Everyone can agree that something has to be done about the chronic problems facing public housing in New York, with its $32 billion maintenance backlog — elevators out, heat and hot water out, toxic mold, pest and vermin infestations, and fiscal mismanagement, to start — and, in a city where the working class is priced out of the market — a 160,000-person waiting list. But politicians, residents, and advocates don’t always see eye to eye on what to do about it.
Now the Regional Plan Association (RPA), which for decades has developed big-think ideas for how to improve life in the New York area, has a few suggestions. For the past year, it has been working with the New York–based architecture firm Peterson Rich Office (PRO), whose co-founders had been named the Richard Kaplan Chairs for Urban Design as part of a newly established fellowship position, to create design solutions for the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA).
While PRO is best known for its upscale residential and arts and culture work (the firm recently renovated Galerie Perrotin and is working on the Hudson Valley Museum of Contemporary Art), it also has an interest in urban design. Miriam Peterson, who co-founded the firm with her partner, Nathan Rich, is from New York City and studied urban economics before going to architecture school. Rich was a teacher at Tsinghua University in Beijing, where he researched rapid urbanization in Asia.
Over the past few years, the firm has published conceptual projects that show how design could help address NYCHA’s maintenance challenges and the city’s affordable-housing shortage. 9x18 — a conceptual project from when Peterson, Rich, and urban planner Sagi Golan were fellows at the Institute for Public Architecture — proposed building new affordable-housing units on NYCHA surface-parking lots. Roof by Roof explored how to build new affordable housing on top of existing NYCHA buildings.
In the absence of adequate public funding for housing — and a federal policy that says there cannot be a net increase in the number of public-housing units — city leaders have turned to private development. The Bloomberg administration, which heavily promoted so-called public-private partnerships, floated the idea of leasing NYCHA open-space land (including its surprisingly extensive stock of surface parking) to private developers, who would then build mixed-income housing. The idea was that the leasing fees collected would help fund the maintenance and repairs to existing buildings and that developers would have to build an 80:20 ratio of market rate to affordable units. However, many City Council members, housing advocates, and tenants denounced the idea as a land grab that is privatizing resources that should remain public.
Of course, private capital isn’t the only way to fund the maintenance backlog NYCHA faces, but it is one of the most readily available sources. In its 2015 NextGeneration NYCHA plan and 2018 NYCHA 2.0 plan, the de Blasio administration looked to the Obama-era Rental Assistance Demonstration program (RAD) — which allows public-housing agencies to switch how they receive federal funds, from Section 9 (how NYCHA is typically funded) to Section 8 (the voucher program to private landlords) — as a way to fund infill development and transfer management of public housing to private entities. These policies have resulted in unpopular proposals to demolish existing housing in order to build new, privately managed buildings.
Meanwhile, the Green New Deal for Public Housing bill, sponsored by Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, calls for $180 billion of investment in public housing across the country, including NYCHA, to fund repairs, maintenance, and retrofits; however, broad political support for enacting such a bill is absent.
Last month, the RPA and PRO released their report, “Scalable Design Solutions for NYCHA,” which proposes ways in which existing buildings could be retrofitted and expanded to help meet the needs of current residents and also make room for more people. It knits together many of the ideas that have come before: infill, replacing outdated systems with more energy-efficient decentralized ones, better integrating NYCHA campuses with their neighborhoods, and restoring public housing to a dignified place to live.
The heart of the plan? Retrofitting existing towers and expanding them. PRO proposes adding private balconies to each unit, which would hold individually controllable heating and cooling equipment; layering on a secondary roof structure, which would help with leaks and also provide space for solar panels; and expanding the buildings outward to make space for more units, to integrate campuses with their surrounding neighborhoods, and to create more accessible and welcoming lobbies.
The report shows how these proposals could work in a case-study location, the Cooper Park Houses, located in East Williamsburg. This NYCHA campus currently has $120 million in unmet capital needs. Under existing zoning regulations, Cooper Park only has half of its as-of-right floor area constructed and could support an additional 550,836 square feet of development. PRO isn’t the first entity to recognize this. Cooper Park was to be the site of a NextGen infill development, which recently stalled due to pushback from residents and local officials.
