Good news is hard to find on the housing front. The deportation moratorium has expired. Experts now predict skyrocketing house prices could rise indefinitely. More American adults today view affordable housing as a major concern in their communities than crime, drugs or Covid-19, according to a Pew study.
And no wonder. The lack of affordable housing is inextricably linked to racial and other inequalities in health, education, public safety and economic opportunity. By one estimate, New York is now the most segregated state in the country. Not coincidentally, the shortage of nearly 650,000 affordable housing is surpassed by California alone.
Then, of course, there was the unfathomable week in January when a fire killed 12 people in a crowded Philadelphia row house owned by the beleaguered public housing authority there. Another 17 died a few days later when a stove ignited in Twin Parks North West, a privately owned, 1970s Section 8 high-rise building in the South Bronx.
Progress can seem impossible.
But slowly, despite NIMBY resistance, more states are undoing single-family zoning rules and legalizing so-called accessory housing units, or ADUs, that is, basement apartments, backyard cottages, and converted garages. Last month, New York’s new governor Kathy Hochul brought up the ADU legislation in her State of the State address.
And former New York City mayor Bill de Blasio, who for years has focused his neighborhood repurposing efforts to encourage the construction of more social housing, only in low-income, majority-minority neighborhoods, has, during his last days in office, repurposing has finally been carried out in a few largely white, wealthier neighbourhoods. That has opened the door for his successor, Eric Adams, to do more of the same. As Casey Berkovitz of the Century Foundation recently wrote, the foundation is being laid for a “fairer future.”
In the wake of the fires, I visited a few affordable housing projects that opened a year or two ago in the South Bronx, not far from Twin Parks. I had been waiting to see them. Writing about architecture before buildings are in use is a guessing game. A few years isn’t long in the life of a housing project, but at least tenants may have moved in and asked how things are going.
Early last year, residents began settling at 1490 Southern Boulevard near Crotona Park East. It is a 10-story, $60 million, 85,000-square-foot building. It contains 114 permanently affordable studios and one-bedroom apartments for seniors, many of which were previously homeless. Type A Real Estate Advisors, a women-owned company, led the development team. The non-profit Jewish Older People’s Association now operates the property and provides in-house mental health, legal and other services. Andrew Bernheimer was the architect.
In the 1960s, an apartment building of four units stood on this site, surrounded by social services and parking lots. At one point the owner defaulted on the mortgage and in the 1970s the municipality took over the property. It’s a shame that New York, hard on cash and looking at the depreciation of the land along with the rest of the city, sold so many abandoned and foreclosed locations during that time. The Byzantine economy of highly affordable housing includes the contribution of public land.
Today, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, which has seeded some excellent affordable housing projects on city-donated property, has few large lots in its inventory. What remains are mostly small and tricky lots such as 1490, which overlooks a metro viaduct and is partly occupied by a rock face.
Fortunately, Bernheimer is a gifted, resourceful architect, familiar with the obstacle course of affordable development, including challenging sites.
From the street—and from passing subways on the elevated tracks—the building he and his colleagues at Brooklyn-based Bernheimer Architecture designed is striking. Shallow, recessed panels of pale yellowish bricks create a basket pattern over a facade of dark enamel and matte gray bricks. The cutouts do the work of more expensive ornaments, casting moving shadows. Double-glazed windows shut out the hum of the trains.
A second floor garden to the rear floats on top of the rock. A rooftop terrace and gym offer views of the Manhattan skyline. Inside, custom lighting and streaks of bright, different-colored paint in the lobby and hallways enhance signage for seniors and enhance the nicely proportioned public areas.
It’s a building that delivers an architectural premium in small, cost-effective, dignified doses. “In terms of design, we wanted 1490 to be an inspiring building – not just for other architects, but also people in the area and especially residents, who we hope will feel at home and proud of the building” , says Annie Tirschwell. , one of the founders of Type A.
I checked in with James Hill, a resident who told me he had moved to 1490 from what he suggested was precarious housing in Far Rockaway, Queens. A janitor was boiling water in his kitchen and offered that the building was the nicest place she worked. Winter sunlight streamed in through a large living room window.
“Couldn’t be happier,” Hill told me.
Lambert Houses, opposite the Bronx Zoo, is something else: a five-block campus with six-story apartment buildings completed in the early 1970s, like the scattered Twin Parks. Phipps Houses, the venerable provider of affordable, not-for-profit housing, built Lambert and still manages it.
