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Howard Husock
Reinventing Affordable Housing « Back to Story

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Georgette Bain C July 26, 2013 at 8:33 PM
Great idea about small size units, a good chunck of the population will benefit from them. the young professionels and the elders. What a great idea.
Georgette Bain C July 26, 2013 at 8:28 PM
Great idea bout small size units, a good chuck of the population will benefit from them. the young professionels and the elders. What a great idea.
Great out of box idea. Wonder if this has any learnings for developing countries like India. Especially for Mumbai like metros with their sky rocketing reality prices which seem to be following the 'old' Bloomberg model.
Get government out of housing the market will respond accordingly.

B) I think it's important to emphasize that much -- actually, probably most -- of the vast amount of affordable housing that was produced in NYC without the "guidance" of the overly restrictive 1961 zoning ordinance, created NEIGHBORHOODS that were -- and still are -- greatly beloved by the people who lived / live in them.

And the variety of types of housing (and neighborhoods) produced before the 1961 zoning code -- especially in the outer boroughs -- is also quite amazing. For a small sampling, take a quick "walk" around the block (looking at both sides of the street): start on Steinway St., go up 23rd Rd. (the street that is partly under the railroad trestle); make a left on 41st St.; make another left on 23rd Ave.; and then make a final left on Steinway St. to get back where you started.

Except for a few new "condos" (which replaced narrow single family homes -- including one that might have been an old farm house), and a few two-family houses (which were built on empty lots), all of the housing was built before the 1961 zoning ordinance took effect.

When I lived there it was a well-beloved family neighborhood (although, because of its desirability, a lot of singles may also live there today). But note all the neighborhood elements that would be opposed as destructive to family living by community activists and orthodox planners (even in this supposed age of Jane Jacobs) if they were being proposed today!: the train trestle (freight and Amtrack to Boston); the light industrial commercial structures!; the city buses (not apparent in the street view) that constantly go up and down Steinway St.!; the storefronts that are used as workshops!; etc. But with these elements already being in place and accepted, they apparently haven’t stopped the construction of the nice new condos and two-family homes.

Despite all of those small apartments above and behind the storefronts, the neighborhood was actually teeming with kids of all ages when I lived there. I suppose many families were probably saving to move to larger quarters and up the housing ladder – but in the meanwhile it was a splendid “Jane Jacobs” type neighborhood for the kids to grow up in. We five-year olds weren’t allowed to cross any of the streets by ourselves (we weren’t allowed to put even one foot in the gutter to retrieve a “Spaldeen”!), but we had the run of this marvelously diverse block – a great world to a five-year old kid. There were wide sidewalks to play on; stores where you could return soda bottles, buy candy (and vote for Miss Rheingold, if the owner let you); occasional visits from a truck mounted kiddie ride; etc. And given all the work places, there were lots of adult eyes to watch over us. Older kids, could walk down Steinway St. to a major shopping area, to a variety of movie theaters, to the library, to nearby parks – including one containing the stupendous Astoria Pool (one of the world’s largest), etc. It was enough to make a kid feel quite superior to suburban cousins who lived such a dull existence in Levittown – where it was hard to find (without being driven around) a nice sized group of kids who were exactly your age, where backyards were dull, and where excitement was lamely waiting for a daily visit from the Good Humor Man and then quickly running to “Mommy” to get some money before he drove off!

Benjamin Hemric
Monday, July 16, 2012, 10:35 p.m.
Very nice, though I think the quote from the graduates is an exaggeration. I am looking for an apartment myself, and there seem to be plenty of perfectly nice 1 BRs (even in midtown) for "only" $3000 (which, alas, is still more than I can afford!). And I've seen enough studios in the low 2000s to know that $2000 is probably too much for a micro-unit.
$2000 for 250sqft is not affordable. I pay $1500 for 600sqft, and it includes a gym membership. This proposal sounds like another windfall for the real estate industry.
PART TWO (of 3)

A) As Howard Husock importantly points in “Reinventing Affordable Housing” (and in earlier articles too), cities like New York City used to have lots of modest – but still pretty nice – affordable housing that was privately built. In addition to “classic” old law tenements (which I can say from personal experience, can actually be pretty nice, despite their negative reputation among “housers”), Husock mentions thousands of three-story buildings in Brooklyn (often with stores on the first floor and apartments on the second and third).

As a kid, I lived in one of these three-story buildings, with ground floor retail – although it was in Queens, not in Brooklyn. I can vouch from experience that these apartments are indeed small – ours was even smaller than the south Bronx railroad flat that we had just moved from (which was good, sound housing which was demolished, along with many businesses, for a lower density, tower-in-the park housing project.) I think it’s important to note that not only do these buildings create nice affordable housing, they also can create TERRIFIC neighborhoods too. And they are just one example of a type of housing (and type of neighborhood) that was creatively built by the private sector under the 1916 zoning code.

