Reaching affordability. A retrospective on New York's housing

by Nuria Forqués


Affordable housing in New York City seems to be the news topic of the day, but the issue is no news for New Yorkers. The city has already gone through critical experiences and history has shown how public intervention is crucial to managing affordability crisis. In the past, the city government has tackled the problem by implementing context-based creative solutions. The fan of policies ranged from publicly developed housing to market laissez-faire strategies. By analyzing these past policies and its consequences, we might perhaps find some keys for the future.

The concept of affordable housing emerged as a way of measuring whether a household could afford to live where they live and still be able to meet other basic living costs. Nowadays, for housing to be considered affordable in the United States, its spending should represent less than 30% of a household’s income. This number has evolved over time, starting at 20% in the United States National Housing Act of 1937, rising to 25% in the 1968 Housing and Urban Development Act, and finally reaching 30% in 1981.

Contextualizing the issue: understanding the urban shift in the United States

Urbanization became poignant in the United States in the mid 19th century and throughout early the 20th century. Originally, the city’s core was the fashionable residential area, hosting wealthy townhouses located within walking distance of developing urban amenities. At the time proximity was both important and expensive, as most people moved around by foot. Middle classes lived a little further from the city center, where access to stores, markets and leisure areas was less immediate. The poor lived in the suburbs, far from urban services, in a semi-rural environment. As many jobs were centralized in the inner neighborhoods of the city, some poor families clustered in these areas as well, occupying back alleys or block courtyards. This was the beginning of inner-city slums.

The industrialization of American cities reverted the scheme: city centers became the home of the poor, while the suburbs became the home of the affluent. As retail stores and light manufacturing expanded in the central districts, and factories were established along urban riverbanks for easier access to shipping, smoke and noise levels increased in the inner neighborhoods. New industries increased the available number of jobs, which provoked important flows of migration from rural to urban areas. As a result, the center of cities became denser and poorer. Moreover, industrialization also translated in the expansion and improvement of the existing transportation infrastructure, allowing people to move faster and further. A network of roads, highways and railroads connected the city center and the periphery. Hence, commuting from the suburbs became feasible. The combination of these factors led the wealthy to move to the suburbs, while the urban poor moved in the now empty stock of old buildings in the inner city.

If the quality of life decreased in cities, the suburban and wealthy became less aware of it. As city centers got denser and housing demand was higher, landlords maximized their profits by subdividing existing houses and apartments and by building new tenements with unsanitary conditions and poor maintenance. This housing stock accommodated newcomers, usually factory and manufacturing workers from the countryside or other countries. Meanwhile, the rising middleclass expanded in the edge of cities. Big lots, lawns, and detached houses started to sprawl at the perimeter of urban areas, following the principles of Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City. With better incomes, an easier lifestyle and at a physical distance from the inner city, suburban upper and middle classes were disconnected from the situation in the inner city’s expanding slums.

Acknowledging responsibilities

Housing in the United States used to be an individual issue. Public intervention regarding housing regulations was, in the 19th century, an abstract concept dominated by the laissez-faire theory that the market should address inequality. In spite of this, around the mid 19thcentury a few social reformers started to pinpoint inadequate housing conditions in cities: slums became visible. This increasing awareness eventually led to the involvement of city leaders, on the one hand, and of the Federal government, on the other, who decided to tackle the proliferation of slums in the inner areas of cities like New York.


New York’s slums were exposed to the wealthy public eye by Jacob Riis, who in 1890 published his book How the other half lives: Studies about the tenements of New York. The book, a piece of photojournalism, portrayed life in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. By that time, the neighborhood was one of the biggest slums in the country, known as the Lung Blocks for its high rates of diphtheria, tuberculosis and cholera. Riis’ pictures of this neighborhood were about working people trying to get on the path of a better life. They shared stale apartments with communal toilets (if any) and limited ventilation, in which families slept, ate and worked all in the same room. The book and Riis’s journalism in general contributed to the public housing movement, as the wealthy became aware of the slum situation and, with a sense of discomfort and responsibility, were now willing to pay taxes to benefit those who had less.

