Housing for All
Suddenly everyone is talking about affordable housing—the pent-up need for it, the new forms it should take, and how to realize the inventive schemes surfacing through competitions and exhibitions.
The National Building Museum’s show opened in mid-February with the promising title Affordable Housing: Designing an American Asset (through August 8). In preparation for our position paper on housing, the civic group I cochair, Rebuild Downtown Our Town (R.Dot), held a symposium last November on the crucial role housing will play in rebuilding Lower Manhattan. In this effort we were encouraged by Mayor Michael Bloomberg when he said that there’s no better way to memorialize those who died at the World Trade Center than to build housing and schools to support community life.
In early February I was among the jurors who evaluated 160 entries in the “New Housing New York Design Ideas Competition,” sponsored by New York’s City Council, the local American Institute of Architects chapter, and the City University of New York. Our two days of judging began with a sense of urgency. We gathered in council chambers at city hall, where we got the distinct feeling that the city is finally interested in affordable housing and may even do something about it. Then we piled into a van to visit three prototypical sites in three New York boroughs (Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn) where revitalization is needed. Though sleet and wind kept us from walking around, we could see the lay of the land, survey surrounding traffic and buildings, and get a pretty good idea of what the competitors were thinking about when they drew up their suggestions.
This was an ideas competition emphasizing innovative design, sustainability, economic viability, and transferability to other sites. What we found was a growing knowledge of green architecture and a good understanding of LEED standards. We also saw a great deal of positive social engineering, including housing for the young and the restless, lots of communal spaces for people who aren’t interested in locking themselves inside their apartments, and ways to incorporate culture and retail and restaurants into neighborhoods where everyday life is celebrated. Harder to find was universal access, even in buildings proposed for a mix of ages and cultures.
As the jury went into deliberations, one member noted that we can no longer talk about “low-cost housing” if that means shoddy buildings that fall apart in 20 years. We now see this is a waste of our resources and is not sustainable, just as we understand that a city cannot survive and thrive without decent housing for all of its people.