilbert Santana

Future owners were selected through competitive lotteries, and in June 1984, nurses, subway conductors, and postal workers with incomes averaging $25,000 ($55,000 today) started moving into their new homes. That first phase in Brownsville comprised 700 houses covering 20 blocks, and over the next several years an additional thousand red brick houses were completed in Brownsville and East New York. The houses went for $40,000 to $45,000 (approximately $93,000 to $104,000 today), a price that reflected the construction costs minus the subsidies — the houses generated essentially no profit. Everything that could be was trimmed: In addition to construction savings through mass production, EBC’s revolving fund avoided the usual costs of financing and interest, and the essential actors accepted a fraction of their typical fees, bringing soft costs down by 80 percent. The architect agreed to a fee of $204 per house built, barely enough to break even, and Robbins himself was paid only a token developer fee of $1,000 per house. Some corners were cut, also: Robbins argued with the city to allow him to use one connection to the sewer per row, rather than the usual one per house, saving more than $1,000.[7] The original houses didn’t even come with a refrigerator. Through creative penny pinching, Nehemiah produced housing far cheaper than any other program in the city. Roundly praised in the media, the initiative was heralded as a success story and Senator Charles Schumer proposed legislation to take it national.[8]

The New Nehemiah houses in East New York were prefabricated in two pieces at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and finished on site. | Photo by Gilbert Santana

As Nehemiah expanded, the building strategy and design changed. In the mid-1990s, the “New Nehemiah” phase was ushered in with approximately 700 East New York row houses, just blocks from the earliest Nehemiah homes. These houses of even more easily iterated modular buildings were manufactured in two pieces by Monadnock Construction (Robbins had passed away in 1996) at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and trucked to the site, where the brick first floor and siding-clad second floor were bolted together. New Nehemiah houses sold for $73,000, primarily to buyers making $30,000 to $45,000 a year. With inflation, the costs were in keeping with older houses but the city’s subsidy also doubled to $20,000. When the strategy was exported to the Bronx, where another IAF affiliate called South Bronx Churches built nearly a thousand units in the 1990s, another shift occurred with the introduction of two-family homes and condominiums. By the late 1980s, policymakers and politicians alike balked at the notion of acres of single-family homes as appropriate for rebuilding the South Bronx, a response also encountered when Nehemiah tried to expand construction in Brooklyn and Queens.[9]

Governor Mario Cuomo and Mayor Ed Koch are joined by Councilmember Thomas Cuite, City Comptroller Harrison Goldin, and U.S. Senator Al D’Amato at the groundbreaking for the Partnership’s first houses in Windsor Terrace in December 1983. | Courtesy of the Municipal Archives

Partners

While EBC conducted house meetings and launched its church-led movement, the New York City Housing Partnership set about bringing together civic and business elites to create a new affordable housing industry. The Partnership publicly launched at a 1982 luncheon for 1,600 business people and politicians at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, during which President Reagan delivered remarks calling for the private sector to become more involved in social causes.

The Partnership’s goals were matter-of-fact, and congruent with Reagan’s privatization initiatives: revive the building industry in a lagging economy and bolster the middle class, the stable center of the city’s population. In contrast to Nehemiah’s mission working-class empowerment, Partnership founder David Rockefeller set his sights on families earning up to $45,000 a year (about $115,000 today). Without new middle-income housing, Rockefeller warned, “only the very rich and the very poor will be able to live here.” Where for Nehemiah homeownership was an explicit goal, here it was a means to an end. Rockefeller initially proposed that the Partnership would renovate and rehabilitate multifamily buildings and convert existing housing to cooperatives. Ultimately, according to the Partnership’s first director Kathryn Wylde, “Homeownership turned out to be the best way to do what David Rockefeller wanted to do, which was to mobilize private capital to add value to neighborhoods through housing.”[10] The Partnership focused its attention on row houses.

A Partnership development at 178th St. at Vyse Ave, S. Bronx, October 1994 | Photo by Camilo José Vergara

Unlike Nehemiah’s pledged independence from government, the Partnership forged a close (if contentious) public-private collaboration: Its largest effort, New Homes, was an official program of the city’s Housing Preservation and Development department (HPD). The city chose the development sites, which it acquired through tax foreclosure or other means, and sold lots to the Partnership for $500 each. The Partnership, acting as an intermediary, chose the kind of construction, the architect, and the (for-profit) developer. The construction financing came from traditional bank loans. Often, a nonprofit community sponsor would be responsible for marketing the units.