Peterson and Rich walk us through their concept.
What did you find out about the architectural problems and challenges with NYCHA?
Nathan Rich: There are a number. There are architectural challenges and then there are maintenance challenges. And to some extent, they’re not separated from each other, but I would start with the maintenance ones. They’re maybe a little less sexy, but they’re the ones that impact residents on a daily basis.
The steam-boiler systems are failing; residents regularly lose heat and don’t have individual control over the heat. The systems are also leaking and causing mold to build up in a lot of the older buildings. It’s a huge public-health issue.
Most NYCHA buildings are masonry, and they’re built without insulation. They have old windows, so they’re extremely leaky and energy inefficient. They’re a major cost, and resident comfort issues come along with that. These are real nuts-and-bolts issues with the building, and architectural solutions to those issues are what we’re trying to propose.
Miriam Peterson: One of the things that is typical to many NYCHA buildings is that the ground floor is sort of part above and part below grade, so what it means is that there’s a big volume of space that’s at street level that’s not occupied. Some of it is mechanical space or maintenance offices. But that also means that there’s an accessibility issue with getting into the building. Many lobbies are up a set of steps. Then the lobbies themselves are very small and have poor access to natural light.
NR: NYCHA developments are based on a post-WWII vision of the nuclear family, so there are a lot of two-bedroom and four-bedroom apartments. NYCHA’s resident data analysis shows that there is a huge need for one-bedroom and studio apartments. [Editor’s note: NYCHA estimates that 40 percent of households are living in units that aren’t the right size for their families: 44,663 households are living in underoccupied units; 11,403 are living in what the agency calls “extremely underoccupied” units; and at least 15,103 are living in overcrowded units.]
Walk us through how the Scalable Design Solutions solve some of NYCHA’s problems.
NR: We have an index of all the campuses around the city and picked Cooper Park [as a case study on how these solutions could work] because, in some ways, it’s the most quintessential type of campus. You have these mid-rise buildings separated from one another by significant distances on a superblock site. It’s also in [East Williamsburg], a neighborhood that has a fairly high density and is developing quickly.
MP: There are some specific reasons why comprehensive infill [on NYCHA sites] tends to be really challenging. One is a new building would require access, and so you often find one at the edge of a cul-de-sac or a parking lot. Two is a kind of nerdy building-code regulation: For habitable spaces, which all residential spaces need to be, you need to have proper light and air circulation. Windows have to be a certain distance away from other habitable spaces. So you typically see a 30-foot setback and what that means then is 60 feet between window to window on a NYCHA infill project. This limits where new buildings can go.
In thinking about that distance limitation, we started to rethink infill from the perspective of a horizontal extension of existing buildings [instead of building a separate new building]. This means that upgrades to the existing buildings are not only important but are inextricable in executing a new build. So we feel like there is a great opportunity for showing residents right away that priority one is fixing your building, your physical space, your needs.
NR: Infill can be a completely separate building, and there have been a number of infill proposals that residents have managed to stop because they weren’t seeing any direct benefit to the existing buildings. You have to improve the existing building with an extension.
MP: This development strategy acts on the existing building, and that opens up opportunities for rethinking ground floors, for providing specific amenities people come to expect in residential architecture today, which really weren’t part of the plan of these buildings when they were constructed in the 1930s to 1970s and 1980s, like mail and package rooms or trash and recycling collection.
Extension-based infill [brings the entrances of buildings closer to the street] and provides opportunities for residents to enter directly off of the sidewalk. We also use the extension as an opportunity to make smaller ADA-accessible units that could be an opportunity for relocating or rightsizing elderly residents into units that aren’t only better at meeting their needs at this stage in their life but also closer to the lobby. This could open up [existing] bigger apartments to families.
Part of the extension plan is to build balconies onto every existing unit. Why?
NR: The balconies do three things. The first is a quality-of-life benefit. During COVID, it’s become much more apparent that having privately accessible outdoor space is just a huge benefit to quality of life in New York City. Most NYCHA residents don’t have direct access to outdoor space from their units.