It was hailed at its opening by architecture writers and forward-thinking politicians as a pioneering model for affordable housing and urban renewal. Designed by the firm of Davis, Brody & Associates, the complex, with its whimsical facades, jazzy windows and its plan of perimeter blocks surrounding community yards, looked modern while nodding to traditional mid-rise Bronx apartments and a genteel New York City heritage. courtyard buildings. When urbanist Jane Jacobs spoke of pedestrians in and out of homes and shops choreographing a pivotal “ballet” of city streets, Lambert boasted 42 entrances and exits, leading to interconnecting fire escapes and hallways.
But what initially seemed like a solution to neighborhood divestment and racist slum clearance policies turned into a problem. Lambert (Twin Parks followed a similar arc) was on the brink of bankruptcy just a few years after opening. Middle-class white residents whom the planners had expected to live there never materialized. Not even their expected rents.
Davis, Brody’s load-bearing masonry walls peeled off; wooden beam floors had sagged. All those entrances, exits, and epic hallways made Lambert a security nightmare. Adam Weinstein, Phipps’ president, recalls that in the 1990s, officials at the Bronx Zoo installed signs next door at the subway station just down the road, encouraging visitors to take a detour that avoided Lambert.
Lambert’s persistence – this is also the archetypal South Bronx story – was due to a determined group of residents, an infusion of federal funds and in this case investment by Phipps. Now the development is in the midst of what Weinstein estimates could amount to a $1 billion reconstruction over the next decade, gradually replacing the Davis, Brody buildings with new high-rises promising nearly 1,000 additional permanently subsidized units, for a total of 1,665 deep affordable apartments.
The first of the new towers opened in 2019 – designed by Dattner Architects, the New York firm that collaborated with Phipps, developer Jonathan Rose and Grimshaw Architects a decade ago on a new development called Via Verde in the South Bronx. The new tower was paid for with money from the City Department of Housing Conservation and Development, the Housing Development Corporation, Bank of America and Phipps.
It is an 18-storey building with 163 permanent affordable units and a doorman. The boxy, drab exterior, a few steps up and back from the street wall, looks almost belligerently banal. But inside, the building is comfortable, even luxurious, compared to the dilapidated apartments and corridors I saw in the old buildings. It is crucial for the renovation that no tenants are driven out as a result of the new construction.
Lambert’s makeover, as Weinstein points out, is a possible template for redoing New York City Housing Authority campuses. When the proposed renovation began to coincide a few years ago, Susanne Schindler in Urban Omnibus complained that from an architectural standpoint, a “visionary” example of low- and middle-income housing from the 1960s and 1970s was lost, such as Davis, Brody’s Lambert , is a pity. That’s true. From the street, the angular old buildings still catch the eye. As Lambert’s new campus evolves, Phipps and Dattner clearly need to improve their architectural play, aesthetically speaking.
But there is no arguing with the practical upgrade or added apartments.
“I love it,” Bonita Dent, 57, one of the high-rise renters, told me. A veteran of Lambert’s for 20 years, she moved into the new building two years ago with her three school-aged grandchildren. The doorman and a single, secure front door were great incentives.
“I like the security we have downstairs – it’s different from the old place where you’d see strangers in the hallway. I am not afraid to go in and out of my apartment.”
Nessie Panton, 84, was one of Lambert’s first tenants in the 1970s. One day, she said, she took her kids to the zoo and saw the project while it was still under construction. She applied for an apartment and moved to a duplex, where she eventually raised her family.
“The new apartment is smaller, but my kids are grown, and here the doorman knows if you live in the building and will take a picture if you don’t,” she said. She had heard about the Twin Parks fire. “Here we have sprinklers and intercoms with fire alarms in the apartments. I feel much safer,” she says.
Writing about Twin Parks in 1973, former The Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger speculated that the project “could prove important in the history of housing design.”
That said, he cautioned, “design, no matter how compassionate, can only mean so much against the hurdles that pose the housing problem today.”
The calculus is the same half a century later. But not the South Bronx. Gradually it has been recreated. Progress is not impossible, it is a process.
“We’ll keep doing things wrong,” Weinstein said. “The question is, can we use failure as an opportunity to learn and move forward?”