Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Tom Mellins on NYC's Affordable Housing Legacy

On April 4, 2016, the Park West Village History Group and Bloomingdale Aging in Place
sponsored a talk by housing historian Tom Mellins, with additional panelists, on our city's (and particularly the Upper West Side's) affordable housing legacy.  Mellins is most recently the curator of the affordable housing exhibit at the Museum of the City of NY.  He noted that New York City has always been ahead of the rest of the country:

1867 - The city enacted the first tenant law in the country, focusing on health conditions (rather than affordability) since those not living in tenements feared the tuberculosis and other illnesses breeding there.
1870's - Workers' housing was built in Brooklyn. This "model, sanitary, and philanthropic" housing was built by Alfred B. White to provide bathrooms, ventilation, and fire escapes: healthier housing meant healthier workers. And White provided for a limited (in this case 5%) profit on his investment.  
1926 - Gov. Al Smith emulated White and others to motivate developers with eminent domain, tax breaks and low-interest loans, and extended affordable housing beyond rentals to include limited dividend co-ops.  Labor unions were the first to create large developments like the Amalgamated "coops".  
1934 - The City created the Municipal Public Housing Authority, to create and administer public housing - 3 years before the U.S. Public Housing Authority was established.  The designs came from Europe: "Towers in the Park" with gated communities, community centers with daycare, lots of open space and cross-ventilation.
1950's - "Public/private partnerships" - but these understate the importance of tax breaks, low-interest mortgages, and eminent domain.  Mitchell-Lamas (rentals and co-ops) were created with huge public financial support.   The bulk of the Mitchell-Lamas (on the Upper West Side) have been taken out of the program.(Those built before 1974 have rent regulation.)
1980's - Some affordable housing includes suburban plots and pre-fab housing, such as the South Bronx Charlotte Housing development, and the East NY Spring Creek Nehemiah Houses.  

Peter Arndsten of the Columbus-Amsterdam Business Improvement District told of "7A" and "TIL" housing in which residents provide "sweat equity" to improve the dreadful buildings they began with and then learn to become the buildings' owners and managers.  Sue Susman of the Central Park Gardens Tenants' Association talked about the ethnic and economic integration of the Mitchell-Lamas, and - because of vacancy decontrol - the owners' eagerness to leave the program and oust tenants. As a result, residents must organize.  Win Armstrong spoke about Park West Village's ongoing creation of community after its original "towers in the park" structure has been atomized, with each condo-ed building becoming a separate entity. Madelyn Innocent and Genora Johnson spoke about Community Board 7's new NYCHA Task Force and the need for all the NYCHA developments to work together and with their surrounding communities to secure their future.  NYCHA got NO money in the most recent state government budget.  Nick Prigo of Community Board 7 (and a district leader of Community Free Democrats), spoke about the importance of organizing.  Deborah Rand, former head of the West Side SRO project of Goddard Riverside and now Assistant Commissioner in charge of litigation with the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development, explained SROs (Single Room Occupancy residences) and their importance as a resource for a specific population of New Yorkers, and the City's history with them. She has worked to protect poor people from being pushed out of their homes - an ongoing fight that has gotten easier over the years.  While HPD handles some 14,000 cases a year, things are better at least for those who can afford to stay in their homes. She provided HPD's publication, the ABCs of Housing

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