Initiatives Urban Humanities and Their Publics

Affordable Housing in New York: The People, Places, and Policies That Transformed a City

Book cover for "Affordable Housing in New York"

NYU Gallatin student Mariana Suchodolski spoke with Professor Matthew G. Lasner about his book and exhibition Affordable Housing in New York: The People, Places, and Policies That Transformed a City

Matthew G. Lasner is Associate Professor of Urban Studies and Planning at Hunter College. His research on urban planning and housing in New York culminated in a book which served as inspiration for the exhibition Affordable Housing in New York: The People, Places, and Policies That Transformed a City, currently on view at Hunter College’s East Harlem Gallery. The exhibit presents an extensive overview of affordable housing in New York City over the past century. In addition to maps and models are photographs by David Schalliol highlighting the vibrant life within affordable housing projects. Urban Democracy Lab’s Mariana Suchodolski spoke with Professor Lasner on his book and exhibition:

What was the impetus for the exhibition?

The exhibition is also part of this book project, so there were sort of specific goals for each element and then a more general set of goals for the whole project as a package. Thinking most broadly, the idea behind the whole effort was that we believe strongly that the only really effective way to address the housing needs of a large, expensive centralized city like New York is through government subsidies. We wanted to tell the story of affordable housing in New York in a way that made as broad a case as possible, in human terms, but also political terms for subsidized below-market housing.

Were there certain themes that emerged that were shocking or surprising? Anything that came up that was unexpected?

[laughs] That’s an interesting question. I think that because of the way research has been done on affordable housing in New York, we were actually surprised when we started to bring together the historical material and the more contemporary material with our expertise and knowledge about low income housing and public housing, older philanthropic projects, and recent projects. I think we were sort of surprised to see two things, both what a struggle it has been to fight for and build affordable housing, not just recently, but over the past 150 years. We were also surprised  with, despite the never-ending struggle, how effective they are in terms of the volume of affordable housing built. We were surprised when we added up all of our numbers, given the depths of the current crises and given how urgent the need for affordable housing is today, to determine that about one and a half million people in New York City today live in housing built with some form of government subsidy. Now, not all of that is still affordable housing, or still below-market housing today, but it was kind of shocking to see how much we’ve accomplished. And then, of course, to pair that with how much need there remains for housing today in New York.

How does affordable housing impact the cultural landscape of the city?

I want to distinguish the term affordable housing, which has become the default term for a whole variety of different kinds of programs in the US. The more precise term that we use in the book for what we’re talking about is below-market subsidized housing because there are other ways to achieve affordable housing. There are rent controls, and in New York there are two programs, rent control and rent stabilization, which offer below-market rent. Those are privately subsidized by the landlord, so they are not, as far as we’re concerned, subsidized housing or government-subsidized housing. And then of course there’s doubling or tripling up and living in cubicle apartments that are illegally subsidized. These are the kinds of informal strategies that people use to achieve affordability. But in terms of what we’re talking about, below-market subsidized housing, its impact on the city has been tremendous. It has just underscored the importance of affordable housing on the life of the city.

The hundreds and thousands of families housed in below-market subsidized housing are able to lead dignified lives and to remain in the city when they would simply not be able to do so otherwise. Some would opt to live in substandard conditions, some might not have any other choice but to live doubled or tripled-up in substandard market-rate private housing. Many more would have left the city entirely or just wouldn’t have come at all. We’ve also gained countless neighborhoods, in which below-market subsidized housing has bolstered them and revitalized them. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, it helped to reverse the disinvestment, and then in more recent decades it has also been important regarding the displacement associated with gentrification. In so many ways, affordable housing has helped to create a more equitable city — the kind of city that I think most New Yorkers appreciate and want to live in, a city that’s not entirely about the extreme wealth and poverty. And that’s the direction the city has been headed in for decades and decades. It’s really by virtue of our efforts in the direction of affordable housing that we’ve been able to keep that happening even more so than it already has.

What do you think of the current policies for below-market subsidized housing?

I think that the majority is doing a very good job. I think Mayor De Blasio is doing the best he can do given the very serious constraints on what cities can do. The fact is that a city’s power to tax and to redistribute wealth — in the way that has to happen to provide deep subsidies for housing — is severely constrained. A city simply doesn’t have the freedom to levy the kinds of taxes that are necessary for the kinds of subsidies that New York needs. The state has been very reluctant recently to allow the city to expand its power to generate subsidies for construction and operation of housing in a way that’s necessary. And really, this is a federal responsibility.

Manhattan is an island, but New York is not an island that is divorced from the country. In the same way that the country has tried to help bail out Chicago housing, or get Detroit through bankruptcy, we’re all part of the same larger commonwealth and the housing pressures that result in a market like New York is part of the nation’s responsibility to deal with. So I think that there should be much more federal money in the form of subsidies for affordable housing. And certainly there are federal subsidies out there, especially indirect subsidies. There are some grants that come through our federal programs, and there are some low-income federal housing tax credits, but they’re not distributed based on need. Programs don’t recognize the fact that housing costs are much higher in New York City than many other parts of the U.S., so programs don’t really benefit us in the way that they should. Given that Washington has moved away from supporting affordable housing, it’s shirking its responsibility to New York in that respect. The state has also pulled away from supporting affordable housing efforts and the mayor doesn’t have a whole lot of options to raise the funds that are necessary to create housing subsidies. So instead, the mayor has to resort to all these sorts of tactics that put pressure on private developers to basically cross-subsidize, through mixed-income complexes, below-market housing, and that’s where all this emphasis on mandatory inclusionary housing comes from. These programs were first developed in the suburbs, in places like Montgomery County, Maryland in the 1970s and were fairly successful. New York City is building a lot of housing, but it’s still not a universal program, so I suppose in that sense the mayor could do better. He’s certainly doing better than the last mayor.

