The health of a society can be evaluated by the way in which the broadest cross section of its population is housed. Large urban residential projects play a major role in determining the wellbeing of city dwellers, within and surrounding these developments. This studio will examine the importance of architecture in addressing equity challenges within its most fundamental role: that of housing. We will focus on the largest public housing program of any city in the United States: New York City Housing Authority.
Recent events of the COVID 19 pandemic have heightened the importance of studying the intersection of planning, architecture and equity. Health challenges have revealed how inequities in living conditions disproportionately affect residents of low-income housing developments. Shortcomings of the built environment including locating density in flood-prone areas, over-crowding of apartments (facilitating the spread of the virus), proximity to highways (leading to poor air quality and high asthma rates), and lack of access to healthy food (leading to diabetes and obesity), have put residents of low-income developments at a significant disadvantage. At the same time, New York is experiencing an affordable housing crisis, with two extremely low income and very low income households for every unit of affordable housing available^1^.
The studio course will familiarize students with the history and present state of New York City public housing, and then ask them to propose improvements and imagine alternatives to the status quo. Taking one development, NYCHA’s Washington Houses, centered on 100th Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues, the class will work in teams of two to propose new solutions using the tools of urban design, ground plane development, building alteration strategies, and new building design. The goal will be to appreciate and further the rich culture of art, music, and social activism that generations of residents have created over the past 70 years in ‘Spanish Harlem’, while helping to solve problems of inequities, health deficits, and economic difficulties that stand in the way of societal wellbeing. Students will examine historical and current examples of successful housing solutions from around the globe, and will learn about real world business development strategies that can give their design proposals a foundation in economic reality without compromising innovative thinking and design.
New York City maintains the largest public housing stock of any city in the United States, accommodating roughly 5% of the city’s 3 million households. In the 19th century, as a result of rapid industrial growth and massive migration from Europe, housing conditions, particularly among the working poor, were overcrowded, low quality, and unhealthy. Progressive urban reformers, including Catherine Bauer, Jacob Riis, Lewis Mumford, and others, pressed for housing reforms to create more sanitary and safe housing to accommodate these groups. With the Great Migration from the US South, European immigrants were joined by African-American rural-to-urban migrants who arrived in New York in large numbers between 1910 and 1940, finding very challenging housing conditions.
The earliest subsidized housing projects were developed with private funds provided by benefactors or foundations—for instance the Dunbar Apartments in Harlem built by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. But with the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, housing conditions for many in the City worsened as many found themselves without work. In parallel with new national housing policies being rolled out by Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration in Washington, including the Housing Act of 1934, the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), the first public housing authority in the country, was established to respond to the housing crisis in 1934. From its first project in 1935, the First Houses on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, NYCHA pioneered slum clearance techniques, using land secured from the city by eminent domain, in New York to demolish tenements and replace them with new, modern, subsidized housing.
Heavily influenced by European Modernist housing principles including those of Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse and Ludwig Hilberseimer’s zeilenbau, architects working for NYCHA, including swiss-born William Lescaze, designed projects which sat architecturally as counterpoints to the congested, old, low rise, street-oriented buildings of the City. Frequently these were built as superblocks, spanning multiple New York City blocks, with free-standing slab or cruciform towers rotated away from the city grid and spaced far apart with a flowing landscape between them. The red brick buildings were characteristically mono-functional and stylistically austere, with small window openings and limited public spaces. Community facilities were often integrated into the overall plans as one or two story lower buildings, connected to the landscape. Following WWII, NYCHA housing development in the City was accelerated and aided by a partnership with Robert Moses. The majority of NYCHA developments were constructed between 1945 and 1965 as part of a process Moses hoped would reshape New York into a modern metropolis.
NYCHA’s 325 public housing developments across the City’s five boroughs include single and double family houses, apartment units, singular floors, and shared small building units. These facilities commonly have large income and racial disparities with their respective surrounding neighborhood or community.
Funding challenges for NYCHA since the late 60’s resulted first from a massive contraction of New York’s economy (New York famously almost became bankrupt in 1975) and then changes in both housing policy and the politics of public housing, at the municipal, state and national level. Starved for resources and rapidly aging, much of NYCHA’s housing stock is in need of revitalization. Continuing migration to New York from different parts of the world since the 1960’s, especially from Latin and South America, coupled with skyrocketing real estate prices in New York since the 80’s has meant that there is more demand than ever for housing which is affordable, comfortable, convenient, healthy, and safe.
In an attempt to halt the rising deferred maintenance costs for NYCHA and simultaneous unmet need for more affordable housing, Mayor Bill de Blasio released, in 2015, a plan called Next Gen NYCHA to address funding and maintenance concerns by “revamping management practices and generate revenue by building mixed-income and affordable housing on what the city deemed underused NYCHA land, and by using new federal programs to shift NYCHA apartments over to Section 8, a more stable source of federal funding”^2^. With highly constrained budgets, still, NYCHA is looking for new strategies that will allow it to upgrade and improve existing facilities, while continuing to expand housing opportunities for New Yorkers.
One such program recently established by NYCHA leverages available land and unused FAR (Floor Area Ratio) while partnering with private developers to solve for both the shortage of housing and the deferred maintenance of existing property.
This program is called the Permanent Affordability Commitment Together (PACT). Through this program, the selected NYCHA properties are converted to Project-Based Section 8, which will open access to a funding stream for NYCHA.
Selected developers will lease available land from NYCHA developments and will take on an extensive scope of work which will include repairs and refurbishment of existing units and buildings as well as, on some sites, the development of new mixed income housing and mixed-uses. The developer will also serve as the new on-site property manager, and propose and implement social services and community programs in new or repurposed community spaces.
