Two years ago, the Brooklyn-based Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP) asked housing advocates and community groups what educational tools they needed the most. The topic of affordable housing was at the top of the list, so designers set to work devising a handy way to help New Yorkers comprehend the much-debated subject. “Affordable housing is a term that has been thrown around for a long time,” said CUP staff member John Mangin. “A lot of people are suspicious of it, it is complicated, and the technical meaning behind it is not always apparent when you hear the word.”
CUP’s answer is a red plastic kit of parts called the Affordable Housing Toolkit. Inside the box is a colorful felt chart designed for workshops where housing advocates, community organizers, developers, and educational institutions can use bright squares and dots to help participants engage in a conversation about current projects—and whether those are actually affordable for residents in need. Also included is a guidebook outlining the basics of affordable housing, as well as access to an online map that displays statistics and income demographics in different neighborhoods. (The kit is available for purchase on a sliding rate scale, while the map and the book can be accessed for free.)
Developed with graphic design studio MTWTF, the Pratt Center for Community and Economic Development, and Brooklyn-based advocacy group Fifth Avenue Committee, the project aims to get New Yorkers to ask the question: “Affordable to whom?” According to CUP Executive Director Christine Gaspar, there is a need for a certain level of mutual understanding in order to be able to start a deeper conversation. “Hopefully the toolkit will let individuals throughout the city understand how affordable housing works. This means that they can advocate in their own community, talk to elected officials, and hold them accountable to the decisions they make,” Gaspar said.
Dave Powell, a tenant organizer, stressed that CUP’s pedagogic and visual approach is necessary, since the finer points of housing policy are rarely conveyed to ordinary citizens. “CUP helps us deconstruct our environment in order to advocate for social justice––which we are unable to do simply by reading through hundreds of tax pages from the planning department.”
Last Friday, a group of young community organizers gathered for one of CUP’s first workshops with the new toolkit. Among the participants was coordinator Katie Goldstein from tenant-rights group Tenants & Neighbors. She said her citywide organization will use the felt chart to involve residents in a discussion about broader policy trends. “It will help us figure out what are the right targets for us to organize against and how to preserve affordable housing for the long term,” she told AN, adding that the interactive quality of the toolkit is what she appreciates the most.
At a time when one in 20 New Yorkers lives in public housing and a third of the city’s residents spend more than 50 percent of their income on housing, the toolkit might perhaps be better called a first-aid kit. Fortunately, this effort is just the first in CUP’s program called Envisioning Development Toolkits, which aims to demystify controversial and confusing concepts in New York City land use. Upcoming curatives focus on zoning law and the city’s exhaustive development review process, the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure.