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Panel Details Challenges of Building Affordable Housing in NYC


When a candidate can run for mayor on the “Rent is Too Damn High!” ticket and get attention, you know New York City has an affordable housing problem.

The problem, a group of housing experts agreed on Oct. 7, is that the construction industry can’t build fast enough to keep up with the city’s housing demand.

The experts were part of a panel discussion, “A Home in the City: Strategies for 21st Century Housing,” the fourth in Fordham’s Urban Dialogue Lecture Series, held at the Museum of Arts and Design.

Moderated by Frank Sciame, CEO and chairman of the Sciame Organizations, the panel featured Maryanne Gilmartin, FCRH 86, president and chief executive officer, Forest City Ratner Companies, Peter Gluck, founder and principal of the New York-based architecture firm Gluck+, Rosanne Haggarty, president of Community Solutions, and Witold Rybczynski, emeritus professor of urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania.

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Peter Gluck, Rosanne Haggarty, Frank Sciame, Maryanne Gilmartin and Witold Rybczynski
Photo by Chris Taggart

Antiquated zoning and building practices that date back practically to the 19th century are partly to blame for the paltry amount of housing in New York.

Haggarty, whose work with Common Ground Community pioneered a model of communal and supportive housing to end homelessness, said it’s impossible to build the type of housing that might serve the population that single room occupancy hotels once did.

“When we started to examine why we as a city couldn’t create a decent platform for a basic life here, we found a complete Rube Goldberg machine of regulations and rules, many of which were created with the best of intentions but [which]over time have come into conflict with each other,” she said.

“There are all sorts of rules that  . . . interfere with our ability to satisfy the basic requirement to provide a place that’s safe, clean and private.”

Gilmartin and Gluck embraced the benefits of modular construction, which Gilmartin’s firm is using as part of its Atlantic Yards development in Brooklyn. Three months from now, Gilmartin said, the first sections of what will be 15 buildings with 6,430 apartments (2,250 affordable) will roll off an assembly line at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and be installed in towers as high as 32 stories.

“We knew we were doing something wildly ambitious,” Gilmartin said. “It was important for people to understand that modular construction is not about high-rise prisons. Whether you go back to Frank Lloyd Wright or Buckminster Fuller, modular construction has been a fascination of great architects because of the quality control and the ability to really produce objective beauty, in a weatherproof environment,” she said.

Modular construction may bring down construction costs, but a more varied supply of living space is also necessary. Haggarty said that surveys of the homeless showed that spaces as small as 90 square feet would be acceptable for living. Gluck wondered why, unlike Japan, America doesn’t design well for smaller spaces.

“How much dead space is there in everybody’s bedroom?” he said.

Rybczynski said that Americans were not ready to change so radically. Beware of the visionaries, he said, and focus on what’s worked in the past.

Brian J. Byrne, Ph.D. vice president for Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus, raised the issue of housing preservation in areas like the Bronx, where rising energy, water, and sewage taxes are threatening existing middle class homeowners.

Gluck said that, as rising real estate values push the poor out of the city, perhaps experts should be focusing on making it easier for people to commute from the suburbs, where land is cheaper. Haggarty agreed.

“Maybe what we need to do is invest in transportation. Maybe the answer to New York City’s housing problems is investing in Newburgh, and Yonkers and Bridgeport, and Camden,” Haggarty said.

Video: Urban Dialogues Lecture Series


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