The second thing this does is the balcony provides a place to put a condenser for new mechanical systems. We’re proposing split systems be installed, which means there’s a condenser that sits on the balcony, and there are small air handlers that can blow both heat and cool air into the units. Residents could have individual control over the temperature in their units. [Editor’s note: Heat and hot water are included in the rent NYCHA residents pay. Out of NYCHA’s 328 developments, 257 are master-metered for electricity, which means individual units are not metered, and the Authority pays for electricity for the whole campus’ consumption. PRO did not analyze what impact this new system would have on resident expenses.]
MP: Air-conditioning units tend to stay in the windows all year round. So when you have a leaky building that’s not performing well from an energy perspective, and you have a big hole in your window with a big AC unit in it, it sort of layers problems on top of problems.
NR: The third thing balconies can do is become a general cladding strategy on the building. NYCHA is interested in recladding its buildings and balconies, which could include both open and semi-enclosed spaces [as] part of that strategy.
Have you thought of the actual numbers involved in developing this concept?
MP: We were advised by the RPA to not go down that path too far.
We, and the RPA, intentionally wanted the primary focus of the work to be about how the architectural and urban-design strategies could be the first step in a wider-reaching participatory design process that would engage multiple stakeholders. For that reason, we steered clear of addressing questions of both construction costs and funding streams, as that could immediately get into the territory of asking “for whom” and “by whom,” which we felt would shift the focus entirely on what affordability mix could be proposed.
The big bottom line is: Where does the money come from to actually implement things? And that, in my opinion, is the biggest hurdle to change, and a solution that architects and architecture — we’re not necessarily equipped with the tools to come up with complicated financial modeling or dealing with funding sources for projects like this.
The elephant in the room with many of the proposals and ideas for NYCHA is the privatization of public goods. What do you say to those concerns?
NR: It’s all about how you’ve established revenue streams in order to fund the repairs and improve the existing buildings. And the money has to come from somewhere. It requires creativity, and private development is not the only way to do it. But there is a lot of land available on NYCHA sites, so it’s one strategy that NYCHA has worked with in the past as a way of generating income. You have to forefront resident needs in the existing buildings in order to have that conversation.
I think sometimes the conversations between public versus private, and the sort of politics around that, are a distraction from the core issue, which is that there are 450,000 people who live in these buildings that are falling apart, and we need to figure out how to fix them.
NYCHA has released quite a few design guidelines over the past few years — everything from codifying the best practices for rehabilitating buildings to setting a vision for the future, like the Connected Communities Guidebook. How does your work with this report build on what has come before? And how do you view the role of this document?
NR: All of those documents — Connected Communities, NextGen NYCHA, the Sustainability Agenda — were sort of our up-front due diligence: understanding them, reading through them, and taking them into consideration. And the RPA itself also did a year of work, before we came onboard to generate the policy recommendations and reports to City Council, to get resident input. There’s a tremendous amount of information-gathering up front to make sure we were making good choices.
One of the tools that architects have that many other professionals don’t is visualization. And so when we draw through things, and we diagram things, it creates a platform for conversion in a way that text and policy don’t. It can make things suddenly more real. It gives you something to sketch on top of. Our hope is that it can be a tool for doing that and for communicating with different stakeholders.
Then there are very specific recommendations in [our report] that I think just make sense. We didn’t come up with those on our own. NYCHA is already considering replacing the steam systems with split systems, but we’ve tried to create some specific architectural solutions for implementing those things.
So what happens next?
MP: There are several actionable proposals and elements of the proposal that are thoroughly thought through and within reach. The process of getting there could be started by involving all the residents and relevant communities. Our hope is to work with the housing authority to find opportunities for piloting those ideas.
NR: This study was really meant to be a case study and a series of recommendations and concepts for the beginning of a conversation. Now that it’s out there, I’m looking forward to engaging with a wider range of community groups and resident groups to start to implement their perspectives as well. Now that the report is in the public, there are more opportunities for collaboration.