I think those readers who are not familiar with this type of housing or neighborhood might enjoy visiting (though the miracle of street view in Google maps) the one I’m talking about. Just search for Steinway Street Astoria NY; click the plus sign twice( to zoom in); and them move the little man icon to Steinway Street between 23rd Road. and 23rd Ave. The buildings in question are on the east side of the street. (But stroll up and down the block, looking at both sides of the street, to see the nice variety of structures and, even today, the nice variety of businesses.)

(To be continued.)

Benjamin Hemric
Sun., July 15, 2012, 10:40 p.m.
PART ONE (of 3)

I agree that the Bloomberg administration should be applauded for relaxing zoning regulations in order to encourage the development of a demonstration building containing "micro-units" of 275 to 300 square feet. But as a believer in "market urbanism" (i.e., gov't should just set some bare minimum, "essential" zoning standards, and let the marketplace take care of the rest), I also think it might be useful to look more closely at the restrictive (perhaps overly restrictive?) zoning regulations that have apparently made the construction of such micro-unit buildings illegal to build in the first place.

First let me say that I do agree that NYC should have BUILDING CODE regulations that set some basic minimum standards, including the minimum square footage of a habitable apartment. But, despite the oohs and ahs greeting this proposal, 300 sq. feet apartments are really not all that small or novel in NYC. I believe, for instance, that most "classic" (and still plentiful and “beloved”) old-law "dumbbell" tenement buildings likely have two such 300 sq. ft. apartments per floor (along with two slightly larger 400 sq. ft., or less, apartments per floor). With such old-law tenements usually being five-, six- or seven-stories tall (if the ground floor is not counted as a story), that means there can be from ten to sixteen such 300 sq. ft. apartments in each such “classic” dumbbell tenement (along with ten to fourteen 400 sq. ft. apartments per building). So 300 sq. ft. apartments are actually already pretty common in NYC – and their habitability has been demonstrated since the 1880’s. (This is especially true these days when they are usually occupied by only one or two people – instead of AN ENTIRE LARGE FAMILY, as was common in the old days.) So I wonder when and why regulations were put in place to make such small apartments illegal to build?

One clue seems to be contained in the press release announcing the program. Note that it says that "zoning" regulations -- NOT "building code" regulations – are being relaxed here in order to enable the construction of this pilot structure. So, apparently, it’s NOT a habitability issue that is shaping the minimum size of a unit, but a density issue instead – smaller minimum-size units increase the number of apartments allowed and thus the density (in terms of people) of a new building. By lowering the minimum size of a unit for a certain zoning district, higher density (in terms of people, not in terms of bulk) is being allowed in such a district.

To me this seems like the kind of over regulation that has discouraged the construction of much needed affordable housing – without really making neighborhoods better (and maybe, even, making them worse). These complicated regulations are really just a manifestation of the desire of planners (and maybe misguided NYMBIST citizens) to micro-manage urban growth – and thereby unintentionally limited housing construction and good housing options.

Harsh you say? Well compare these current regulations to NYC’s original zoning code, the one adopted in 1916. As far as I know, at least, that code only regulated only ground coverage, height and set back, and use. Density, in terms of either square footage or number of people occupying a building, was unregulated.

Sound utopian? Well . . . no? What terrible buildings or neighborhoods, if any, were allowed to be built under the very loose regulations of the 1916 code? And think of all the volume of construction, and the WONDERFULLY varied buildings and neighborhoods that were built in NYC between 1916 and 1961.

(To be continued.)

Benjamin Hemric
Sun., July 15, 2012, 10: 30 p.m.
I will be interested to see how this pilot project is working a few years from now. Yes, similar arrangements can be found in Asian cities and, with the city's 800,000 unit gap in the supply of one-bedroom or studio units, this is an approach worth piloting. But how to prevent the building from becoming the tenement of the 21st century?
If all one needed was space, people could live in U Stor It for $175/month. The primary cost of residential housing where I live (not NYC, but the suburbs of a major city) isn't land or construction, but PERMISSION. If there were no zoning or other land-use regulations, there would be plenty of housing built on the micro-model.

But the residents would overwhelm local roads, schools, shopping and parks. Housing is deliberately kept scarce to maintain balance with all infrastructure needed to support the population.

Levittown was not split level, it was Cape Cod. The triple-deckers were one unit per floor, which meant more than 1200 SF. Same with row houses in Philadelphia and Baltimore, to cite 2 I know about -- that is, they were not small either. And the buildings with commercial on the first floor and residential above were called taxpayers, because the owners used the apartments above the stores to pay the taxes on the buildings. NONE of these were designed to be cheap housing.

