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Our Radical, Practical NYCHA Makeover

For Curbed, Peterson Rich Office’s architects propose balconies, energy efficiency, and mixed-income low-rises.

Photo: Google Earth, Rendering Courtesy of Peterson Rich Office
Photo: Google Earth, Rendering Courtesy of Peterson Rich Office

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The acronym for New York City Housing Authority, the agency that manages public housing, sounds like a cross between a curse and a sigh. In the public imagination, NYCHA is practically a synonym for a situation without a solution: ballooning costs, rickety revenue, public contempt, bleak conditions for residents, and the indignity of a federal monitor. Yet that’s wrong. Recent years have, somewhat under the radar, brought hope and a fresh set of tools. Funding models have evolved, money for renovations has started to flow, and thousands of apartments have already been reconditioned. Even in the midst of a barrage of civic crises, the future of public housing in New York looks sunnier than it has in decades.

Most important, residents are slowly internalizing the idea that not all change is bad — even if it involves private developers. That’s a big deal, because the notion of a public agency, even a dysfunctional one, chasing private money or relinquishing control has long stoked fears of rising rents, deregulation, eviction, and worse. “I came to believe that the one thing NYCHA residents hate more than NYCHA is not-NYCHA,” says Vicki Been, director of the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy at NYU and former housing preservation and development commissioner in the de Blasio administration. What’s changing that intransigence is envy. Some developments, like Baychester Houses in the Bronx, have gotten shiny new overhauls and a quality of life that’s hard to write off as a scam. “We want what Baychester has,” Walter McNeil, the president of the tenants’ association at Edenwald Houses in the Bronx, told a Furman Center panel in 2021. They’re getting it, to the tune of $783 million.

NYCHA is a slow-moving behemoth enveloped in red tape. It can take years for a wheezing boiler to get nursed back into action, sometimes with parts so antiquated they need to be fabricated from scratch. Soggy drywall eventually gets replaced, only to grow damp and mildewed again within months. And before the agency can make any move toward wholesale renovation, it goes through an extended process of trying to eke out consensus from an often fractious population of residents, followed by public requests for proposals and years of design and procurement. So to get a timely snapshot of how much change a new political and financial atmosphere might bring, Curbed asked the architects at Peterson Rich Office, drawing on their years of experience working with NYCHA officials, residents, and developers, to think ahead and dream big. Their mandate was to reinvent the public housing project and at the same time return it to what it once was: a model of residential living for working people. The project would also, at least in theory, have to pencil out: The costs, certainly in the hundreds of millions, would have to be coverable by available subsidies and loans under current government programs plus increased revenues from new and existing apartments. NYCHA officials declined to review their design, comment on its feasibility, or even answer factual questions; an agency spokesperson objected to the whole idea of a proposal that didn’t emerge from legal and bureaucratic protocol. PRO, founded and run by Miriam Peterson and Nathan Rich, developed an independent design, not to preempt official procedure but as a way of exploring how dramatically different the future of public housing might be. The architects chose a two-block portion of Carver Houses from East 102nd Street to 104th Street, between Park and Madison Avenues. They tackled two parallel issues: giving the 66-year-old X-shaped towers another 100 years of life, and turning the dead acreage of lawns, lots, and parking into a vibrant part of the city. Although NYCHA has no immediate plans to transform Carver Houses, there’s no insurmountable reason why it can’t be one of the neighborhood’s most thriving addresses.

At other NYCHA sites, plans have ranged from the cosmetic to the radical. At two housing projects in West Chelsea, Fulton and Elliott-Chelsea Houses, tenants approved a proposal to raze the existing buildings and replace them. There’s a middle ground, though, between a Band-Aid and a clean slate. The ability to gut-renovate an entire campus instead of patching up problems piecemeal opens up a new set of options. Instead of just swapping warped kitchen cabinets and cracked toilets, designers and developers can rethink the whole package. Just for starters, plumbing gets ripped out and replaced, elevator shafts get fresh machinery, façades get reclad, landscapes replanted. In essence, the existing structures would be upcycled into new buildings and additional construction could make the campus twice as dense.