Do you see any problems with the current below-market subsidized housing — with the housing itself?

The housing that’s gotten built over the last two decades has tended to be better designed and more responsive to local communities’ needs in large part because it’s being developed by big corporations. There’s more opportunity for local input, so you get housing that is better suited. And it tends to be smaller in scale, so you can achieve the same savings as when you build at a large scale. So the houses that are being built are fairly high quality. I think that the housing itself is working fairly well. It’s energy efficient, brightly lit. There are all sorts of other ways in which the housing was very high in physical quality and responsive to tenancy whether they be conventional family or multigenerational housing. So I think the housing itself is successful.

What do you predict will be the future of below-market subsidized housing?

In the long term, maybe even the medium term — and this may be overly pessimistic – the sustained gentrification of American cities, the huge amount of new investment in housing and interest in historic urban centers has meant that there will be problems for many years.  Especially in recent decades that seemed to be particular to New York, but now they seem to be popping up elsewhere. So you hear a lot of talk about the affordability crises in Washington, Austin, San Francisco, L.A. and other cities, and I’d like to think that as more and more cities become like New York and really need deep government subsidies for housing, then perhaps we’ll see a new coalition coming together to go to Washington and demand a rethinking of our housing programs. So that’s a loose thought for a long-term project that I’d like to see happen. Gentrification shows no sign of reversing. I don’t subscribe to the idea that suburbs are over and that everybody wants to live in the city, but absolutely more and more people with options, people with money, are living in cities and bidding up the price of land and housing. And I think it’s more and more likely that people will come together and articulate a new voice for the kinds of housing programs that we’ve long recognized are necessary in New York.

In the short term, I think that one change will come as a result of NYCHA’s difficulties. Public housing is in such distress in New York, virtually every other city has gotten rid of it. The federal government really wants to be out of the business of public housing, so, like it or not, we really face no choice in New York but to pursue something along the lines of the “next gen” program where we’re developing some of the open spaces in NYCHA projects. And we are moving towards a more public-private model with new kinds of subsidies and cross-subsidies sustaining public housing projects. So I think that this offers some new opportunities for going forward. Otherwise, I think as long as we have the current mayor and the current governor, who can’t seem to get along, I’m not especially optimistic about a new mansion tax or any of the other sorts of new taxes that are on the menu. They could provide larger subsidies needed in the city to do what we need to do, but I think that once we get past some of these particular political squabbles we could certainly see the city stepping in and finding ways to generate the subsidies necessary. Perhaps even get back to being in the business of building housing rather than dispersing money to nonprofits. But whether or not that happens, I’m optimistic that we will see more new efforts. At the same time, these efforts are not going to reverse gentrification. So I think we are going to see a more gentrified city and my hope is that new efforts in affordable housing can at least kind of keep pace with market pressures. Our goal is expanding a permanent protective place for working families or to preserve the existing ratios. The worst-case scenario is that programs don’t expand — then we’re holding on to a dwindling set of units.

How can we, the public, help advocate for affordable housing?

I think there are a couple of things that people can do. First of all, people need to understand that their voice matters. And it matters in a couple of different levels. Very locally, it matters that people pay attention to what’s happening in their community board, and that people understand all the facts and realities of how housing is produced. And I think that a lot of the anxiety — for example, around MIH we were seeing in communities — while I understand the source of those anxieties, I think a lot of it was counterproductive. A lot of it was predicated on the assumption that the city really has alternatives in providing housing. This really is one of the best we have, given the way our hands are tied. I’d rather have seen people out there redefining plans and really fighting for the overall vision of the city rather than reflexively fighting a prospect of upselling a new development.

Likewise, when a developer comes in and wants to build a particular project in your neighborhood that’s going to include affordable housing, let’s go out and support these projects. Just because there’s a market component and the project is not 100% affordable, it doesn’t mean it’s a bad project. If you’re bringing in new market rate units, gentrification can’t be stopped. You can sort of wall it off and it’ll move elsewhere, but by clamping down on new market rate housing you don’t change the fact that Americans are seeking different housing options than they did a generation ago.  I think we should support new development of all sorts, especially when there’s an affordable component. I’d also like to see people put pressure on Albany and Washington. There’s very little discussion about housing in the political campaign and in the presidential campaign. And again, the fact is that a lot of us are living in very expensive cities that require the kinds of subsidies we need. I also think that affordable housing can learn from the living wage campaign. This was a really grassroots campaign that came up from workers from the cities for a higher minimum wage in cities. So I think we all need to understand that affordable housing isn’t just about what we can get from the government or housing providers. It’s about ensuring the health of our communities overall, finding places for the poor, low-paid workers to live, for new immigrants, the elderly, for recent college graduates, for all kinds of people. You really need to build these coalitions.

Thank you Professor Lasner. His exhibit, Affordable Housing in New York: The People, Places, and Policies That Transformed a City, can be viewed at the Hunter East Harlem Gallery until May 28th, 2016.