Small was SROs all over the place -- ex-hotels, flophouses on the Bowery, etc. I was involved in converting several SROs on the Upper West Side into coops in the 1970s, when the gentrification rage was on.

Bloomberg's initiative gets a conditional high-three from me, because I'm suspicious about how to manage such a building. I like the initiative for trying to house young newcomers. In the 70s, we snuck into the factory districts (SoHo, Chelsea, and the garment district) and made ersatz AIRs out of these lofts -- and packed a bunch of us, illegally, in.

Why is Manhattan the only place to live? There are larger apts for considerably less money in the other boroughs. A convertible bedroom in a nice neighborhood in Queens like Astoria would go for $1400-1600. Perhaps, a little less classism and little more commuter time might solve the young ones who want the NYC experience and stil have Monies left after rent for essentials and savings.
I don't live in NYC. I never have, and I probably never will. But I read quite a bit about it, and I am always wondering why the residents of this fine city don't run its mayor out-of-town on a rail? Some of his ideas border on insanity. I leave the ban on smoking in Central Park alone. But then there's the crusade against large soft drinks and foods w/ certain fats. Now the mayor comes along and thinks it's a good idea to put people (granted, single people) in boxes that are roughly 10 ft wide by 27.5 ft long. (I know, these may not be the final measurements. But it gives a sense of how tiny these cubicles will be.) Would His Bloombergness ever deign to live in one of these "affordable housing" units? I sincerely doubt it. And what's affordable about $2,000/month for a living space this size? I realize that with some creative thought, the residents might be able to make these "apartments" comfortable and cozy. But I would think that after a month of living in one, the resident would be on the verge of a mental breakdown. Cozy is one thing; claustrophobic is another. I'm not saying the city should build mansions. But, as one reader commented, maybe the city should just stay out of the business entirely. Or perhaps the mayor should turn his attention to matters he knows something about--whatever they might happen to be. Because right now, it's sounding more and more like he's just a very rich man with no concept of how other people live their lives.
less than 400 sqft is INHUMANE!! Surely, the Mr. Bloomberg can do better than this for human beings!
We better get smaller people from smaller countries so these very cosy 275 sf units will be deemed high quality housing or more appropiately `dorms'.
David W. Nicholas July 12, 2012 at 4:03 AM
If you go to an Ikea store, they have floorplans worked out of this type, with 350 or so sq. ft. apartments. There's a kitchen with a counter to eat at, a small living area with a comfortable chair and entertainment center, and a tiny bedroom. Everything's put together so that there's not much need for space, the walls are covered with shelves for books and cupboards for clothes, etc. It's all very compact...

Wonder why Bloomberg didn't use one of them...oh wait, there's pork to be distributed here...
As a person who has lived in a 450 sq. ft. studion condo for the past 6 years, I can highly recommend this plan. I'm in the heart of a lively urban setting, and I consider my home my little sanctuary. It's more than enough space for one person and easy to maintain. Ancillary costs, like electricity and property taxes, are also very reasonable. If single people would honestly assess their real needs in housing based on how they actually use their homes, they would see there is a lot of unused space in their homes.
Oh yeah...Rent Control. You want to reinvent affordable housing? Get rid of rent control. But we all know that won't happen.

This is about getting the proles to know their place.

I wonder how big Bloombergs and Amanda Burdens living arrangements are going to be?

Bob bets more then 300 sq/ft...
$2000 for that claustrophobic space is an obscene rent. In Nashville, my sister has an $800/month apartment with two bedrooms, two full bathrooms, an eat-in kitchen, dining room, living room, terrace, AND free parking: all just a mile from the city center.

I stayed in an SRO for a while when I moved to NYC, a clean and safe one on 14th St. It was spartan, but it was mine, and it only cost $450/month (1992). Even allowing for inflation, there's no way they're paying any more than $800/month for that.
Oh goody...they've invented modern tenements instead of those icky old ones.



Good grief Charlie Brown...
George P Wilson July 11, 2012 at 9:52 PM
This harkens back to the days of SROs (single room occupancy) units that were a part of NYC living for many years. Single person households in NYC make up a majority of the residences. This is for the young and old residents of the city.
Christopher Dillon July 11, 2012 at 9:31 PM
This style of housing has been popular in Japan for decades. Units even smaller than those mentioned here (eg 13 square meters / 150 square feet) are not uncommon.

You wouldn't want to raise a family in one, but with creative design — and a vibrant neighborhood that has everything that's not inside your apartment — they can be surprising comfortable.
It would be far easier to actually do what they did in the late 19th and 20th century and let private developers build what the market wants. If the city is building housing, rent will never be affordable in NYC and will cost taxpayers. Get rid of the over regulation in zoning and codes, the rent control and all the other nonsense that stops new units in their tracks. Namely the biggest roadblock is city government.

Namely the last entity that should be "developing" are governments.