In this spirit, PRO envisioned a total overhaul of the Carver towers. The apartments’ layouts, many of which were designed in the 1950s for two-parent families with several kids, can be reconfigured to suit the range of today’s lifestyles: seniors living alone, single parents, couples, extended multigenerational clans. Many units would get balconies. As at most high-rise public housing projects, the towers are set in the middle of a superblock, isolating them from the neighborhood and killing street life. Here, a new one-story structure, part lobby, part grocery store or other retail, extends from the building’s base out to the sidewalk, improving security and better linking the interior to the life of the city as well as adding some commercial income and supporting residents’ basic needs.

Many of these buildings were constructed on the mid-century tower-in-the-park model championed by Le Corbusier. Early on, that ideal scheme degenerated into a tower-in-an-empty-lot reality, with public spaces uncared for and frequently fenced off. Some of that land, especially parking lots, can accommodate new construction — a perpetually controversial idea that got no traction when mayors Bloomberg and de Blasio proposed different versions but that could make sense in a more sensitive and fairer iteration. In PRO’s design, a perimeter of new two- to six-story structures effectively turns the complex into a series of linked courtyards. Constructed of mass timber, the buildings have a Northern European feel, with balconies and first-floor apartments that put eyes on the street. (Those additions could add as many as 400 new apartments to the two-block site, for a total of 1,200 if the plan were extended to the entire Carver Houses.) The buildings span mid-block covered passageways with entrance lobbies and delivery storage on either side.

The remaining open space can be redesigned to be less grim and more gracious. One model should be the Amalgamated Houses in the Bronx, built as a housing cooperative for garment workers starting in the 1920s. There, lush courtyards gave residents a sense of luxury beyond what their modest incomes might have suggested. Most NYCHA complexes are organized around the superblock, an area that spans two or more blocks and eliminates through streets. Superblocks can function passably well, as at the World Trade Center and Lincoln Center, but they often wind up sundering the interior from the city’s vitality and creating low-traffic areas that require security lighting and guard booths. Here, West 103rd Street, which punches through the Metro-North viaduct along Park Avenue, is reconnected through the project in the form of a divided slow street: local motor traffic only (delivery vans, cabs, emergency vehicles) on one side of a planted median, pedestrians and bicycles on the other.

All this isn’t pure fantasy, but it’s not a full-fledged plan, either. Curbed and PRO necessarily bypassed the crucial step of sounding out thousands of residents. We know the undertaking would be slow, expensive, and disruptive, but we don’t have enough financial detail to nail down the cost or lay out a timeline, or to figure out the logistics of moving residents into temporary housing while the work gets done. And even under ideal circumstances, such a reconstruction would not be a panacea. It would do little to address social problems including economic insecurity, racism, drug use, access to medical care, or family instability. Paying for such a major overhaul would require a big block of federal money and a fatter revenue stream bundled into a complicated financing package. That would likely mean renting some, maybe all, of the new apartments at market rates, but the specific proportion matters: If the new buildings were 100 percent market rate, that would effectively turn the complex into a privilege doughnut, with affluent residents ringing low-income tenants. That’s not an acceptable balance.

