What People Need and What the Stock Provides

The amount of time spent indoors these days has prompted a great deal of introspection about New York City’s housing landscape. While some enjoy living space in abundance, or have just enough, many others are forced to reckon with crowded quarters that don’t easily meet the demands of quarantine or social distance (and exacerbate cabin fever among family members or roommates). As debate swirls around the supposed perils of density, complex questions lurk behind the measure of this single metric. Who actually lives in New York City, and does the housing stock meet their needs? Sarah Watson of the Citizens Housing and Planning Council talks about crafting policy that addresses the fundamental intersection of public health and private home, and the urgency to build and adapt dwellings that are more than just affordable, but reflect how we live — alone or together.

Sarah Watson: There’s a real . . . There is a potential danger in a public health crisis around housing policymakers to be focused more on, “Of course people cannot live in basements, of course people should not be living in shared housing.” The fear ends up being an even more compounding of rules, and it’s easier to ban things and enforce bad situations. You still need to be looking at the reality and creating safe, habitable conditions within that, rather than throwing all the baby out with the bathwater.

I’m Sarah Watson, and I’m the deputy director of Citizens Housing and Planning Council.

We’re a non-profit research group that focuses on housing and planning policy across the five boroughs. A big mission of our organization is to look at the reality of how people are living in New York and how the housing stock accommodates them, and policy to better support a connection between what people need and what the stock provides. We’ve done a lot of work looking at what is a household in New York, and you really think of households as families, as a single family. But actually, if you look at New York City, and nationally too, our households are far from being a family. We’re actually a huge city of single people, and that cuts across all ages and incomes, but affects different ages and incomes in different ways. When you really look at the city as a whole, about a third of the households are a single person living alone. And then about a quarter have some kind of sharing going on, and that is expressed in many, many different ways. We do still think of our households as a family unit, so we design accordingly. We’re trying to fit both the single people living alone and all sorts of different levels of sharing into a stock that is not agile at all to that, and that really does cause substantial problems at many, many levels.

There’s a sort of socially-inappropriate level, where you’ve got so much sharing going on — of roommates or related adults, multi-generational households, elderly people living with family or adult children staying at home — but they don’t have enough space themselves, they don’t have privacy, they have to share kitchens and baths. It’s not ideal. You also have physically dangerous component when you have all the sharing going on and the stock is not designed or allows for it. Illegal subdivision of units is very dangerous in a fire. Inappropriate materials for residential space. You have people living in spaces not regulated for residential at all. You have a lot of legal vulnerability from it, a lot of people not on leases, outside entirely of any regulatory protection. You have a big economic problem too, when the housing stock is not agile, is not nimble to what people need. So you have real problems for single people to have suitable homes, and then it causes a vicious cycle, because people will share and potentially push up the price of the market. You’re causing these economic distortions as well. And then nationally (less so in New York) you also, with this mismatch, can see a real environmental vulnerability too, of so many single people and smaller households, and you just can’t find efficient housing units, you’re wasting all this extra space.

The current global pandemic has really just exacerbated and shone a huge light on all these vulnerabilities. You add in a layer of the stay-at-home mandate, so suddenly everything internal becomes so much more crucial. In a city like New York, you could always argue that you don’t quite have the physical space or the regulatory space in your home, but the city is your home. You gain everything that you have in the infrastructure of the city. When you take that away, you see just how much more important the interior of your home has become. And then you add the public health component of contagion . . . Certainly the overcrowding takes on a whole other layer, where it was maybe easier to ignore before. Now the social component of the mismatch, when it was not socially conducive to share, when people weren’t getting privacy — the elderly mother has no privacy, the adult child has no privacy — that layer takes on a whole other meaning when you’re trying to isolate from family if you’re sick. If an elderly parent wants to get out of a nursing home, if adult children are returning from college . . . There’s a much more crucial layer to actually helping people share their homes.

One typology that’s been talked about a lot that’s had some impact on policy in the city is shared housing for people who would have their own space but share kitchens and baths. So what a new type of single room occupancy building would look like, but designed well and managed well. I do think that the public health crisis is . . . Maybe the thinking around sharing kitchens and baths is a new layer to this, that I think was not so much of a concern previously, and there is certainly a huge economic argument for sharing kitchens and bathrooms, done in the right way. It’s very problematic being done in stock that’s not designed for it, but that’s why there’s an argument for making sure that it can be built well. Purpose-built. If you’re going to do sharing, we probably need a small toilet and some cooking facilities in a room. I think it adds another layer of thinking around, potentially, what shared housing should look like. It certainly still shows that we need these alternative typologies, so people can live in a safe environment and not be doing it in stock that’s not designed for it.

The stay-at-home mandate makes it more important to be focused on housing. We should be looking afresh at our housing plan. A lot of our policy has been around the construction of new affordable housing units, and that’s taken a huge priority as we’ve been in an economic boom amid gentrification. The solution has been affordable housing, rent-stabilized, subsidized new construction of housing. That’s really been a focus. But in a way it’s not necessarily that directly tied to solving a problem, and the metric of success becomes building the units and not necessarily what we’re trying to use housing policy for. The very origin of governments getting involved in housing in the first place and intervening was about public health, and about the fact that the slum conditions were creating so much disease, to such a level that it was impractical. Housing policy needs to support the population or we don’t have a population. What would it look like if you’re trying to solve for health, if you’re trying to support the new immigrants into the city, what would those housing policies look like? A lot of it falls under regulatory reform: making sure that our housing stock can actually look at the reality of our households and evolve accordingly. We’ve had some successes around the edges, some zoning reform, that allow for some more housing for singles to be built, making an effort to help, say, small homeowners add an apartment to their basement that’s safe and legal and habitable. It’s really a way of working out what your priorities should be and what your metrics to success look like, and starting there.

I think it’s absolutely the time — where there isn’t going to be money and there is an economic crisis — to think about regulatory reform as an economic stimulus. And I hope that’s going to be the drumbeat that we’re putting forward. Really looking at stepping back — and I’m talking about our building code, our zoning code — to say, “What is it we’re trying to achieve with our built environment?” It’s almost a going back to basics. The social, economic component of this crisis maybe is a return to wanting people close to you. The home can really be a support for that, for new shifts like that, and certainly thinking of the reality of that and allowing our policy to make sure it’s done safely, habitably, and well. That’s going to be crucial.

Sarah Watson is the deputy director of the Citizens Housing and Planning Council (CHPC), a nonprofit research organization focused on housing policy in New York City. She has worked in housing roles in both London and New York, and for over a decade has devised, shaped, and implemented research for CHPC. Sarah teaches housing policy at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, and holds an MSc in Housing and Regeneration Policy from the London School of Economics.

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



In short audio features, we check in with urbanists of various stripes to hear what they are doing and how they are learning from the entangled crises of 2020.