The entrance to the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library was sealed as tightly as one of its namesake’s shipping containers. The people waiting outside, on the corner of 40th and 5th, may have had no other place to go. Apparently this branch of the palace to the people wouldn’t open to the public until 8 AM, and the nearby Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, named for the chairman and CEO of the world’s largest commercial landlord, wouldn’t open until 10. So they sat and stood. Eventually a suave suit joined them and started gnawing on a pen. When the clock struck 8 and the sitters and standers entered the library and dispersed, he and I were whisked away to the seventh floor and given sleek programs. The first page put a name to his familiar face: he was the Times’s Michael Kimmelman. And the pen was for tweaking his keynote address at the NYC’s Housing Crisis conference, convened on May 13 by the American Institute of Architects.
It was an opportune time. While New Yorkers have faced a housing crisis since at least the first half of the nineteenth century, when the city’s real estate market congealed and stripped working-class tenants of the little power they had enjoyed since the colonial period, things have been particularly dire lately. As Kimmelman’s employer keeps reminding us with googly-eyed headlines, rent is soaring. The city’s pandemic-era eviction moratorium has been lifted. Our new mayor is a cop who seems to disdain unhoused people. And the architects of the largest residential transformation in the city today—the supposedly radical campaign to close Rikers Island—insist that incarcerated New Yorkers should be in a better jail, not in apartments. As the event got going, I was in agreement with the architect Matthew Melody, an audience member who sighed and told me, “I was glad that this was happening at all.”
Kimmelman, for his part, claimed to be “extremely worried.” “The reality is that millions of New Yorkers today are spending sometimes half or more of their incomes on rent,” he said. The aim of his talk, like that of the conference, was to rally the audience against the city’s “cautious, defeatist, distracted, divided, sclerotic” approach to affordable and public housing, and to insist that “architecture and design are part of, but also part of the solution to, the city’s housing crisis.” After praising the room, which seemed to be full of old friends—and the actual room, which I thought had the look of a chichi Bar Mitzvah venue—he implored us to have “robust, honest” conversations and to “think holistically when we talk about housing.” While he turned out to be the day’s only speaker to say outright that the United States should establish a universal right to housing, that part of his speech sounded a little dutiful, spat out like icky medicine that the doctor said he really must take. He was more content to suck on the lollipop of the “meantime” by proposing policy solutions like legalizing accessory dwelling units (ADUs), which allow homeowners in single-family zones to become small-scale landlords. “We can do big things if we want,” he said.
Big things, for Kimmelman and most everyone in the room, turned out to mean building more housing, no matter the developer—a lot more, Excelsior-style. He scapegoated Jane Jacobs’s disciples for staunch NIMBYism that stalls development, but he also toed the tired urbanist line by lampooning De Blasio for publicly tallying the affordable units he added to the city’s stock but ignoring their interdependence with every other aspect of city life: “safe, walkable streets; access to public transit; quality schools; jobs; libraries; health care; parks and plazas; food, culture.” Isn’t it time, I thought from my seat, that we dispense with quaint street-ballet ideals? Are we still idealizing Greenwich Village, or can we now name it as a bourgeois fantasyland almost as garish as Hudson Yards? And speaking of Hudson Yards, are we still beholden to NUMTOTs who blamed its developers for creating inauthentic—or, yes, lethal—public space? In truth, the problem was simpler: that land should have been used to house people, cheaply or for free.
Kimmelman agreed with my last point, at least. “I’ve done the math, and I believe Manhattan has an average density of 640 residents per acre,” he said. “There’s a public golf course in the Bronx. It’s 198 acres. You may have heard of it. So 640 times 198 equals 126,720 people who could be housed. Just saying.” For a fleeting moment, he channeled Jacobs’s revolutionary foil, Henri Lefebvre, when he asked, “Whose city is this?” I knew the answer couldn’t be oligarchs or golfers. But I hadn’t even finished my first complimentary raspberry scone, and I already suspected that it couldn’t be the people in that room, either.
When the keynote ended, we launched into the meantime, which was split into three sections—Past, Present, Future—each with presenters and a panel. To kick off the Past, Nicholas D. Bloom, from Hunter College, offered a ten-minute gloss on public housing, which has long been the city’s best solution to shortages. Public housing initiatives, he showed, began in the United States as a two-pronged New Deal project meant to increase the high-quality housing stock for working people and to remedy mass unemployment. But by the 1960s, public housing had itself become a crisis, with the mid-’70s demolition of Pruitt–Igoe serving as a symbol of state failure. Moses Gates—who I was surprised to learn was an urban planner, rather than an urban plan—pointed out that since the ’70s, New York’s population has increased at a rate just slightly higher than its housing. Meanwhile, in a city famous for its tenant protection laws, rent regulation—encompassing control and stabilization—has declined. “Almost all of the growth has come in unregulated housing units since 1980,” Gates pointed out. Ingrid Gould Ellen, a professor of urban planning at NYU, showed that housing prices have multiplied twenty-fold since 1974, controlling for improvements in quality, while median incomes have multiplied by a factor of only 6.5. The pressure on the rental market has forced rents up 75 percent over the last half-century, controlling for inflation. “People have to spend more of their incomes on rent,” Ellen summarized. She outlined three answers to the question of the housing crisis: neither the city nor private developers are building enough; high earners are driving up rents; and there is less competition in the housing sector today due to the growing involvement of financial entities and foreign investment. And she nobly added a fourth: the private market exists. Her horrifying autopsy was clear and convincing, even though toward the end, she referred to the crisis as a “sea-change,” unintentionally contradicting her own statistics.
