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Tracing the History of Affordable Housing in New York City

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The timing of the Museum of the City of New York's latest exhibit, "Affordable New York: A Housing Legacy," couldn't be better. The exhibit, which opens today, rides the wave of Mayor de Blasio's ambitious housing policy, which seeks to create 200,000 units of affordable housing over the next 10 years. And while the topic is on everyone's minds right now, it is hardly a new concept for New Yorkers to consider. "We want to present to the public that this problem isn't new," says curator Tom Mellins. "We have a rich history of affordable housing policy in this city, and the idea was to place the current moment within historic context."

Mellins, an architectural historian and author, decided to begin the exhibit by grounding it in the present with Mayor de Blasio's ten-year plan, and then examine it within the city's long history of affordable housing policy. The result is a visual showcase that examines what affordable housing has looked like over the years, how the policies have changed, and the factors that have led to this current moment. "In the one-and-a-half years I've been working on the exhibit, the subject has become more and more topical by the week," said Mellins.

Mellins's history with MCNY dates to 2009, when he collaborated with the museum to try and organize an exhibit about affordable housing pegged to the 75th anniversary of NYCHA. It never ended up happening, but in the ensuing years he noticed that the interest in affordable housing was growing—and broadening. The talk of affordability was no longer focused solely on NYCHA buildings; it had expanded to mixed-use developments, rezoning, and innovation in affordable housing design. "When de Blasio focused on inequality for his mayoral campaign, it was really in the air," said Mellins.

Soon after his election, Mayor de Blasio unveiled "the largest and most ambitious affordability plan of its kind in nation's history," which will involve building 80,000 new affordable units and preserving 120,000 more under new planning initiatives and zoning changes. Since then, he has introduced a mandatory inclusionary zoning plan, pushed for major rezonings in neighborhoods like East New York, announced new development for NYCHA land, and oversaw a citywise rent freeze for one-year leases, the first one in the Rent Guidelines Board's 46-year history. Simply put, there's a lot going on right now, and Mellins knew the exhibit had to cover the basics. "Right away, we address what affordable housing is, specific information on the mayor's plan, and how New Yorkers have been addressing this problem for 150 years," he said. "And we wanted to present this history in a graspable fashion."

New York housing policy, in Mellins' opinion, is distinguished by a belief in activist government and a progressive social policy. "New York exceptionalism can be a slippery slope, but in this regard this city really does stand out... and we wanted to communicate that through history," he said. The roots of progressive housing policy did not begin with affordability, Mellins found in his research. Photos taken by photojournalist Jacob Riis, which alerted the public to the unsanitary conditions of the tenements, are included in the exhibit. The response to his work encouraged the first government intervention into housing, but it had to do with living conditions and public heath, not affordability.


It also inspired a wave of private philanthropy from wealthy New Yorkers—some of which are profiled in the exhibit—that still rings true today. "It was called 'philanthropy plus five percent,'" said Mellins. "It's a classic New York vision of the world: you want to make the world better, but you don't want to lose your shirt while doing it."

One such housing reformer and philanthropist, Alfred Tredway White, wanted to improve the living conditions of the working poor. He erected a number of buildings in Brooklyn, including the Home Buildings in Cobble Hill (1877), the Warren Place working cottages (1878), and the Tower buildings (pictured above, 1879). Building features included open space, sunlight, better ventilation and fire safety measures, and separate rooms, setting a new standard for tenement living. "New Yorker's strongest association with affordable housing are the red brick towers on a super block site," notes Mellins. "That's only one component out of many. What affordable housing looks like will surprise people."

The exhibit also aims to show how innovative NYCHA was upon its inception in 1934. (Its formation predated the creation of the U.S. Housing Authority.) "At the time, NYCHA was advertised to solve every problem known to man," explains Mellins. Public housing projects represented optimism and ambition, a sort of "brave new world" of modern architecture and the progressive era.


And the architecture was carefully considered. "Some of the most important skyscraper architects designed public housing too," said Melins, who noted that the Williamsburg Houses, in Williamsburg, were co-designed by the pioneering Swiss-American modernist William Lescaze. Complexes like Waterside Plaza in Kips Bay, played with the traditional red brick design and was praised for its architecture upon completion.

And while NYCHA's reputation has become less than sterling over the years, Mellins still says that it's important to remember that many of its properties are still operational at a time other cities are tearing public complexes down. "Here, the public mandate still exists," he explains. "It plays into the hallmark of the show, that affordability has been happening for a long time."

In the 1970s, when the federal commitment to public housing decreased, New Yorkers started becoming innovative with affordability. "And that's remained until today," said Mellins. "A lot of what gets done involves the public and private sector, and there were more and more innovative ways to incentivize developers to provide affordable housing." The exhibit highlights modern developments like Via Verde, a sustainable rental and co-op in the Bronx, affordable rowhouses built by Habitat for Humanity also in the Bronx, and the Spring Creek Nehemiah development in East New York. The Spring Creek development, located on a former 45 acre former landfill site, is composed of prefabricated one-, two- and three-family homes built at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Homeowners put down as little as $8,000 to purchase their houses, which ranged in price from $158,000 to $488,000. Mellins was also interested in exploring the mixed-income and mixed-use nature setting apart many modern affordable developments, which he considers "the wave of the future."

"Looking forward, the challenges are huge," said Mellins, surveying the current need for affordability. "But the New York commitment to addressing this is strong. And what we have is a growing menu of options to address it."
· De Blasio Unveils 10-Year, $41B Affordable Housing Plan [Curbed]
· All Affordable Housing Coverage [Curbed]

Museum of the City of New York

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