The History Of Affordable Housing In New York City

The challenge of adequately housing New York’s growing population has long been an issue for the city.

New York City – a city defined by its diversity and progressive politics – is also known for its high cost of living. The fact that New York City ranks among America’s most expensive places to live is common knowledge, yet, most people, including many New Yorkers, are surprised to learn that New York City’s network of affordable housing is among the most robust and extensive in the nation.

As America’s most densely-developed metropolis, the challenge of adequately housing New York’s growing population has long been an issue for the city. Still, it’s worth mentioning that though the residential challenges posed by New York’s population density are unique, equally impressive are its innovative efforts – both in the past and present – to overcome those challenges.

Early housing policy in the city focused primarily on health and sanitation issues, like those portrayed in Jacob Riis’ haunting photographs of squalid Lower East Side tenement conditions.  The Great Depression brought attention to the housing plight that Americans of all strata were experiencing; growing awareness of urban living conditions - a grim reality - eventually led to the establishment of the Federal Housing Administration.  In the years following World War II, policymakers began to devote more attention to housing at the Federal, State and local levels, resulting in the Housing Act of 1949.  This era also saw the introduction of government-sponsored Urban Renewal and Slum Clearance, as well as the creation of New York City’s Housing Authority, known as NYCHA.  

Jacob Riis, “Lodgers in a Crowded Bayard Street Tenement – ‘Five Cents a Spot,’” New York, 1889.
Jacob Riis, “Lodgers in a Crowded Bayard Street Tenement – ‘Five Cents a Spot,’” New York, 1889.

By 1959, NYCHA had commissioned a total of 148,583 affordable housing units in the city. “But for all its progress,” writes Eillie Anzilotti in CityLab, “the housing authority had failed to establish a system for relocating those displaced by the new complexes.” The results of this haphazard planning–the scattering and displacement of local residents–amounted to a large-scale humanitarian and public relations embarrassment for New York City. Anzilotti goes on to describe how the NY state government attempted to correct for the displacement:

Fearing mass departure to the suburbs, the New York state government introduced programs like Mitchell-Lama in 1955 to support limited-dividend developments; cooperatives like Co-op City, geared toward moderate-income families and similar to those of the 1920s, were also built during this era.

In the wake of massive disinvestment in New York City during the 1970s and President Nixon’s 1973 moratorium on the federal budget for public housing – followed by further housing cutbacks by the Reagan Administration – the urgency and demand for these kinds of solutions only increased in the city.

This was really the beginning of New York’s modern approach to the creation and preservation of income-regulated housing: the public-private partnership.  These creative alliances forged between government entities and private developers have become an integral development tool. In New York City, where zoning laws and construction costs can be prohibitive, public-private partnerships were an efficient and effective way to build much-needed affordable housing units.

During the 1980s, Sandy Loewentheil and I founded L+M Development Partners and became one of the first developers to integrate federal housing tax credits with New York City’s Vacant Building Program.  We and other firms like us worked with visionary leaders like Kathy Wylde at the New York City Housing Partnership to create thousands of homes that were responsibly developed and financed such that future homeowners could have a stake in their neighborhoods.

While the housing problems faced by New Yorkers in the 1970s were characterized by property abandonment and suburban flight, today’s challenges of affordability and preservation stand in contrast.  Roughly 50 percent of affordable units subsidized by New York State’s Mitchell-Lama housing program have become eligible in recent years for conversion to market-rate, according to a report from the Community Service Society of New York. Some of these properties around the city and state have suffered significant disinvestment and have been allowed to fall into disrepair, especially those outside of prime Manhattan neighborhoods.  

One property L+M acquired in the Rockaways had more than 300 vacant units, which is virtually unheard of in a city where 50,000 people apply for a hundred-unit apartment lottery.  Today, that property has been fully renovated and has a waiting list for apartments.  More importantly, we preserved it as an affordable housing resource for the next generation.  The goals laid out by the current mayoral administration include a focus on both preservation of existing affordable housing and plans to create new, quality housing opportunities that are affordable for families at various income levels. This ambitious housing plan builds on the foundation for affordable housing and community development promoted by previous administrations and is consistent with L+M’s mission.  That our projects continue to make a positive difference in local communities is really important to me, and I genuinely believe that development, preservation and responsible management can and should provide a positive benefit to communities.

The approach to development must be holistic.  Our mission goes beyond building more affordable housing; the work we do is also about revitalizing neighborhoods in an intentional and thoughtful way.  Beyond just building affordable housing, L+M seeks out projects which will create new job opportunities for residents, provide the neighborhood with better options in terms of healthcare and food, and improve the education and extracurricular activities that are offered in the community.  

We seek partnership with community-based organizations and residents who are important stakeholders in their neighborhoods.  This work isn’t easy and in the case of New York City, it takes more than a village, it takes an entire metropolis.

L+M Affordable Housing Building at 1580 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn.
L+M Affordable Housing Building at 1580 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn.

This article was originally posted on my website