As was true throughout the day, brief forays into history yielded to conciliatory presentism, as when Bloom asked, “What is realistic under current policies and funding?” Gates was more thorough. “This is essentially a product of our growing economic inequality since 1980,” he said. He framed the crisis as above all a problem for the metropolitan area: “The New York suburbs are bad!” The three worst-performing counties in the country for permitting affordable development are Nassau, Suffolk, and Westchester. New Jersey does considerably better, but its impact on the good of the region is stymied by the single crumbling rail tunnel that links it to Manhattan. On this side of the Hudson, Gates said, we have the advantage of extraordinary architectural flexibility. But this sort of praise, often heaped on New York by its historians, seems no longer warranted: nowadays, developers are knocking down gems on every block. Gates proved this point when he shared the damning reality that even as the number of New Yorkers who live in shelters, in dorms, or nowhere at all has increased in recent decades, vacancies have skyrocketed. “Our vacant and unavailable units, and specifically our pied-a-terres, have increased substantially,” he said. Official statistics don’t count these units—if they did, the city would have an 11 percent vacancy rate. “I don’t think you could break it up by income band,” he said, “but I think it’s fairly obvious that most of that additional use of space is by the wealthier cohort.” The shortage, then, isn’t really a shortage. But when it came time to say what is to be done, Gates reverted back to Kimmelman’s meager plea to think about “how we use space in New York.”
After the three presentations, a moderator asked the panelists to say literally anything positive. Ellen pointed elsewhere, to California, which recently passed sweeping statewide ADU legislation. “You’re seeing states around the country that are beginning to really push localities,” she said. She also pointed to the federal Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD), which enables public housing authorities to complete capital projects. Ellen called it “the only game that we’ve got for public housing.” Such programs are necessary, she added, because the lowest-income families in New York “can’t even cover operating and maintenance costs, so there’s really a structural problem. . . . We can’t build our way out of that crisis.” Gates, in the day’s most haunting moment, pointed out that single-family homes are relatively easy to save from the ravages of climate change. But “public housing is close to the water.”
In the Present, we met Karen Blondel, the founder of the Public Housing Civic Association and longtime resident of the Red Hook Houses, who chided her fellow attendees, self-professed wonks, for conflating public housing with affordable housing and for failing to pay attention to the NYCHA tenants who offer all kinds of solutions to the housing crisis. “You really have to do your work,” she said. Funding for public housing, she said, should be “automatic,” rather than constantly imperiled by legislative whims, so that we can “keep public housing public.” After the panel, Blondel linked the housing struggle to others. “One of the things that’s really bothering me is the removal of mature trees, and that’s happening globally,” she told me. Still, asked if all housing should be public, she spoke in the dialect of modest reform that the day’s panelists all seemed to know fluently: “I wouldn’t say that. I’m not against development or capitalism. But I am for equity.” Moments earlier, the room had gone silent when someone asked about an alternative system to renting. Finally, a panelist meekly suggested that we “transfer the burden,” whatever that means. The environment seemed cozy for everyone other than critics of capitalism—which is to say, people who just might be able to propose material solutions to the housing crisis.
Maybe that’s why, when she rose to the podium, Alicka Ampry-Samuel, the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s regional administrator for New York and New Jersey, smiled and said, “This is such a friendly room!” She turned out to be one of Biden’s more flagrant propagandists, flaunting the federal government’s Covid-era “awards” to cities and claiming that the administration’s “focus right now is making sure that we are connecting with folks who are working with our most vulnerable.” She called her own speech a “tool” that attendees could use when “doing business.” Kimmelman, too, had lapsed into corporate language when he praised Houston for “coming together” to cut its unhoused population by 60 percent over the last decade—not because no one should be unhoused, but because multiple parties “share an interest in fixing the problem.” Plenty of non-businesses appropriate business rhetoric, but in the realm of housing and city planning, each network-y metaphor seems to chip away at the common good and replace it with the rapaciousness of real estate.
When the presenters of the Future took the stage, I hoped they would project their plan of attack onto the projectors’ screen. Here’s how we expand squatters’ rights. Here’s our ten-step path to a city without landlords. And Trump Golf Links at Ferry Point? Here’s how we fill it with beautiful apartments. I wanted, in short, the best of New York urban planning—utopianism plus civic pugilism—but instead I got a primer on how to “begin to move the needle in the right direction,” as Muzzy Rosenblatt, who runs the nonprofit Bowery Residents’ Committee, put it. The Brooklyn Borough President pointed out that the system we have is “intentional”—a radical tilt that was swiftly curtailed by Lisa Gomez, an affordable housing landlord who has developed some 20,000 units, quite intentionally. I was rapidly losing faith. Was it even possible for a room full of almost-definitely-stably-housed professionals to speak honestly—let alone with any imagination—about a fundamentally working-class problem? I thought of a conference I’d attended the month before, at Riverside Church, where the scholar-activist Ruth Wilson Gilmore pointedly defined philanthropy as “the private reallocation of stolen social wages.” Throughout the day, I remembered Gilmore’s demonstration that knowledge production on stage can be a great, radical thing. But at the library, everyone seemed more interested in courting wealth than critiquing it. They spent their precious time commenting on how little time they had, even if they thought, as Matthew Bremer, the AIA’s president-elect, told me, that “today was about getting us into the weeds.”
If the conference accomplished anything, it was to insist that architects have no more claim to the future of the built environment than anyone else, and that they must listen to everyone else, constantly, in order to do their jobs well. In an age and a city that both cherish luxury condos by Ingels and Hadid, architecture is more frequently mistaken for an art form than any line of work, with the possible exception of magazine journalism. In the end, both are simply service professions. But there I was, fantasizing again, and our five conference hours had already passed, and no one had bothered to speak the glaring truth: the crisis was built, and it can be razed.