The PACT program will form the theoretical basis of our studio proposal.
The site proposed for this studio is the NYCHA Washington Houses in East Harlem, otherwise known as Spanish Harlem or “El Barrio”. This is one of the largest predominantly Hispanic communities in New York City (52.1% Hispanic) and home to a vibrant Puerto-Rican, Dominican, Cuban and Mexican population. The second largest minority group represented is also a sizable one with 35.7% Black representation. East Harlem has historically suffered from a number of safety, social and health issues, such as a high crime rate, the highest jobless rate in New York City, high teenage pregnancy rates, AIDS pandemic, drug abuse, homelessness, and an asthma rate five times that of the national average.^3^ Poor economic development and planning has led to a lack of access to healthy food causing hardships to the citizens of East Harlem, a neighborhood which is considered to be a food desert. East Harlem is an area of the city with the highest levels of diet-related diseases due to limited opportunities for citizens to purchase fresh foods.
In the 1950s and 1960s, large sections of East Harlem, which had been redlined by the Home Owners Loan Corporation in the 1938, were leveled for urban renewal projects, and the neighborhood was one of the hardest hit areas in the 1960s and 1970s as New York City struggled with deficits, race riots, urban flight, gang warfare, drug abuse, crime and poverty. Tenements were crowded, poorly maintained, and frequent targets for arson. It now counts as the second-highest concentration of public housing in the United States.
Our site for the studio, Washington Houses encompasses the equivalent of seven city blocks spanning between Second and Third Avenues, starting at 97th street and up to 104th street. It is broken down into three mega-blocks, with vehicular through-streets at 99th and 102nd streets only. The ‘houses’ ignore the city grid in their orientation and are positioned on a true North/South axis with paths that weave in between the buildings and connect the development together. The housing towers, home to 1511 units, are on average 14 stories tall and represent a 13.9% lot coverage; reflecting a light density and much opportunity for a considered re-development.
One of this development’s distinguishing features is its circular central garden and overall generous landscaping. Washington Houses today is a relatively well maintained development; a quality owed partly to the residents’ sense of ownership and empowerment. It is also a neighbor to El Barrio’s Artspace PS109, a community-driven project which transformed an abandoned public high school into an Arts facility for its residents, with 90 units of affordable live/work housing for artists and their families, as well as space for various art organizations.
This studio aims to envision new architectural solutions on NYCHA’s Washington Houses development that address the city’s housing shortage while tackling questions of urban fabric and context, public and private space, and mixed-use development as a tool for connectivity. Designing with and for the various stakeholders, the students are urged to push the envelope of the expected in order to arrive at equitable and pioneering design solutions for the housing crisis. The studio will underline the importance of sustainability, resiliency and wellness (defined as cognitive, physical and emotional wellbeing) as an integral part of the solutions proposed. Students will be encouraged to reach beyond the expected tried-and-true solutions, towards ambitious and visionary yet believable solutions.
Our interventions will include but not be limited to the following programs: housing, community and recreational spaces (resident amenities including laundromats, child care, gym, multi-purpose events spaces, etc…), retail, parks, playgrounds and parking. Students’ proposals can consider the replacement of existing buildings to open up possibilities for new construction (as justified by a ‘best-use-of-land’ argument), building infill (on open corners and in between buildings), as well as improvements and additions to existing buildings. The students will work in groups of two on the main project of the semester.
Our co-teaching real-estate developer for this Bass Studio, Nnenna Lynch, will bring forth her expertise in socially responsible development. As a born and raised New Yorker with 18 years of experience working in development and public policy, Nnenna has an unusual depth of perspective on the issues this studio deals with. She will inform the studio’s architectural investigations with an understanding of the necessary policy parameters and financial mechanisms that enable the successful realization of pioneering mixed-use and housing developments. Students will benefit from her intimate understanding of NYC, her experience on the NYCHA board and her position as Senior Policy Advisor in Mayor Bloomberg’s administration leading transformational projects not to mention her experience as a mission-driven developer, a venture in which she seeks to focus on outcomes such as social and economic mobility as much as production.
Prior to embarking on our principal studio project, we will begin with a short exercise which will allow us to individually reflect on low-income and mixed-income housing in our hometowns in order to calibrate our understanding in a concrete manner. This will be followed by a brief research period, conducted in groups of 3 to 4 students, where we will examine housing typologies, historical to contemporary, and international to domestic, to outline successes and failures contextually.
Our travel week will bring us to New York City and Los Angeles, where we will visit a variety of housing developments. East Coast / West Coast, as counterpoints to each other that answer the problem of low-income and affordable housing in distinct ways; responding to culture, climate and context. During our NYC trip, we will visit various NYCHA developments to formulate a baseline understanding of general predominant conditions and particularities of each. Our visits will include opportunities for engagement with residents’ representatives and NYCHA management as well as talks by leading figures in the world of housing policy and development. We will also be visiting and analyzing other housing developments of varying typologies. Our trip to LA will afford us an exploration of housing at a lower density and the possibilities this offers in terms of auxiliary programming and community-building spaces.
The aim for the studio will be to re-think the housing formula and propose innovative ways in which the architecture and mixed-use programming of low-income and affordable housing can embrace new approaches, creating models for inclusive and equitable development in the city.
- New York City Housing Plan, https://www1.nyc.gov/site/housing/problem/problem.page
- Next Gen NYCHA , https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/nycha/downloads/pdf/nextgen-nycha-web.pdf
- PACT , https://www1.nyc.gov/site/nycha/about/pact.page