New York City Cautiously Brings Density to Affordable Housing

For decades we were told that high-density public housing didn’t work. But in New York City, a new model has emerged: privately developed mixed-income projects by prominent architects that reach back into the sky.

There is a housing crisis in New York City. But it’s the complete opposite of the situation in most of the country. While large parts of the United States have suffered catastrophic drops in home values, steep declines in new construction, and high foreclosure rates that have left masses of homeowners bankrupt and bled billions of dollars from banks, housing prices in New York have stayed at record levels. And even as developers persist in building the same clunky, oversize ­single-family homes with winter heating bills in the thousands of dollars—the architectural version of the SUV—the market’s demands and demographics are changing. Aging baby boomers are moving from suburban palaces to condos, retirement communities, and often back to cities. Displaced workers are migrating to a handful of major metropolitan areas that are prospering as hubs of the technology, health, and service sectors. For young people and middle-class families in places like New York, Seattle, Denver, Dallas, Charlotte, and Boston—all of which gained tens of thousands of jobs in the past year and saw housing prices continue to rise—the struggle, even among those earning well above the median income, is to find an affordable place to live.

Five years ago, to compensate for nonstop demand and rising prices in New York, the city’s Depart­ment of Housing Preservation and Development, or HPD, embarked on a $7.5 billion program to build 165,000 units of low-to-moderate-income housing by 2013, enough for half a million people. For the past three years, as markets everywhere went bust, New York issued record numbers of ­residential-construction permits—more than 30,000 a year, surpassing the total for the entire 1990s. And yet despite the market-rate boom and the preservation or creation of more than 80,000 affordable units in the past half decade—equivalent to building a medium-size American city in five years—the residential-vacancy rate in New York remains almost unchanged at 3 percent.

HPD’s commissioner, Shaun Donovan, appointed by Mayor Bloomberg in 2004 to direct the New Housing Marketplace Plan, thinks our frame of mind hasn’t quite caught up with reality. “The memory of the decline and chaos of the 1970s pervades so many things that we do in planning and real estate in New York,” he says. “But what we’ve tried to do is look forward and plan for growth for the first time in a generation. In the affordable-housing world, we’re sometimes guilty of thinking about subsidized housing in a vacuum. In a city experiencing growth like New York, along with the ‘superstar city’ phenomenon that is attracting international capital and wealth, you’ve got to think about the housing market writ large and how to create opportunities for growth in a way that accounts for both ends of the spectrum.”

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Signs of the market-driven end of the boom are visible everywhere in New York: high-rise condos leaking into the sky above tenements and brownstones, cranes perilously swinging construction materials over sidewalks, plywood awnings festooned with real estate placards announcing yet another loft-style condo. Less evident is where those elusive 165,000 affordable units are being located. A handful of new projects breaking ground or opening their doors this year offer a surprising glimpse at the results midway through the city’s ten-year plan to improve the quantity, quality, and sustainability of housing in New York. These projects have enormously benefited from the participation of good design firms, such as Della Valle Bernheimer, Behnisch Architekten, Polshek Part­ner­ship, FXFowle, and Grimshaw Architects, that are bringing a high level of quality to a building type largely abandoned as a lost cause.

“The failure of public housing, as viewed by the public, policy makers, and Congress, has for too long frightened away architectural innovation,” Donovan says. “I’ve tried to push that here, to help make experimentation in affordable housing acceptable again. But I strongly believe that not every building should be a work of architecture. What we aspire to is to create buildings that add to the urban fabric, and by and large our buildings do. The quality has improved to the point where there’s a higher level of design, better materials, and better construction than what the market is building, particularly in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods.”

The $19.5 million David and Joyce Dinkins Gardens, which opened in March on a series of donated abandoned lots in the Bradhurst area of northeast Harlem, is an 85-unit project for youths too old for foster care and families earning less than 60 percent of the median income (in the state, less than $43,302 for a four-person family). Funded by federal tax-exempt low-income-housing credits, tax-exempt bonds, HPD’s mixed-income rental pro­gram, and a half-dozen other programs, it was devel­oped at a cost of $190 per square foot by the nonprofit Harlem Congregations for Com­munity Improvement with Jonathan Rose Compan­ies, a socially oriented developer.

The developers wanted to use the project to test the limits for quality and sustainability in affordable housing, so they brought in the trusty specialists at Dattner Architects, who started from their standard playbook for the type: concrete-masonry block, and plank covered with precast brick. “You know how they say in real estate there are three things that matter: location, location, location?” asks William Stein, the project architect. “In affordable housing there are three things that matter: budget, budget, budget. The projects are built on extremely tight budgets, and our approach is to design a building that is in many ways as simple and as typical as possible, but then try to tweak it in some way to make it a little more interesting.”