The Partnership lacked much of the strict dogma that drove the Nehemiah program, building in smaller increments and tailoring developments to site conditions. The New Homes spread across lower-income neighborhoods in all five boroughs, with about three-quarters concentrated in Brooklyn and the Bronx. Built by a variety of architects and developers chosen from an approved list, the houses vary in form. The Salters Square development on Intervale Avenue in the Bronx is a concrete-block approximation of Nehemiah houses, while the adjacent Thurston Plaza two-family homes are pointy-roofed and bright white, offset with primary color awnings. Other developments, mostly in brick or aluminum siding, alternate setbacks every few houses on long rows to break up an otherwise solid blockface, or include small historicizing details, such as a small gabled roof over the entryway, a simple cornice, or window grilles.

A for-profit model employing different developers and architects for each project, building on infill sites, and relying on traditional financing meant that costs for Partnership homes were significantly higher than those for Nehemiah. The Partnership’s intended homeowners were wealthier: the early buyers earned around $30,000 to $45,000 annually compared to Nehemiah’s $25,000 average. The purchase price was lowered to about 20 percent below market rate through grants, usually $10,000 from the city and $15,000 from the state, per home. (Like Nehemiah, Partnership homebuyers received tax abatements.) Even so, prices surged above those of Nehemiah developments. Public school custodian Maryanne Manousakis bought her Coney Island single-family row house for $79,900 in 1991, and ConEd secretary Mary Boswell bought her two-family row house in South Jamaica, Queens, for $155,000 in 1994.[11] For the builder, an emphasis on two-family, and occasionally three-family, homes was strategic: An additional unit would either accommodate extended family members or provide rental income to cover much of the monthly home mortgage and carrying costs. It also meant more households served: Partnership houses had densities in the range of 30 to 60 units per acre compared to Nehemiah’s 20. By the time the city’s Ten Year Plan had wound down in 2000, the Partnership had completed 13,149 homeownership units, compared to Nehemiah’s 2,399, according to the ANHD analysis.[12]

Economic development was key to the Partnership’s efforts. Providing a below-market entree into homeownership also revived the homebuilding industry, raised property values in depressed neighborhoods, replenished tax revenues, and recovered the popular image of the city. In the process, it also helped lay the foundation for the modern-day affordable housing industry, which brings together public agencies and private financiers and developers (and often city land) to produce below-market homes. The Partnership was emblematic of the rise of private intermediaries that created a new affordable housing production industry that persists to this day.

Just outside the Longwood Historic District in the Bronx, the design of these two-family Partnership homes borrow from the past. | Photo by Gilbert Santana

New York’s Middle Class

The affordable row house arrived as another row house movement was in full swing: Eager “brownstoners,” mostly white and middle class, were buying up and rehabbing the city’s older rows. While physically (and perhaps spiritually) miles apart, the two efforts were a parallel rediscovery of the city’s most tried and true residential form. Although now treasured objects, as historian Suleiman Osman explains, “brownstones were the suburban tract homes of the nineteenth century.”[13] From its 18th century debut in New York as the default housing type for all classes, through to the 1960s, when the market was still building rows for the upwardly mobile in places like Canarsie, the row house had long been the workhorse of the city’s middle class. The Nehemiah and Partnership programs can be seen as the last gasps of the brand-new row house as economic stepping stone, falling back on a stalwart solution when the city had seemingly hit its nadir.

The key difference lies in how the affordable row house became, for a brief time, city policy. HPD Commissioner Shaun Donovan told the New York Times in 2004 that the city’s transfer of nearly all its in rem buildings and land to private developers, both nonprofit and for-profit, was “quite simply the largest privatization of housing anywhere in the country.” Subsidizing homeownership remains a thorny policy question. These new houses meant the achievement of a pipe dream held by many moderate-income New Yorkers: property and all its attendant rewards. The majority of Nehemiah and Partnership homeowners were Black and Latino; members of groups that had historically been refused access to the housing market were newly able to accrue wealth and equity. Strict income and credit requirements meant only financially stable households were eligible, but those conditions also protected buyers from the foreclosure epidemic that began in 2007. These houses may also protect moderate- and middle-income people from displacement as neighborhoods like East New York face what was unimaginable in the ‘80s: gentrification.