Three decades would pass before the government took action on the housing problem, despite the growing awareness. In May 1926, Alfred E. Smith, governor of New York, passed the Limited Dividend Housing Companies Act. This act consisted of a property-tax reduction grant for developers who were willing to limit their profit in order to provide below-market rental housing for poor New Yorkers. Although this law was a financial success, significantly reducing the rent of developments built under it, it didn't lead to enough developments in order to be meaningful: the number of affordable units provided with or without this government intervention was roughly the same. This indicated that regulation might not be enough to address the housing shortage, something that became clear when the Great Depression hit New York in 1929.

First Houses.


If the situation shown in Riis’s pictures in 1890 was alarming, it got much worse after the 1929 crash. It was only then that the public administration decided to truly intervene. Fiorello La Guardia was elected in 1933 as the Mayor of NYC and his work became essential for the revitalization of the city, both during and after the Great Depression. In 1934 he founded the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) and in 1935 the first public housing project was built, ready to receive tenants. This initiative was the first of its kind in the United States, with many cities having to wait a few years for the federal government to approve the 1937 Housing Act and create the United States Housing Authority.

The first NYC public housing project was called First Houses and was funded by both the city and the federal government. It was located on the Lower East Side, offering low-rise buildings, hardwood floors, centralized heating and subsidized rent. According to their income, tenants paid a percentage of the rent: the higher the income, the greater the percentage they would pay. This housing development was the first of many, but at the time affordability was not the main goal for public housing, health was. Slums were a nest of infections and sicknesses, and Mayor LaGuardia intended to eliminate them. Thus, in the 1930’s and early 1940’s, along with the construction of public housing came the clearance of slums and unhealthy apartments. New housing was designed according to sanitary standards, following the principles of modern architecture. The standards regulated appropriate ventilation and light, as well as basic electricity, water, sewage and heating. The same standards were applied to any existing housing units, and any apartments that had been subdivided for profit had to be updated. As for the slums, they were cleared and their residents relocated, making room for new developments. Building this new public housing also helped provide jobs for the many unemployed workers.

By the late 1940s, NYCHA seemed to be working for some. Due to the new standards, the number of available housing units in the city decreased, while the demand increased. Despite this imbalance, families within the program experienced improvements and could see the start of a better life. Mayor LaGuardia had blazed a trail for the NYC public housing journey.

New York City after WWII


Confronted with an excessive demand for housing and little supply, the government decided to only provide housing for New Yorkers in the lowest income range. Initially, public projects targeted different socioeconomic backgrounds, but after the new income ceiling cut was applied, such variety transitioned to a monotonous landscape, mostly poor black families. If the economy throughout the United States was, in general, experiencing a boost, it mainly benefited white people due to segregation. Among whites, middle and upper class incomes became standard and the attractive suburbs, their home. Developers accelerated the proliferation of the latter, offering spacious individual houses within homogenous communities, as suburbs tended to concentrate people by class or religion. With the improvement of the middle class economy and seductive suburban sprawl, many families opted to abandon the dense and busy city centers to buy property in the suburbs, where they could afford a better lifestyle. The middle-class pool in cities started to empty up.

While people with middle and higher incomes were moving to the outskirts of cities, immigrants from a poor and debilitated Europe, Latin America and Asia were entering the United States. Many of them landed in New York, seeking opportunities they no longer had at home. These immigrants joined the poor in the inner areas of cities, and this increase in population raised the demand for low-income housing even more. In response, NYCHA built higher and more segregated buildings. With high efficiency as the goal, lower quality housing was built specifically for the lowest income range, in an attempt to save money on materials and amenities. The architectural and urban scheme followed for these projects was the "Towers in the Park" model, an interpretation of Le Corbusier’s ideas from La Ville Verte.

