History of NYCHA
The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) was created in 1935 in order to provide “decent, affordable housing for low- and moderate-income New Yorkers”. With nearly 178,000 apartments in 2,462 buildings in 326 developments throughout the five boroughs, NYCHA is the largest public housing authority in North America. Providing housing for 1 in 14 New Yorkers, if NYCHA were a city, it would rank 32nd in population size in the United States, approximately the same size as Miami. Approximately 90% of the developments have been around for 30 years or more; the original NYCHA development, the First Houses, was built over 80 years ago (NYCHA 2017 Fact Sheet).
Public housing buildings can often be distinguished by their height and that they are often clustered together. This is not coincidental; much thought went into the planning of how these units should be structured. Although people tend to trace back the format of “simple, durable, red-brick towers” to the 1920s and 1930s by Swiss designer, Le Corbusier, this form of architecture has a broader history originating in the United States. A decade before Le Corbusier, American architects had been using this design for luxury apartments and hotels across the country. NYCHA designers determined that this structure would be ideal for the city’s needs due to its efficiency, cost-effectiveness, and practicality. It was also a level above the slums in that it provided open space from auto traffic, as well as fresh air and sunlight. Although this design came with various benefits, there were ramifications tied to it as well.
Public housing units brought darkness, congestion, and poor hygiene while stripping neighborhoods of their identity. Areas such as East Harlem and the Lower East Side, which were once characterized by tenements and chaotic street life, transformed into “orderly, quiet superblocks of manicured high-rises where nothing much seemed to happen.” Outdoor activities became limited and neighborhoods with NYCHA units took on a dismal “project look” instead of having the “visual variety” of older neighborhoods. It seemed that as the number of floors grew in NYCHA buildings, so too did the number of problems (Bloom, Lasner).
Not all of the housing units are well-maintained or in ideal condition. Often, due to overcrowding, vandalism, or drug- and gang-related activities, housing units deteriorate. Because of their dilapidated state, since the mid-1990s, over 260,000 housing units have been demolished or removed from the program (Cohen). Although not part of NYCHA, the Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex in St. Louis, Missouri is a prime example of what happens to a project when its problems go unchecked.
When it first opened, Pruitt-Igoe was subject to much fanfare and high hopes. One resident even described it as a “big hotel resort.” But these prospects were soon extinguished. There were a number of factors that contributed to Pruitt-Igoe’s literal downfall: “besieged and increasingly abandoned, [it] was overtaken by drug dealers and murderers, broken pipes and shattered windows, set afire and adrift” (Kimmelman). Because the public housing complex got to such a horrible state, Pruitt-Igoe, along with the dreams of the residents, came crumbling down. If NYCHA does not maintain proper upkeep of its buildings, they could result in the same fate.
We were able to visit various NYCHA developments throughout Manhattan, observe them for ourselves, and interview residents and employees in order to gauge a better sense of NYCHA’s infrastructure from people with personal experience. Nearly all of the residents expressed that they are not wholly satisfied with their current living condition, but all of them have formed close bonds with the other people who live there. One woman who lived in Pruitt-Igoe summarized how most residents feel best: “I know a lot of bad things came out of Pruitt-Igoe…but I don’t think they outweighed the good…it was our home” (Kimmelman). Often people do not realize this, but public housing is not just a building that provides shelter; for many, it is a place where they have fond memories and forged close friendships. Although physical foundations of NYCHA buildings have the capability to crumble, residents have built a much stronger foundation with each other. It is for them that NYCHA should improve in order to provide a better home in which people can live.