Originally published in Spotlight Vol. 9, No. 4
New York is in a growth mode, but are New Yorkers prepared to accommodate that growth? Clearly, increased density has to be embraced, both as an economic goal and a social good, but are New Yorkers ready to accept more people? Residents of the city (and region) often react reflexively against the idea of more people in their neighborhoods - at the same time that they protest the rising costs of living here.
Far too frequently, development has gone forward without the upgrades to infrastructure and services it demands. Thus many New Yorkers doubt that the city has the transit, roads, water, schools, and power in place to handle its projected one-million-people increase in population - and end up opposing virtually any new project proposed.
Meanwhile, the city has for decades suffered from a shortage of affordable housing that has barely been eased by the tens of thousands of new units built since 2001. The key to reducing the cost of housing is increasing its supply. But how do we do that in an economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable manner?
The Radical Housing panel discussion at RPA's 2010 Regional Assembly will break through the clichés and familiar arguments to highlight new solutions to a seemingly permanent housing crisis. RPA Senior Fellow and Center for Urban Innovation Director Julia Vitullo-Martin will moderate the discussion among five leading innovators in housing policy and production.
Jerilyn Perine, former City Housing Commissioner and currently Executive Director of the Citizens Housing & Planning Council, contends that land throughout the region should be leveraged to accommodate the coming population growth. At the moment, though, the opposite seems to be happening. The policy impulse of New York's City Planning Commission for the last few years has been towards downzoning residential neighborhoods - precisely the ones that could house more families if density were encouraged. She cites research under way by NYU's Furman Center that indicates that downzonings have outweighed upzonings, reducing housing capacity in vast swaths of the city.
Perine and Rosanne Haggerty, founder and President of Common Ground (which has consistently provided excellent housing for homeless people that is so neighborhood-oriented its developments fit seamlessly into their blocks), have been spearheading a campaign to re-examine the housing unit and advocate for changes in regulations that relate to housing and space standards, so as to meet the needs of a 21st century population in a 21st century city. They have found that some of the best solutions to the housing affordability quandary are illegal - forbidden by building codes, wage regulations, housing standards, environmental restrictions, and so on.
Dedicated to preventing homelessness among known vulnerable groups as well as eliminating chronic homelessness, Common Ground recently created a partnership with the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) and top social-services organizations to serve four major public housing projects in Brownsville, Brooklyn.
Brooklyn is the epicenter of innovation at NYCHA, as its new General Manager, Michael Kelly, embarks on the agency's first-ever demolition of an entire high-rise complex, Prospect Plaza. Other cities throughout the nation have replaced similar projects with smaller buildings designed to fit into their neighborhood context, but until now, New York has always chosen to renovate at great expense rather than to rebuild from scratch. Prospect Plaza may be a sign that New York is finally ready to rethink and remake its underfunded public housing - finding ways to move from segregating low-income families in forbidding, isolated towers to designing economically sustainable mixed-income communities.
In this era of climate change and energy consciousness, the green of economic sustainability goes hand in hand with the green of environmental sustainability - the focus of Jonathan Rose, president of the Jonathan Rose Companies, a leader in creating socially, economically, and environmentally responsible development and vibrant, healthy communities. The firm recently received the first Green Retrofit Program loan awarded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development from funds made available by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (aka the federal economic stimulus package). The loan will finance $3.6 million of a $7.4 million project to increase energy efficiency, reduce utility costs, and improve indoor air quality at the West 135th Street Apartments, 198 units of Section 8 assisted housing located in 10 contiguous six-story, elevator buildings in central Harlem. The great challenge for developers like Rose is figuring out how to systematically transform aging housing stock, as has been done elsewhere, particularly Germany. Can a replicable model be developed from individual green projects?
The problem of scaling up all kinds of successful local innovations to have widespread - national or even global - impact is of fundamental interest to Darren Walker, the Rockefeller Foundation's Vice President for Foundation Initiatives. As the former CEO of the groundbreaking Abyssinian Development Corp., he is especially interested in housing issues and solutions and will highlight key innovations across the country.
Beyond presenting their own pioneering initiatives, Radical Housing panelists will discuss an array of zoning, financing, and building techniques that should be used to produce homes affordably. The group will take on questions such as: What proportion of housing should be market-rate and what proportion subsidized? If subsidized, by whom? What governmentally imposed barriers to building will impede development? How can we redesign the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure to tie infrastructure review to development, as cities using comprehensive land use planning already do? How can we exploit the opportunities that come with downturns - lower financing and labor costs - to repurpose orphaned new construction for below-market residents? And what better context than the Regional Assembly to consider what options the suburbs offer for supplementing the housing stock - and helping the region compete for talent with other world metropolises?