NYCHA’s new strategy led to the concentration of the poor and the less literate. The result was quite predictable: the formation of ghettos or clustered nests of violence and crime that would, eventually, lead to the city's dark period of the 1970s and 1980s. In the 50s and 60s though, the city government was too focused on expanding the availability of housing units for the lower classes to anticipate these consequences. At the same time, NYCHA began to realize that they had disregarded the provision of affordable housing for the middle class. In an attempt to halt the exodus to the suburbs and the loss of middle-class tax revenue, the city government fomented some projects targeting the middle-class. These projects were grouped under the Mitchell-Lama program, founded in 1955. The program would give tax abatements to developers who would build rental and co-op owned buildings for low and middle-income New Yorkers. This program built many buildings, but it did not achieve its purpose: New York was no longer an attractive option for the middle-class.

The seventies


Dysfunctional, poor and racially segregated was the definition many Americans assigned to public housing by 1970. As crime grew in the ghettos, the public perspective towards public housing changed. New Yorkers seemed to have forgotten the images of slums that once had influenced their demand for public intervention on housing. By the seventies, voters said no to more public funding, nurturing the proliferation of crime, analphabetism and poverty. By 1973, president Richard Nixon stated,“[housing projects are] monstrous depressing places - rundown, overcrowded, crime-ridden." With these words, Richard Nixon declared a halt on the construction of new government funded public buildings.

In the 1970s, the population of NYC decreased by 800,000 people, partly due to the expanding crime waves. Among those who left, the ones who could afford it moved to the suburbs. Because of this and the continuous inflow of poor newcomers, the city’s median income lowered and fewer taxes were collected. Increasingly, the city government began to lose revenues while acquiring bigger responsibilities for the maintenance of public properties. The federal funding moratorium worsened this situation. Public housing was in an era of decay: on the one hand, a shortage of housing, especially affordable housing, was striking the city; on the other hand, public buildings were aging and deteriorating rapidly.

The situation was similar in the private sector. During this decade, higher fuel prices and inflation rates increased heating costs (which, in New York, owners must pay). Due to the public regulations from previous decades, landlords of rent controlled or rent stabilized buildings couldn't raise rents at the same pace that their bills increased. In such circumstances, they had no incentives for improving or maintaining their properties, but rather the opposite was true. Thus, private owners sunk into a period of abandonment and arson for insurance fraud. Many also had problems paying property taxes, which eventually led to city foreclosure.

To avoid unmanaged or foreclosed occupied buildings, the city took ownership of them through In Rem foreclosures. This In Rem policy was thought to incentivize tax payments and take control of unmaintained buildings before they deteriorated to an unlivable state. By 1979, according to the Furman Center’s Report on Housing policy in New York City: A brief history: "the city’s housing agency, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), very quickly became the second largest landlord in the city. (Only the New York City Housing Authority, the largest public housing authority in the country, controlled more units.)1”. But, if managing the existing public stock was difficult, managing an even bigger stock was unsustainable for the city government. During the first two to three years of the In Rem policy, it seemed to work for some cases. As Frank P. Braconi points out in In Re In Rem: Innovation and expediency in New York's housing policy, "the percentage of occupied In Rem buildings without heat on any given day was reduced from nine to two, and the median time required to restore heat was cut from 14 days to three2 ". Even so, the overall feeling of New Yorkers towards public housing worsened and the city approached the edge of bankruptcy.

A change of direction

In an attempt to solve the problem, the city decided to incentivize the private sector to develop new and existing constructions and to provide a more competitive market that could lead to the improvement of the situation. By this time, with buildings falling apart around the city, New York radiated a decaying version of its shiny past. Confronted with scarce resources, the city government had to reduce public works, which also meant reducing jobs at a moment when the lack of them was already a problem. Hence, by promoting new private construction, New York's government was not only trying to reduce the housing shortage, but it also was trying to increase the supply of jobs.

This initiative originated creative public-private partnerships. For example, it led to the promotion of co-op buildings. This meant that a building would not have an owner, but a cooperative of tenants would own the building instead, sharing and managing common expenses altogether. The city would sell In Rem building to its tenants through an extended process. It also sold some buildings to non-profit organizations that were meant to continue offering affordable housing. Lastly, some In Rem buildings were also sold to for-profit organizations, which happened to be the most controversial since the public had doubts about these organizations keeping the prices affordable. These actions, though, weren't fast enough, creating a big consensus that New York was going through a housing crisis. The city needed more effective measures.

