How to (Rebuild) Affordable Housing in NYC

Michael Kimmelman, the noted architecture critic (and accomplished pianist, apparently) had a piece in the New York Times today titled "How to Build More Affordable Housing in New York City" and in it he explored the post-Sandy recovery of Ocean Village (rebranded as Arverne View) in the Rockaways, Queens.  

Opened in 1972, during the final, sweeping retreat of federal funding for subsidized public housing, the roughly 1100 units were designed in the brutalism chic of the times (which, perhaps surprisingly, still has fans) and began to fall into decline almost instantly.  Ocean Village (a Mitchell Lama development) followed a similar story to many housing complexes of this era - mismanagement, neglect, and resident-flight (for those who could afford to) right up until it was devastated by Superstorm Sandy in 2012.  At the time there were over 300 vacant apartments and many residents were without basic services even before the storm hit the city.

Kimmelman for the most part maintains his architectural-gaze when discussing the property itself (by all accounts Averne View is a signature achievement for defensible-space practices for encouraging community engagement and efficiency-improving amenities) which is a shame because we don’t get to hear from the residents who endured both Sandy and the ‘silent hurricane’ of the previous decades (though this article does).

Despite this oversight, he does discuss two things that warrant further mention.  The first gets to the core of the article’s title, which is slightly misleading – how this model can ‘build’ more affordable housing in NYC.  The model in discussion is a relatively new one in that it encourages private developers to refurbish properties and capture the energy and cost savings therein rather than the more common model of inclusionary housing (which gives tax breaks to developers for setting aside a portion of newly built units in a development for ‘affordable housing’) promoted by the Bloomberg and De Blasio administrations and elsewhere. 

I will spend more time in future posts about both of these models and others but I will say that refurbishment has a compelling upside for improving the deplorable state of public housing in NYC which is perhaps more important than focusing on new development. Rebuilding these units while keeping existing tenants in them is the worthiest of housing policy goals. This model seems well suited to achieve that.

The second thing to further mention is the firm behind Arverne View – L&M Development. These guys are rock stars – for their innovative design, innovative economic models and partnerships, and innovative core principles. Though they don’t appear to be a B Corp, they are committed to ‘the double bottom-line’ as CEO Ron Moelis describes (in this Crain's article which calls them “odd”!) as doing good for the community, which is good for their business model.

It seems to be working since they have over 10,000 units and $600m under management according to the same article from 2013 (I was not able to verify more recent numbers).  L&M proves what many in the affordable housing community believe – that smart policies, strong partnerships, and good design can be good for communities as well as private developers.