Through its choice of materials, Energy Star–rated fixtures, and modest interventions in the building envelope, Dattner took a textbook affordable midrise and tweaked it with small aesthetic and environmental details to get a green building from what is essentially a brick box. On the facade, three colors of brick and a section of window wall—a nod to the curtain walls typical in high-rise condos—break up the building’s mass and set off its entrance. The project’s sustainable features, funded by a $50,000 Enterprise Green Commun­ities grant, include sunshades projecting above slightly oversize double-hung windows with insulated low-emissivity glass and trickle vents, a green roof (funded by Home Depot) composed of rows of planted plastic trays, and insulation between the concrete block and brick to reduce energy use. On the ground floor, a wing of classrooms is used to train neighborhood residents in building trades, and in the backyard a landscape design by Lee Weintraub, with custom furniture and community-gardening plots, elegantly weaves the building into the sloping site.

“You try to do as much as you can with the re-sources that are available,” says Whitney Foutz, the project’s development manager at Rose. “The low-income-housing tax-credit program basically sets your rents, so you’re not in control of what you charge. But in return you get all this money that you’re able to use to build the project, and you have to work backward from that.”

On the edge of Brooklyn in East New York, Della Valle Bernheimer’s $2.3 million Glenmore Gar­dens, completed early last year, inserts ten modern moderate-income duplexes into a block lined with distressed rowhouses and storefronts with roll-down metal gates. One of the rare young New York firms that managed to get into the ­affordable-housing game on their own initiative, DVB responded to a 2002 RFP to develop a series of abandoned lots through HPD’s New Foundations program, which encourages homeownership on in-fill sites in transitional neighborhoods. “The process is really not set up to allow people like us to get involved unless you’re willing to dive into this huge process,” says Erik Helgen, the project archi­tect. “HPD requires that you have drawings before you even submit for the lottery. Developer-­builders have stock plans that they’ve already built twenty of, but for architects to come into the process, it’s a huge amount of work before you know if you’re getting the lots.”

Spurning the affordable-housing convention of precast-brick facades, DVB specified corrugated-aluminum, cedar, and fiber-cement panels over wood-framed structures. The firm invited three other young studios—Lewis.Tsuru­maki.Lewis, Briggs Knowles, and Architecture Research Office—to design buildings using its basic plans, letting them play within the parameters of either a slab-on-grade house or one with a ground floor sunken halfway below grade. The units, which sold for an HPD-prescribed $330,000 each—­corresponding to mortgage rates affordable to families earning 110 percent of the median income ($79,387 for a four-person household)—set a new aesthetic standard in New York for a project of their type but fell a little short of DVB’s sustainability goals. “We started with a much more ambitious green-building vision that we picked away at,” Helgen says. “The appliances are fairly energy efficient. You could buy more expensive windows that are way more efficient than these, but we did the best we could do with the budget. It could be better, but it’s better than most of this type of housing.”

The Northside Piers/Palmer’s Dock development, which was designed by FXFowle and opened this summer in its first phase on a formerly industrial waterfront site in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is an ideal case study of the two extremes that define New York’s current housing market. Both parts of the development share a five-acre site between the East River and Kent Avenue, but One Northside Piers, a 180-unit, 29-story, reinforced-concrete, curtain-walled high-rise, can be sold for as much as the developers think they can get, while Palmer’s Dock, a 113-unit, six-story, concrete-masonry-and-plank building with a brick facade, was built to fulfill a zoning mandate requiring that at least 20 percent of the built-up area be used for low-to-moderate-income rentals. One Northside Piers has open-plan interiors outfitted with custom cabinets, Kohler fixtures, and a combination of Thermador, Bosch, and SubZero appliances, with prices ranging from $350,000 for a studio to almost $2 million for two bedrooms with a view. At Palmer’s Dock, the floor plans and fixtures are all straight out of HPD spec sheets—ready-made cabinets, Delta faucets, GE appliances—and the two-bedroom apartments rent for $1,200. Northside Piers will have an indoor pool, a hot tub and sauna, a pri­vate deck, and a restaurant; Palmer’s Dock has ground-floor retail, a shared laundry, and a green roof on top of the parking garage. And yet the difference in construction costs is only about $100 per square foot—the condos were $300 per square foot, compared to about $200 for the rentals.

