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The Historical Perspective

By Ethan G. Sribnick

Excluding the Poor: Public Housing in New York City

NYC StreetFirst Houses, pictured here in 1939, replaced poorly constructed tenement housing on the Lower East Side with modernized apartments for low-income families. Almost 4,000 families competed for only 122 apartments when First Houses opened, in 1935. Photo courtesy of the New York City Housing Authority.

In the 1930s, in the midst of the Great Depression, federal, state, and local officials developed their most radical response to the problem of inadequate shelter for the poor and working class: publicly built and subsidized housing. In the years after World War II, stark high-rise towers became a common feature in the landscape of America’s cities. There was never, however, a clear consensus over the purpose of public housing. Some believed public housing should provide shelter for the poorest and most unstable families. Others hoped to create thriving, financially stable working-class communities by restricting residency to working families who could demonstrate their potential as upstanding tenants. In New York, unlike in most American cities, the more restrictive view of public housing often won out; never have welfare recipients formed the majority of public-housing tenants in this city. Today, as activists and policy makers in New York clamor to make more public-housing units available to homeless families, it is helpful to understand this history of disagreement over public housing and how these competing views continue to inform debate over poverty and homelessness.

Public housing in New York emerged from decades of struggle to improve the housing and communities of the poor and working class. In 1934, when the reformist mayor Fiorello La Guardia took office, thousands of families still lived in substandard buildings. Housing reforms passed in 1901 required some basic standards of ventilation, safety, and hygiene, but more than 350,000 tenements built before these reforms were still standing. Thirteen hundred of these buildings still relied on outhouses in the yards, another 23,000 provided toilets only in the halls, and 30,000 had no bathing facilities. From 1918 to 1929 there were four times as many fires and eight times as many deaths in pre-1901 tenements as there were in structures built after the passage of the 1901 law.

La Guardia’s first step was to push through a new housing code requiring landlords to retrofit their buildings to meet new standards for safety and sanitation or to board them up. Many buildings were so old as to make the required improvements impossible. “The only ultimate cure for them,” opined Tenement Commissioner Langdon Post, “is dynamite.”

In February 1934 the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), the city’s new public-housing agency, began its state-mandated mission to provide for “the clearance, replanning, and reconstruction” of the slum districts of New York. Over the next four years, NYCHA demolished 1,100 tenement buildings, removing 10,000 rental units. Property owners abandoned an additional 40,000 apartments. The result of all this slum clearance was a shortage of low-rent housing for the poor and working class.

NYCHA’s next step was to provide new housing with support from the state and federal governments through the development of a number of public-housing projects. NYCHA’s initial housing project, the appropriately named First Houses, opened on the Lower East Side of Manhattan on January 15, 1935. The original plan had been to renovate existing tenements, tearing down every third building to provide more light and air, but the tenement houses were in such bad condition that all but three on the block had to be demolished. Even with the additional construction costs, NYCHA was able to offer apartments for the reasonable rent of $6 a room per month. The complex included central heat—a rarity in tenements, which usually relied on coal stoves for warmth—and gardens and playgrounds integrated into the project grounds. NYCHA received 3,800 applications for the 122 units in the development.

WilliamsburgResidential programming was one way that NYCHA attempted to build a sense of community within its projects. Here, children gather for “Story Telling Hour” at Williamsburg Houses in 1945. Photo courtesy of the New York City Housing Authority.

The high demand for public housing continued as NYCHA expanded into larger complexes. Harlem River Houses, in Upper Manhattan, received 14,000 applications for 574 units, and Williamsburg Houses, in Brooklyn, received 20,000 applications for 1,622 units. Based on this demand, public housing in New York appeared to be a resounding success. The high demand for inexpensive housing allowed NYCHA to be selective in choosing residents. The families that moved into Williamsburg and Harlem River Houses in 1937 first passed through a lengthy screening process. The first cut of selectivity was by race—the projects were strictly segregated, with Williamsburg open only to whites and Harlem River only to blacks. Next, NYCHA evaluated applicants by both “need and merit.” However, NYCHA had no interest in providing housing for the poorest New Yorkers; only those families headed by breadwinners with stable jobs were eligible for these projects. In addition, potential residents also had to prove to NYCHA administrators that they had insurance policies, bank accounts, and proper housekeeping skills.

The population that first entered public housing in New York were, as a result of these policies, rarely those most in need of it. Every family selected for Harlem River Houses, for instance, had at least one wage earner, and one-fourth of the families had two people working. Considering that unemployment in Harlem was at least 40 percent, families entering the project were well-off compared with the population of the surrounding neighborhood.

Part of the reason for this selectivity was the belief of NYCHA’s leaders that they were building not just housing, but fully functioning communities. On-site day-care centers, nursery schools, and after-school programs offered care for residents’ children. Outdoor spaces included tennis and handball courts. Meeting rooms facilitated the development of clubs and organizations such as tenant associations, community newspapers, and Boy Scout troops.

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