Partnership houses like the single-family Salters Square (foreground) and two-family Thurston Plaza (upper left) are ubiquitous in the East Bronx. | Photo by Gilbert Santana

The benefits to the city at large are less clear. Received wisdom in public policy says that homeowners are critical to neighborhood revitalization because they have a greater financial and emotional stake not only in their investment but in the surrounding neighborhood.[14] There is positive but limited data to support to these claims for New York’s subsidized row houses. A 2005 working paper[15] examining the impact of all subsidized housing in the Ten Year Plan confirmed “significant external benefits”: The increased tax revenue exceeded the cost of the city’s subsidy. Another study, from 2001,[16] focused specifically on the Partnership and Nehemiah homeownership programs and found that values of properties within an eight-block radius of those projects rose relative to the rest of the zip code. But while the benefits for local owners and the city’s coffers are evident, the authors caution that rising property values can be a “mixed blessing” for renters who may face rising rents.

“Mixed blessing” typifies subsidized homeownership as a whole, and raises the question of where limited public funds are best allocated. Homeownership subsidies reach only the upper stratum of the low-income market, making the audience for row houses clear: those that might need an initial boost, but would be self-sufficient from here on out. This is the group sometimes termed the “deserving poor.” Amid the crisis of the 1980s, low-income housing advocates were critical of Koch’s emphasis on the middle class from the start, charging that municipal resources should instead be directed to the poorest renters and homeless people. “The City’s claim that low income families will be the primary beneficiaries of this housing is a cruel hoax,” the ANHD and Housing Justice Campaign alleged in a 1989 report, Missing the Mark: Subsidizing Housing for the Privileged, Displacing the Poor.

What’s more, private homeownership may not contribute to long-term affordability. The subsidy overwhelmingly benefits the original homeowner, who accrues equity from the rising home value on an artificially low price. That such benefits would trickle down is contentious: “The problem with conventional affordable homeownership development is that you really invest a lot of subsidy, but it only goes to one person,” Caroline Nagy of the Center for NYC Neighborhoods, a nonprofit advocating affordable homeownership, recently told City Limits. And the housing itself may not retain its affordability: the homeowner “can resell at whatever cost.” Both Nehemiah and Partnership contracts had resale restrictions meant to prevent buyers from making quick profits while still benefitting from long-term appreciation in value. For Nehemiah, the city’s no-interest loan was to be repaid upon sale of the house. For the Partnership, an “evaporating lien” lasting 15 to 25 years was placed on the value of the land, to be paid back if the house was sold during that time. Even so, the row houses provided less than one generation of affordability. By the time the second phase of Nehemiah was for sale, the first phase had already doubled in value. Today, the subsidized row houses may be resold for healthy profits.

Nehemiah streetscape in Brownsville | Photo by Gilbert Santana

While grown from very different seeds, the accomplishments of the Nehemiah and Partnership programs look far more similar than different 35 years on. Households of moderate (Nehemiah) and middle (Partnership) income got a leg up and a lasting place in the city while using ownership and neat domestic symbolism to anchor faltering neighborhoods. In a fresh housing crisis, Mayor de Blasio’s own ten-year plan, the present-day massive municipal housing effort Housing New York, makes little provision for affordable homeownership. With land now at a premium, the plan puts the vast majority of its resources toward rentals. The affordable row house may be on its last legs in New York, as Nehemiah fights to complete its Spring Creek development — its third phase in Brooklyn with 1,500 planned units in one-, two-, and three-family row houses and apartments — and the Partnership has turned its focus to apartment buildings.