“The towers are a typical poured-in-place-concrete structure, but when we came to the affordable housing, because of the six-story height limit along Kent Avenue, it’s more economical to use a masonry-wall-and-plank system,” says David Lee, the project architect. “The windows are different, but the glass for the affordable part is the same low-emission type as the tower. We had to fight a battle with the developers because it wasn’t necessary to use them—we passed the energy code—but we argued that if we don’t have the low-E glass, you will see a difference. We were persistent.”

Small victories aside, the contrast between the two parts of the development in terms of quality of design and materials not only marks a gap between the high and low ends of the housing market but also an abysmal void in the middle. The greater part of the public is neither poor enough to qualify for subsidized housing nor rich enough to pay what the market will bear; we just have to live on top of one another or move to areas with high crime rates and hope conditions improve.

But a new development opening this fall on a block straddling slightly sketchy downtown Brooklyn and utterly bourgie Boerum Hill points to a hope­­ful possibility in the middle range of the market, and suggests that the choice between precast-brick low-rises and glass-walled condos isn’t as predetermined as it seems. The 11-story high-rise, designed by Polshek, defies all expectations for affordable and supportive housing in New York. Developed by Common Ground, a nonprofit that has retrofitted several hotels and SROs for the homeless over the years, the 217-unit Schermerhorn House is the organization’s first purpose-built structure, and its ambition in terms of scale, quality, and reimagination of the status quo humbles everything else out there. Its site, a donated plot of land above four functioning subway tunnels, presented some unique architectural and funding challenges but also an amazing opportunity for innovation.

“We couldn’t do a block-and-plank building for this site because the weight of the building couldn’t rest on the subway tunnels beneath it,” says David Beer, Common Ground’s director of real estate development. “The building is cantilevered over the tunnels, so we needed to use a system of four massive steel trusses supported by two rows of caissons drilled just to the south. Two factors that helped us were that the land was for free, and the city and the state make sizable investments for supportive housing with on-site services. Because it’s a special facility, the zoning allows us to create a higher density than if had we just built affordable housing, and because of the compact unit sizes, the public investment on a per-unit basis is comparable to other plain affordable housing with conventional-sized units.”

The building contains 9 four-bedroom suites and 180 mini studio apartments, each renting for $635 a month to individuals earning less than 60 percent of the area median income, or between $21,000 and $30,000. One hundred of the units are prioritized for members of the local community or employees in the entertainment industry (the Actor’s Fund for America was one of the project’s partners), 84 are reserved for people who are chronically homeless and have a history of mental illness, and 32 are left for people who are HIV-positive, or have HIV/AIDS and are at risk of homelessness. At $590 per square foot, or $59 million in total development costs, largely funded by federal low-income-housing tax credits, tax-exempt bonds, HPD’s ­supportive-housing loan program, and the state’s Homeless Housing Assistance program, the project was not cheap. But despite its small units, the design quality and custom-made fixtures compare favorably with a lot of loft-style condos. If anything like it could be reproduced in a market-rate development for the middle class, it could help square the circle in the history of high-rise housing—once regarded as the great hope for eradicating poverty, later rejected as inhuman in scale, and recently reclaimed by the upper classes as the urban answer to gas-guzzling McMansions.

The Schermerhorn House is just the beginning of a new wave of tricked-out affordable housing currently under construction or breaking ground in New York, including the 38-story Toren Tower, by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, in downtown Brooklyn, and the 38-story Brooklyn Arts Tower, by Stu­dio MDA and Behnisch, in Fort Greene, both of which merge mixed-income units into a single high-rise development. In the Melrose section of the Bronx, the Via Verde project (by Grimshaw in collaboration with Dattner), which won the New Housing New York competition last year, joins 221 mixed-income units in a descending arrangement of high-rises, midrises, and townhouses with green roofs that step down into an angular courtyard. And on the Lower East Side, the Pitt Street Residence, by Kiss + Cathcart, will house 264 low-income individuals in a 12-story tower with compact studios, shared suites, and social services.

More than anything, these new developments call into question the opposition to density that has pervaded urban activism for the past decade, despite a general acknowledgement of its environmental benefits. If cities are going to grab the initiative from suburbs and exploit their cultural and economic resurgence, they need to take a fresh look at how to plan large-scale development to compete with suburban houses that still cost, on average, less than $100 per square foot. “Change is hard,” Donovan says. “Nobody wants density. But there’s an increasing understanding that density is positive. So how do you do it in a way that isn’t completely homogeneous? On the national level, with the election, energy prices, and the foreclosure crisis, there is a growing appreciation for the value of cities. The crisis of the single-family house is a crisis of the American Dream, and there has been a new questioning of that form of homeownership, which is a tragedy but also presents an enormous opportunity.”

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