Graphic: Curbed, Google Earth, Rendering Courtesy of Peterson Rich Office

1. New balconies in the crook of each X give some apartments additional outdoor space. They could also accommodate condensers for a new energy-efficient central heating and cooling system for each apartment. 2. Glass-fiber-reinforced concrete (GFRC) panels applied to the brick façade, bringing the insulation up to highly efficient Passive House standards and lowering heating and cooling needs. 3. Apartments can be reconfigured to allow for a greater variety of household sizes. 4. Interior fit-outs include engineered wood flooring and other low-carbon materials. 5. New elevators. 6. New one-story structure with a glass front extends from tower to sidewalk, improving security and linking the project to street life. 7. Ground-floor areas redesigned to include laundry, package room, gym, bicycle storage, children’s playroom, utility areas, and spaces for community events. 8. New low- and mid-rise buildings on under-used open spaces at the edges of each block add up to 1,200 new NYCHA and market-rate apartments to the Carver Houses. 9. Mass-timber structure reduces environmental impact of new construction. 10. Varied heights, mostly two to six stories, with the tallest of the low-rise buildings positioned at corners, keep the street front lively and allows sunlight into the complex’s public spaces. 11. Mid-block entrances through covered passageways reinforce the campus-like feel. Lighting, security, and lobbies on either side keep them welcoming and safe. 12. Low-rise buildings’ balconies give many apartments some private outdoor space and strengthen the connection between towers and street.13. Basketball court. 14. Landscaped courtyards. 15. Controlled-access private courtyards for outdoor activities. 16. Slow street, with one lane for delivery trucks, emergency vehicles, and drop-offs, separated from pedestrians and bicycles. 17. Stores and services within the campus and on the street are a convenience to residents and also a neighborhood resource. 18. Up-to-date sitewide lighting helps keep interior pathways and the slow street welcoming at night. 19. Rainwater-absorbing swales, buried stormwater retention tanks, and other resiliency features.

By rights, NYCHA should be a magnificent success story. Over the course of its 90 years, the agency has provided housing to millions of New Yorkers who might otherwise have few options, making it possible for families to stay together, seniors to age at home, and public servants to live in the city they help to keep humming along. In some areas, a NYCHA campus is the most immovable bulwark against gentrification.

The reward for its reliability has been impoverishment and disdain. Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 ushered in a period of punitive budget cuts to public housing, and the 1998 Faircloth Amendment banned the addition of new units to the existing stock using federal dollars. Since then, neglect of public housing has been a bipartisan enterprise. A couple of years ago, advocates were salivating over the prospect of bucketfuls of cash from Build Back Better, the eventual Inflation Reduction Act, which was supposed to restore the Federal government’s commitment to public housing. In the end, NYCHA got bupkis.

Between the new buildings: retail, better lighting, pavers, generous planting, bioswales, and a street open to limited traffic Graphic: Rendering courtesy of Peterson Rich Office

Presiding over deterioration costs more than it used to. As malfunctions get worse, they get more expensive, until smoke alarms, toilets, tiles, elevators, windows, and appliances can’t be fixed anymore and it’s time to replace them. Meanwhile, the gap between what the buildings bring in and what it costs to operate them keeps widening, in part because many residents withheld rent during the pandemic and not all have started paying it again. Ironically, at NYCHA, shifting increasingly huge expenses from operating to capital budgets — that is, from continuing repair to full renovation — creates new opportunities to fund them. It’s like the punch line about the patient with a common cold whose doctor advises him to walk bare-chested in the snow and try to catch pneumonia: “That we can cure.

The Carver Houses complex today.
The Carver Houses complex today.
The Carver Houses complex today. Hugo Yu.
The Carver Houses complex today. Hugo Yu.

As the city’s largest landlord, the agency owns and manages 335 campuses, occupying nearly 2,500 acres of some of the world’s most valuable real estate. The vastness of the portfolio has generally been a liability. “Part of NYCHA’s problem is that it’s too big: 175,000 apartments spread over such a huge area, and the management problems are enormous,” Been says. That scale aggravates the budget problems, lengthens the repair backlog, and complicates administrative decisions. (If the state allocates a chunk of money to improve security, say, that presents administrators with the hugely challenging task of spreading that money around fairly and effectively.) Consulting residents means years’ worth of hearings, community meetings, and conversations by the thousands. The campuses, often wrapped in scaffolding and chain link, can look like blight on a massive scale.

