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Can good design help NYC’s affordable housing crisis?

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In a new set of guidelines, the Public Design Commission shows how a more equitable, resilient, and livable city starts with affordable housing

New York City’s new affordable housing design guidelines include seven case studies, like the Navy Green, in Brooklyn, by FXCollaborative, Curtis + Ginsberg Architects, and Architecture in Formation.
Bo Parker, courtesy Public Design Commission

Arbor House, an apartment complex in the South Bronx, features a rooftop greenhouse and a courtyard filled with exercise equipment, and is adorned with beautiful metalwork inspired by plants. A lush living wall in the lobby welcomes residents to the building. The 124 units inside boast wood floors and are bathed in natural light. And here’s the kicker: every single apartment is affordable.

New York City hopes to see more affordable housing developments, like Arbor House, that are rooted in their respective communities and feature exemplary architecture. To make that aspiration a reality, this week, the city’s Public Design Commission (PDC) published new design guidelines to help spread that philosophy far and wide. The document is a guide for firms bidding for affordable developments, as well as a tool to help the public understand how the city is thinking about its broader housing goals.

Developed along with the New York chapter of the AIA and the Fine Arts Federation of New York, “Designing New York: Quality Affordable Housing” reveals how the city envisions the future of affordable housing: as the backbone for equity, resiliency, sustainability, and health.

“Housing is of course about shelter and meeting the most basic needs of the city’s residents and families,” says Justin Garrett Moore, executive director of the PDC. “But housing is also so much more than that, and it touches so many aspects of people’s lives. Housing is a dominant element of the built fabric of our city, is a foundation for our shared communities, and is context for the greater public realm.”

Arbor House, a 100 percent affordable housing building in the Bronx, was designed to promote the health and wellness of its residents. A rooftop garden provides fresh produce.
Courtesy Bernstein Associates

In 2014, Mayor Bill De Blasio presented “Housing New York,” his 10-year plan to build and preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing throughout the city by 2024; in 2017, he revised the plan, upping the goal to 300,000 units by 2026. As of December 2017, the program has generated 87,557 affordable units.

The city is leaning on a combination of land use and zoning changes, tax incentives, public-private partnerships, and more to close the gap between supply and demand. This latest report offers examples of how architects and the city have used all of these mechanisms to build new housing.

“Design is very important because it is one of the ways that the ‘rubber meets the road’ for how all of these components come together—into real communities, buildings, and homes for New York City’s residents,” Moore says.

Much of the new affordable housing development will occur on vacant land the city owns or that it sells to developers in exchange for them building much-needed units. Development where the city maintains ownership of the land must be approved by the PDC, and the agency hopes that these guidelines help make their standards and considerations transparent so that the public, other city agencies, and design consultants know how it’s evaluating “quality” design. The PDC hopes that clearly articulating its considerations will also help make the approval process faster.

The Frost Street Apartments, by Curtis + Ginsberg Architects, is 100 percent affordable and includes units for adults with developmental disabilities.
Courtesy John Bartelstone

The report outlines design strategies for site planning, building materials, massing, facade design, outdoor space, circulation, window and door placement, and ground floor usage. Using case studies, it shows how these have been incorporated into successful projects—how setbacks and building height can enhance pedestrian experience, for example, or how to balance commercial and residential needs on a mixed-use site.

In Williamsburg, the seven-story Frost Street Apartments provide 47 units of supportive housing, 100 percent of which are affordable; the apartments are priced for people earning 50, 60, or 80 percent of the area median income (AMI). To help the infill building feel less monolithic, Curtis + Ginsberg Architects used setbacks to break up the mass, clad the facade in different materials, and varied the depths of the windows. Since the building is in the 500-year flood plain, the architects placed the mechanical systems on upper floors to prevent water damage. The building is also energy efficient thanks to high-performance windows and extra insulation.

Mitigating the risk of flooding was also a critical design move in Hunter’s Point South Crossing and Commons, a development on the Long Island City waterfront that’s in the 100-year flood zone. The development’s master plan includes 32- and 37-story buildings with hundrds of affordable residential units (reserved for people earning between 40 and 230 percent of the AMI), along with retail, a school, recreation space, and parking. The architects—Ismael Levya and SHoP—integrated flood barriers in the buildings and raised critical infrastructure.

What’s most evocative, though, are the questions the city asks to frame the seven case studies nod to the pressures the built environment faces: primarily fostering density, resiliency, equity, and community.

How can one efficient design for infill housing be adapted to a range of sites in medium-density New York neighborhoods?

How can a building contribute to a sense of community, and help its residents regain stable, independent lives?

How can an apartment building contribute to its residents’ health?

How can a contaminated brownfield be transformed into a socially equitable mini-neighborhood?

How can two mixed-use buildings help to anchor a future, more equitable, resilient waterfront neighborhood?

How can a new supportive and affordable housing development, twice the height of its neighboring buildings, help to bring dignity to its often-stigmatized residents, while enhancing its block and neighborhood?

How can a building embody the concept of development without displacement?

Designed by Ismael Leyva Architects and SHoP Architects, Hunter’s Point South Commons and Crossing is a mixed-use development that is designed to weather sea-level rise on the Long Island City waterfront.
Courtesy Steve Freihon

“Quality Affordable Housing” outlines how thoughtful design can positively impact broad swathes of residents, not just investors parking their money in the luxury towers mushrooming throughout the city. To the PDC, this is about meeting the needs of a specific project while also making the rest of the city better. It’s also about distancing itself from elitist notions of what constitutes “good design.”

“Good design isn’t generated by (often white male) starchitects with egotistical visions and blockbuster budgets, but by people working in often small ways to make people’s lives better,” Moore says. “We all love a great design [and] a signature project, but we value having more good design across the board. Good design might mean something that looks as good in year 20 as in year one, or something that survives the storm, or a building that is appreciated as much by the old-timers as the newcomers for a changing neighborhood.”

The Creston Avenue Residence, in the Bronx, was designed by Magnusson Architecture & Planning for homeless families, veterans, and chronically homeless individuals.
Courtesy Ari Burling Photography

However ambitious these new design guidelines are, the city still faces a number of policy challenges to creating truly equitable, affordable housing—particularly in who gets to live in the units. The city is currently involved in a lawsuit about discrimination in how the Department of Housing Preservation Development’s affordable housing lottery is structured, there has been a staggering loss of rent-stabilized units, and the very definition of “affordable” is contentious because of the disparity between AMI—the baseline used to set rents—and the median incomes in communities.

The challenge of addressing the affordable housing crisis runs deeper than adding supply; it’s about doing it in a way that will benefit the most people and will make the most of new development. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, and coming up with the right solution for each site will boil down to asking the right questions. With these design guidelines and case studies, the PDC is inviting, and provoking, deeper thought about how affordable housing can make New York City more livable.

In addition to providing these guidelines on its website, the PDC is working with the AIA to launch an online database of affordable designs to help advance the conversation. Perhaps through more discussion, the city will arrive at more solutions to help alleviate the affordable housing crisis.