In 1985, Mayor Ed Koch announced the Ten Year Housing Plan, which expanded on these previous actions. The Ten Year Housing Plan was a commitment to invest $5.1 billion in total over ten years to improve units in In Rem Buildings. "The aim was to renovate 82,000 units in occupied In Rem buildings, rebuild 47,000 units in vacant In Rem buildings, build 37,000 new units and upgrade 87,000 apartments in privately owned buildings.3" explains the Furman Center's report. The funding was collected from diverse sources - mostly from the city, but also from the state or federal government. Although the main goal was the improvement of existing affordable housing and the provision of new units, the plan contemplated urban revitalization as well. Not only were they building apartments, but they were also bringing neighborhoods together again, after decades of decay. The plan finally lasted fifteen years.

With the plan, the city managed to rehabilitate its In Rem stock and develop its vacant land with unprecedented success for a city government. By the end of the 90s, New Yorkers were collecting the benefits of this plan. Those who moved into renovated or new affordable housing experienced improvements, and their neighbors benefited from this as well. Improving the housing conditions of areas that had been abandoned or not taken care of helped decreased crime rates and poverty, in a time when the economy was on a raising path and policing was becoming more effective. The city became much safer.

The new millennium


The success of the Ten Year Housing Plan introduced the city triumphantly into the new millennium and throughout its first decade. Yet, in the last years affordability has become endangered again. American cities nowadays are experiencing an opposite demographic flow than in the previous century. Middle-class people, graduates and post-graduates move to big cities for their culture and their career potential. As the demand rises, wealthier families or individuals are pushing out those less financially fortunate through gentrification. This is especially true in New York, due to its role as an international city that attracts people from all corners of the world. As a result, competition for housing is higher.

New York City is now, once again, suffering from a housing shortage. Developers want to build, but the challenge today might be to balance cultural diversity and mixed incomes, while providing housing adaptable to the different demands. This is especially true for the voices that have been forgotten by the market, those of the poor and lower-middle classes. Bill de Blasio, current mayor of New York City, unveiled a new ten-year plan in 2013 to tackle the city's affordable housing problem. His plan includes the rezoning of some neighborhoods to allow more construction, and a mandatory requirement for developers to build a certain percentage of affordable units within each housing development. NYCHA will also build a small number of new affordable units.

In the past, history has shown that to effectively tackle a housing shortage or affordability crisis, the New York City government must be directly involved in building new projects and renovating the existing stock. When an action has been taken by the private sector and induced by public policies, as at the beginning of the past century and during the sixties, the results have not led to meaningful improvements. Yet de Blasio's new plan focuses on convincing (and paying) private developers to engage in a form of altruism. Perhaps he should consider a bigger investment in publicly developed housing instead.



Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy (2006) Housing Policy in New York City: A Brief History.

Allred, C.J. (2000) Breaking the Cycle of Abandonment, New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development.

The Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture (2015) The Art of Inequality: Architecture, Housing and Real Estate.

Bloom N.D., Lasner M.G. (2015) Affordable Housing in New York: The People, Places and Policies That Transformed a City.

Credits of images:

Fig. 1. Forqués, N., Manhattan through the Williamsburg Bridge, 2014.

Fig. 2. Riis, J. Lodgers in a Bayard Street Tenement, 1888, How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York.

Fig. 3. Eden, Janin and Jim, First Houses, 2010.

Fig. 4. Wikipedia, Vladeck Houses, Manhattan, 2008

Fig. 5. Murphy D., Demolition in Lower Manhattan, 1971

Fig. 6. Forqués, N., New housing on Park Avenue, 2014.


Nuria Forques graduated from the Architecture School of Valencia. Architecture embraces her love for details and precision, from a little spoon to an entire city, keeping her focused on the whole.

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