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Sandy Gives Chance to Rethink Public Housing

Experts weigh in on how Housing Authority should spend recovery money

Friday, February 01, 2013

Jackson Houses in the Bronx, public housing, NYCHA Jackson Houses in the Bronx. (Stephen Nessen/WNYC)

With Sandy costing the New York City Housing Authority $800 million and counting, what is the best way to spend that money? We put the question to three experts.


Michael Arad, Partner at Handel Architects in New York and co-designer of the World Trade Center Memorial

I think that the first thing you'd obviously have to repair is the equipment that's there that makes these buildings habitable—the elevators, hot water, electricity, so on.  But I think there's also the opportunity here to address some of the persistent issues that the people who live in these buildings have to deal with. [There's] a lot of social isolation. It's distance from the city. It's a planning model that urbanistically is not very friendly. It's very homogeneous. It's just housing. There's no recreation. There's no shopping. There's no opportunities for different mixed uses, that when they come together, enrich city life.

So, is there an opportunity here to really bring some low-scale retail into these developments? To look at landscaping, because we have so much ample open space around the buildings, as opportunities for some low-scale buildings, but also landscape strategies that take that model of a lawn or a parking lot and replace it with berms and dunes and native plantings instead of grass to mitigate some of the flooding that occurs here so that water is diverted around, that the impact of waves is lessened.  


Howard Husock, Vice President for Policy Research at the Manhattan Institute, Contributing Editor at City Journal and author of America's Trillion Dollar Housing Policy Mistake

I think it's crucial for NYCHA to have new sources of income ongoing. And so to the extent that it could reconfigure ground-floor apartments to be potential retail spaces and income. They don't have enough income, they're going to continue to fall short. If some of this money could lay the groundwork for a future income stream that would be extremely important.

I think that there needs to be an endowment for New York City public housing. And I would propose to create the endowment by taking some of the oldest buildings that are on the most valuable real estate and creating a transition for the tenants, but selling those buildings. And so I think about buildings on the Brooklyn waterfront, buildings on the Lower East Side. This is incredibly valuable real estate that can be sold for hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars. You could sell a really small number, a handful of projects on extremely valuable real estate and create an endowment to sustain the rest of the system.  

One of the most important problems that NYCHA has not found a way to address is the fact that so many of its tenants are over-housed. That is, at a time when you have extremely long waiting lists, at least 20 percent of the apartments, you have more bedrooms than you have residents. So, you typically have older people who have lived there 20 years or more—the average tenure in NYCHA is 20 years—and they've had children, but they've moved out. They have empty bedrooms. If this could be an opportunity to better align NYCHA tenants with right-sized apartments and to make space available for those who need housing in the city. In other words, to make more efficient use of NYCHA's vast [housing stock]. This could be an incredible opportunity to do that. And then going forward, new tenants in the system should be time-limited and so the public housing then becomes a way up rather than a way of life.


Julia Vitullo-Martin is director of the Center for Urban Innovation at the Regional Plan Association

I'm suggesting that NYCHA look at each one of these projects and think about whether the project should be one that receives substantial capital investment to give it another 50 years life or whether this is a project that should be put in the category of, say, Prospect Plaza in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, in which NYCHA decided that renovating the project at a cost of $500,000 a unit was out of the question. And, therefore, they decided to redevelop the entire thing in an entirely different format.  

I'm told by construction people I respect that quite a few of the Rockaway buildings are reasonably sound construction-wise. That, the wrong decisions were often made about where to put the capital infrastructure and that should be corrected, but that actually quite a few of them are sound. I'm told about Coney Island that those buildings are less sound. Those are less well-built, but that's exactly the kind question NYCHA is going to have to look at and decide.  

The other important neighborhood is Red Hook, and those lower-rise buildings that were built for the workers in the port during World War II. Those, I'm told, are very sound and those would actually probably lend themselves to very attractive redevelopment. There's a tremendous amount of developable, unused rights available in the Red Hook projects, so you would be able to redevelop with mixed-income housing and with attractive parks and open space and retail and really do a good project out there, if NYCHA decided to go in that direction.

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