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Editorial> Baby and the Bath Water
William Menking hopes that design will not be given short shrift by the de Blasio administration.
Stefan Georgi / Flickr

It is clear to everyone who lives in New York City that we need more affordable housing—and not just for the poorest residents of the city. All segments of the society below the top one percent need help to live in this city. Recently, a friend who counts herself as a member of the professional class (i.e. with the ability to secure a bank mortgage) said that she feels that a reasonable place to live for her family seems permanently out of reach in New York. It is one thing to give up copious back and front gardens, garages, and devoted home office space in the suburbs, but when professionals with double incomes cannot afford a place to live with a designated bedroom (not an office sleeping alcove) one wonders who is gong to want to work in the laboratories and workshops of the new high tech campus on Roosevelt Island. In 2014 we seem to be living in a city that, because of its desirability, is choking on its own success.

By now we are all familiar with Mayor Bill de Blasio’s ambitious promise for a new direction in housing for the city, particularly what he calls “affordable.” He plans to steer $1 billion of city pension funds into the development of lower-rent units and even plans to raise taxes on vacant land that would close a valuable loophole to developers and hopefully spur development. Further, as we have seen in the recent agreement to jumpstart the Domino Sugar development project in Brooklyn, the new administration has developed a plan where the developer will provide additional new units of low-income and much needed larger family size moderate-income housing.

It is a sad fact that, while Mayor Bloomberg’s administration reached its goal of creating 165,000 units of “affordable” housing, most of these were smaller sized units the majority of which the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development concluded were not truly affordable to most of the residents in the communities where they were constructed. This means that many of these affordable units were not being utilized by those who most needed them and perhaps were taken by young single professionals looking for their first residences after living in college dorms. Further, as this publication pointed out last December, not only did tens of thousand of affordable units go off-line as landlords exited subsidized programs and regulated apartments went market rate, but in Harlem, to pick one neighborhood, property values jumped 22 percent, and in East Harlem, median market rents went from roughly $1,200 in 2002 to $1,900 in 2011.

So the housing market even for the middle class in this city is dire. The Domino Sugar project is a good first attempt to provide relief for the hungry residents of this city. But while we constantly pointed out during Bloomberg’s administration that many of the transformative initiatives undertaken during his mayoralty were in the better-off areas of the city, at least he took design seriously and created a level of public architecture not seen here since the 1930s and the era of Robert Moses. As Molly Heintz’s crit on the Domino project points out, while the city will get some housing relief, the project’s sheer size—now made larger to accommodate more affordable housing—will bring undesirable and unwanted issues to an area that is already being overdeveloped. Bloomberg’s legacy was not as equally spread around the city as one would hope, but it is important to recognize that during his years (and under the enlightened leadership of figures like David Burney and Amanda Burden) the city looked to architecture and architects to bring a new level of quality and urban design sensitivity to every project under its purview. So while we look forward to a new distribution of city projects under Mayor de Blasio’s regime, we fear that he cares little about the architectural quality of his projects. It is possible that we could gain thousands of units of new housing that have all the qualities that the Nehemiah projects brought to the South Bronx and East New York—a sort of second-rate (sub)urbanism. Let us hope the de Blasio administration will bring more affordable housing and middle class housing, but not at the expense of the existing city or many of the valuable design lessons learned during Bloomberg’s time in office.

William Menking