Housing affordability – or unaffordability, depending on your relative net worth – has always been a hot topic in New York City. Today’s housing market is no different – though in recent years, thanks to a combination of factors both economic and political, the chronic nature of the problem has become more acute. As income inequality has increased and public policy has swung toward providing housing opportunities almost exclusively through the private sector, the availability of adequate, affordable housing for anyone but the elite has become increasingly scarce.
A Brief Look Back
The conflict between different approaches to both the development and promotion of affordable housing in New York City, as well as to urban planning in general, goes back decades, even centuries, in the city’s history. In the mid-nineteenth century, the clearing of the Five Points, a notorious slum in lower Manhattan that’s now occupied by courthouses and other governmental buildings, was an early example of the city government’s attempts to redesign urban space. Like the grand plans that created the current configurations of European capitals like Paris and Berlin, the destruction of the Five Points slum was undertaken to make it easier to police the restive local population.
For much of the first half of the 20th century, and really into the 1960s, affordable housing development fell squarely in the realm of large-scale, publicly created and funded projects; properties such as Stuyvesant Town in Manhattan, Co-op City in the Bronx, and even the development of Lincoln Center are examples. Public housing was exactly what it sounded like – housing conceived of and funded by the government, or sometimes by unions, for the working and middle classes.
These projects often involved massive urban ‘renewal,’ which in many cases was code for the wiping out of existing neighborhoods to be replaced by ‘neighborhoods of the future.’ The social upheaval caused by this approach came to a head in the 1960s when journalist-activist Jane Jacobs, an advocate for preserving the existing urban fabric, battled urban planning titan Robert Moses over the construction of an expressway that would have wiped out large segments of Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. Ultimately, Jacobs’ vision won out and the grand (some might say grandiose) projects so often associated with Robert Moses lost favor.
After New York City’s financial default in the mid-1970s, and the convulsions the city faced as a result of shifting populations and trends, the approach to developing affordable housing for both the working and middle classes changed. Rather than the publicly directed and funded projects of the past, the private sector was provided the opportunity to supply housing at all levels, with government assistance coming through tax policy. Public bonds for construction were replaced with various tax incentives to promote all levels of housing construction. Whether or not that approach – which is still in favor today – has in fact produced the desired result of more housing being attainable by more people is debatable. Either way, growing populations, changing economics, and other complex issues raise the question of how New York City will navigate its seemingly perpetual housing struggles going forward.