But gigantism has its benefits, too. It allows NYCHA to experiment with a lot of different strategies at once, and it also attracts large quantities of money, if the rules don’t choke it off. NYCHA could be like the Pentagon, a juggernaut able to create its own market for products including sustainable flooring, mass-customized façade panels, cost-efficient windows, and the next generation of climate control. (Some of that is already happening. A company called Midea is developing a highly efficient heat pump for NYCHA that neatly straddles a sill while occupying barely any window space.) The prospect of packing infrastructure upgrades in spare real estate and beneath all that vacant land excites Matthew Rooney, the CEO of MDG Design and Construction, which is working on its third public-housing rehab. “You can put in swales and floodgates that take the load off the city sewers. Those buildings have cavernous basements, and you can use those spaces and the land around them to create retention tanks for stormwater. We’re also going to have to decentralize the electrical grid. And think of universal Wi-Fi!” Treated with creative ambition, these complexes can help address issues that go beyond their own woes. The key is to start thinking of public housing as a public resource instead of a burden.

NYCHA has a new tool to achieve that — or rather, it’s learning to use one that’s been available for about a decade. PACT, which stands for the nonsensical word string Permanent Affordability Commitment Together and was born during the Obama administration, is a program under which, in a bookkeeping sleight of hand, local authorities across the country can operate under a different provision of the housing code, Section 8 instead of Section 9. That technical change severed NYCHA’s dependence on dwindling funds specifically designated for public housing. Instead, it could now draw on the much more abundant stream of Section 8 subsidies, which cover the difference between what low-income tenants can pay (about 30 percent of their income) and what it actually costs to house them. Now the agency and private developers could efficiently assemble a more stable set of subsidies, federal tax credits that it could sell to investors, and ordinary mortgages. In one stroke, the move transformed public housing projects from a drain into an asset and turned on the taps of money from private sources. A legacy of the New Deal became a capitalist instrument.

To many NYCHA residents, that seemed like terrible news. Activist groups saw the move as a way to sell off public housing to rapacious developers, who would treat residents as expendable. Proponents countered that NYCHA entered into partnership with private companies that rehabbed and managed the buildings, but the public agency retained ownership and ultimate control.

The first deal, under an early version of the new policy, was Ocean Bay in Far Rockaway, which, when I visited in 2017, struck me as a well-run success story. Activists were less impressed. The organization Neighbors Helping Neighbor surveyed Ocean Bay residents and found that rents had jumped. In 2022, Human Rights Watch issued a report titled The Tenant Never Wins: Private Takeover of Public Housing Puts Rights at Risk in New York City, warning that the Ocean Bay experience heralded an impending wave of evictions. Comptroller Brad Lander is investigating. But with 20,000 apartments already brought into the PACT fold and at least some opponents’ fears assuaged, the program has a track record now. With that has come the desire to imagine what can be done instead of the need to complain about what can’t.

The real-life rehab of the Baychester Houses, which was financed through the PACT program and shares some aspects with our proposal. From left: Photo: Courtesy of NYCHAPhoto: Courtesy of NYCHA
The real-life rehab of the Baychester Houses, which was financed through the PACT program and shares some aspects with our proposal. From top: Photo: ... The real-life rehab of the Baychester Houses, which was financed through the PACT program and shares some aspects with our proposal. From top: Photo: Courtesy of NYCHAPhoto: Courtesy of NYCHA

We selected Carver Houses as a case study specifically because it’s not in the PACT program; we didn’t want to run the risk of distracting from or influencing an ongoing process. And so, as a reality check, I asked Rooney, the developer, to comment on the proposal we and PRO have produced. “When you first sent me that presentation, I was, like, Oh, come on — am I going to have to tell them this is all b.s.?” he says. “But the more I think about it, the more I feel there’s a way to do this.” An idea this sweeping, he believes, gets some lift from the fact that residents recently approved the demolition and replacement of Fulton and Elliott-Chelsea Houses, a step so unthinkable in previous decades that it will “revolutionize” — Rooney’s word — the process, allowing aspiration to assuage fear. “Once that first new building goes up, a lot of resident associations are going to be raising their hands and saying, ‘Why can’t we get that?’”

Our Radical, Practical NYCHA Makeover