Yet outside of New York, the affordable row house is now national subsidized housing policy. Since the federal HOPE VI program, which emphasized building mixed-income communities through public-private partnerships, was inaugurated in 1992, row house communities have sprouted where traditional public housing once stood.[17] These developments emphasize individualized private space over the shared greens of high-rise complexes and are influenced by the nostalgic architectural ideology. Low-rise buildings often designed in traditional or vernacular architectural styles are indicative of persistent skepticism of modernist high-rises. The ethos of personal responsibility has become entrenched policy and subsidized housing is increasingly a means-tested benefit, limiting who is entitled to receive it. While it may be a rare bird in New York today, similar concerns of policy, politics, and form that drove the 1980s affordable row house have planted them across the country.

[1]

Section 235 produced about a half-million homes nationally but was short-lived due to fraud, defaults, and lax oversight. In New York City, it was used to fund row house homeownership in the early ‘80s and its framework of a profit-making public-private partnership was a model for the New York City Housing Partnership.

[2]

Plunz, Richard. A History of Housing in New York City: Dwelling Type and Social Change in the American Metropolis. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.

[3]

Soffer, Jonathan. Ed Koch and the Rebuilding of New York City. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012.

[4]

Robbins, I.D. “For the $12,000-a-Year Income: Blueprint for a One-Family House.” New York Daily News, 7 Oct. 1979, 10–12.

[5]

Freedman, Samuel G. Upon This Rock: The Miracles of a Black Church. New York: Harper Perennial, 1994.

[6]

The New York State Mortgage Finance Agency also provided below-interest mortgages.

[7]

This modification was later written into city regulations, although was not without its problems. In 1998, City Limits interviewed 134 Partnership homeowners, finding widespread complaints of leaky roofs, junk-filled backyards, and sewage back-ups due to these group connections.

[8]

The New York Times and, in particular, the New York Daily News frequently advocated for Nehemiah, although the Village Voice was critical of the program’s construction quality. Schumer’s Nehemiah Housing Opportunity Grant was passed into law in 1987 but produced only a few hundred units before it was repealed in 1990.

[9]

Nehemiah battled with the city as it demanded large, totally cleared sites, including at the dystopian-named Site 404 urban renewal site in the South Bronx—where ultimately the Partnership was awarded the right to build three-unit condominium row houses—and Arverne, Queens, where the city preferred denser, market-rate housing.

[10]

Quoted in: Orlebeke, Charles J. New Life at Ground Zero: New York, Home Ownership, and the Future of American Cities. Albany, New York: Rockefeller Institute Press, 1997.

[11]

Described in: Orlebeke, New Life at Ground Zero.

[12]

Row houses dominated the Partnership’s work early on, but the New Homes program also developed condominiums, most low-rise. The 599-unit Towers on the Park high-rises on the northern edge of Central Park, built in 1987, were an exception.

[13]

Osman, Suleiman. The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn: Gentrification and the Search for Authenticity in Postwar New York. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

[14]

In 2015, the city’s homeownership rate was 31.6 percent, about half the national rate, according to NYU’s Furman Center.

[15]

Schwartz, Amy Ellen, et al. “The External Effects of Place-Based Subsidized Housing” (March 2005). NYU, Law and Economics Research Paper No. 05-05; and NYU Law School, Public Law Research Paper No. 05-03.

[16]

Ellen, Ingrid Gould, et al. “Building Homes, Reviving Neighborhoods: Spillovers from Subsidized Construction of Owner-Occupied Housing in New York City.” Journal of Housing Research, vol. 12, no. 2, 2001, 185–216.

[17]

While hundreds of thousands of public housing units across the country were transformed under HOPE VI, New York City had only three such developments: Prospect Plaza in Brownsville; Markham Gardens in West Brighton, Staten Island; and Arverne-Edgemere Houses in Rockaway, Queens.

Emily Schmidt is the manager of housing programs at The Architectural League. Chicago born and bred, she now lives in Brooklyn.

Series

Typecast

The Architectural League’s long-term investigation into architectural typologies that have come to be seen as outdated, stagnant, or obsolete.

In This Series

Comments

Jamie Jensen August 4, 2017

Thank you for this informative, timely and inspirational story. I am intrigued by the idea that low-rise high-density housing can induce “both a sense of community and a sense of propriety”… and I hope future installments will talk about the importance for affordability of preserving public ownership of public lands, especially now that HPD is embracing community land trusts. Brava!