Maybe?

New York's public housing is in crisis. Can architects design the way out?

In Roof by Roof, PRO and Karakusevic Carson Architects proposed adding rooftop additions to generate revenue for NYCHA and provide additional housing. An interior of the proposed new housing is pictured here. (PRO/Karakusevic Carson Architects)

The Regional Plan Association (RPA) has selected architects Miriam Peterson and Nathan Rich of Peterson Rich Office (PRO) to dream up housing and maintenance strategies for New York City’s deteriorating public housing for the nonprofit planning think tank’s newly-funded chair of urban design. The joint appointment will give the pair the opportunity to build on past work that reimagined the New York City Housing Authority’s (NYCHA) developments.

It’s a tall order to step into a project that’s supposed to help NYCHA, the landlord for 400,000 New Yorkers, though it’s not necessarily the number of tenants that poses a challenge. The authority has been strangled by decades of under-investment, hobbled by long-running scandals, and faces an estimated $45 million backlog for repairs and capital projects. A December 2018 RPA report stated that maintaining the status quo of broken-down buildings could cost the city an additional $700 million every year that maintenance is deferred. The funding options for public housing are scarce, but nascent development plans aim to fill the gap created by missing funds at the federal level.

A squat, multistory brick building

The Thomas Jefferson Houses at 111th Street and First Avenue, New York. (Jim.henderson/Wikimedia Commons)

Over the past five years, PRO has delivered concepts for building out the roofs of NYCHA high-rises and the transforming parking lots that surround the towers into units that scale to the size of two contiguous parking spaces. This time, PRO will have more financial resources and access to RPA experts at their disposal, allowing them to explore housing provision and maintenance in-depth. 

While Peterson and Rich have a year to develop a book of scalable public housing concepts, RPA—not NYCHA—is PRO’s primary client. Moses Gates, RPA’s vice president for Housing and Neighborhood Development, confirmed that NYCHA is not a partner on the project. He added that the no-NYCHA approach aligns with the organization’s usual M.O. of giving experts free rein to explore ideas that might not be feasible within an agency’s framework. Richard Kaplan, the architect who endowed the chair at RPA, gave the organization the funds so it could focus some of its efforts on urban design. Gates emphasized that here, and with subsequent Kaplan chairs, the architects’ ideas are springboards for future action, not prescriptions.

For inspiration, Rich told The Architect’s Newspaper that they’re looking to London, where public (social) housing is similar in age and design to many NYCHA projects and has similarly struggled with disinvestment. But, unlike centralized NYCHA, London social housing is delivered on a borough-by-borough basis. Borough councils may act as developers, borrowing money against the value of their assets to build market-rate housing that subsidizes the upkeep of social housing units. That approach fits in with an emerging strategy in New York, where the city is entertaining plans to sell air rights and underutilized developable land in certain NYCHA projects to generate revenue for the cash-strapped agency.

Rendering of squat public housing buildings with additional height massed on top

In Roof by Roof, PRO and Karakusevic Carson Architects proposed adding rooftop additions to generate revenue for NYCHA and provide additional housing. (Courtesy PRO/Karakusevic Carson Architects)

In a press release, the RPA stated that PRO’s mandate is to deliver ideas that will “bring NYCHA into financial solvency, while better integrating NYCHA into the surrounding communities.” Housing projects in New York are islands, separated spatially—and often socially—from their surroundings, especially in neighborhoods that are whiter and wealthier. From Chelsea to Canarsie, NYCHA stewards the largest portfolio of affordable housing within the five boroughs: If NYCHA residents had their own city, it would be larger than New Orleans, Cleveland, or Pittsburg. However, chronic mismanagement has impaired the agency’s ability to provide safe affordable housing. Last year, the New York Times reported that NYCHA officials routinely disputed the results of lead paint tests in its apartments and exposed children to the dangerous heavy metal. Elsewhere, thousands of families contend with vermin infestations and repair requests that go unanswered.

The shameful conditions in the developments, as well as the opportunity to rework the modernist tower-in-the-park paradigm, make NYCHA housing a prime target for architects and planners looking for a do-good project. Most white-collar urbanists, however, have never lived in public housing, nor do they have personal connections to the projects beyond observing them from the sidewalk or reading about them in the paper. Designers also have to contend with a real fear on the part of some NYCHA residents that new development will catalyze displacement and spur neighborhood-wide gentrification.

A street festival in a courtyard with balloons and dancing

In 2017, tenants in the Harlem River Houses celebrated the project’s 80th anniversary. (NYCHA/Flickr)

Under these conditions, how can a firm that’s best known for designing art galleries and high-end homes effectively design with, or for New Yorkers who live in public housing?

First and foremost, Rich said, PRO intends to address immediate needs, like the mold that afflicts tenants in some developments and heating systems that fail in the dead of winter. This will be the firm’s first go at spearheading a community consultation, so they intend to collaborate with RPA-affiliates to help organize and guide the process. 

“It’s just crucial that residents have buy-in during the process and into the project,” said Peterson. “We’re thinking about phasing, how to create a process that sets a project up for success.”

RPA has a relationship with Community Voices Heard, a social justice organization primarily led by low-income women and people of color, and together they will work to facilitate connections with NYCHA residents. 

NYCHA did not respond to multiple requests for comment on how it regards design proposals from outside the agency.

A diagram depicting staggered social housing units, and a rendering of an infill housing lot

In 9×18, PRO imagined how infill development would slot into NYCHA properties. (Courtesy PRO)

Peterson and Rich first became interested in NYCHA after a 2014 fellowship with the Institute for Public Architecture (IPA) where they, along with urban designer Sagi Golan, thought through public housing in 9×18, a project that would infill development on NYCHA parking lots.

The goal now, said Rich, is to think about incremental changes instead of jumping straight from an idea to a construction proposal.

“NYCHA is a source of fascination for people in design and planning because it’s a city in a city; it’s just so big,” Peterson said. “What we’re trying to do here is focus on actionable ideas.”

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