Inequality and informality in New York

Uneven Growth: Tactical Urbanisms for Expanding Megacities, a newly opened exhibit at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, focuses on the complex relationship between urbanization and inequality. Over the 14-month period leading up to the launch, six interdisciplinary teams explored how these issues are playing out in different parts of the world, each developing an architectural response for a specific city.

Architecture firm SITU Studio (together with Cohabitation Strategies [CohStra]) was tasked with studying its home city, New York. (Arup transport planner Michael Amabile also consulted with the team.) We spoke with SITU principal Bradley Samuels about the project.

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As a New Yorker, what did you learn from this project that surprised you?

The issue of housing in New York gets a lot of attention — everybody talks about it as a crisis — but there’s a large part of the population that’s actually left out of that conversation. There are about 200,000 people or more, depending on how you’re counting, living in illegally converted apartments in New York. They don’t show up on the census; this condition of density is more or less hidden. It occurs within existing housing stock, so it’s not a visible and very present part of our life as New Yorkers.

SITU documentation of shared housing in East New York, Brooklyn

A big part of what we did early on in the project was try to establish where this is happening. It’s mostly in immigrant communities, mostly among the lowest-paid populations — somewhere above homeless, but in the very lowest rungs of the ladder of average median income. And it’s a very significant number of people.

This was a kind of revelation for us. It also had certain parallels with the other cities that were focused on in the exhibition. If you talk about Mumbai or Rio or Lagos or other places around the world where issues of density and the informal come up a lot, the conversation quickly goes into slums or favelas. I’m not trying to make the argument that the life-safety issues are as acute in New York as they are in, say, Mumbai, but there is also an informal housing market in New York. We wanted to say that this is a topic which needs to be brought out and be part of the housing conversation.

The first half of the project was basically finding ways to document the issue. It’s an interesting problem, because as a hidden condition, it’s by definition not visible, so you have to find proxy metrics as opposed to using the typical data set that NYC Bytes or the city might make available.

One thing we did was to use 311 complaints of illegal conversions — not a perfect data set, because it tends to be biased toward places where there’s a lot of tension between more affluent and less affluent communities. But if you look at the heat map, it does give you a general sense of where the concentrations are. It’s not surprising that they’re mostly in the outer boroughs, in more remote parts of the city where immigrant communities are living.

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Heat map of illegal conversions

We also looked to use the American Community Survey (ACS) data set. ACS let us get at household composition, and a more granular look at things that weren’t accounted for in the 2010 census. And what you see is a really strong correlation between the ten locations in New York where there’s the most sharing and places where illegal conversions are being reported. These are places like Elmhurst, Sunset Park, Jamaica: outer boroughs, immigrant communities, people who are working in the service sector.

2012 American Community Survey housing demographic information. Median age, median income, median rent, percent Black or African American, percent Asian, percent foreign born, percent Hispanic or Latino, percent senior citizens, percent vacant residential units, percent White, percent under 18, median commute via public transit. Source: NYC Citizens Housing and Planning Council, “2012 American Community Survey, using CHPC’s Making Room Housing Model” (2012)

In the context of the exhibition that’s really important. We’re living with the legacy of Bloomberg’s luxury city, and the question is, who supports that city, who continues to maintain it? And that’s the service sector, right? These are the people who live in these neighborhoods, for the most part. So that was a data-driven way to get at some of these issues; not a perfect way to measure it, but certainly enough to give you a sense.

We also worked with community organizations to actually get access to apartments to see how they’re being subdivided: what it looks like inside a cellar where many people are living, how spaces are being shared. We wanted to photograph and document these spaces so that it’s not just an abstract data set that you’re presented with, but a form of documentation that gets at the way people are actually living.

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Shared apartment in Flushing, Queens

We also modeled those spaces. If it’s a subdivided apartment, it gets to be very tight and even hard to photograph, so we made a series of axonometric drawings that show you the space in its entirety. They illustrate the number of people living in that space, how much they’re paying to live there, etc.

SITU documentation of shared apartments

So we took a multipronged approach to the documentation of this condition, both quantitative and qualitative, and drew on different tools that we have at our disposal as designers to render visible this hidden condition.

One of the bigger revelations was the parallel to Jacob Riis’ work. Put very simply, we feel like you could do Jacob Riis’ project all over again and it would be just as relevant as it was in the 1890s. It’s just happening in a different part of the city.

It’s a nuanced problem, because it’s not that we’re saying, “these are all abhorrent conditions which are putting people in extreme danger and this is a matter of life safety.” Some of the problem is dangerous conditions; some of it is just the fact that as New Yorkers we need to accept that we’re going to need to live with higher density in the future.

And the biggest takeaway is that there’s a misalignment between existing housing stock and the demographics that are actually occupying those spaces. In Jackson Heights or places like it, houses that were designed for a nuclear family are actually being lived in by three or four or five families. And those families aren’t nuclear families, they’re extended families, contemporary immigrant families: you might have mother, dad, children, grandmothers, cousins, aunts, uncles. So we need to rethink the relationship between certain spatial typologies and the spaces people are living in.

How did you decide to focus on this particular issue? Housing in New York is such a complex topic; you could spend a lifetime studying it.

Exactly, and that’s why we chose a very specific component to address here. We started our research by talking to experts on housing and housing advocacy; CHPC [Citizens Housing Planning Council] was a hugely important conversation. We could have gone in a lot of different directions, but we felt like we became aware of something which there was an urgency around and that very much related to this question of unevenness and informality. How do you define the informal in New York? You have an exhibition addressing informality and density in all these cities, and as CHPC started to talk about this hidden condition in New York, we felt like it tied in particularly well.

You developed an architectural proposal focused on increasing neighborhood density in a safe and affordable way. Do you think these strategies are particular to New York, or could they potentially be applied elsewhere as well?

We actually looked to other contexts to inform what we were proposing in New York. This idea of what’s top-down and what’s bottom-up is interesting and important. One of the conversations in the orbit of the exhibition was about where they meet. The way informality exists in other cities became a part of the question we’re putting forward for New York.

Proposal for implementation of incremental community-driven growth

When we talk about density and how we house the next one million New Yorkers, the conversation almost always ends up going towards concentrated vertical development at a scale that really only a very limited number of actors could participate in. Only a certain number, maybe the top five developers, could even think about building at that scale. So we were interested in thinking about what other kinds of growth, perhaps more incremental or accretive growth, could work in New York: strategies that might allow other types of development to enter the question, that weren’t just concentrated on very tall towers. It was out of that desire that this infill typology emerged.

We’re certainly riding a line here between provocation and something which could be implemented. It’s meant to be somewhat ambiguous. But everything we’re talking about has real relationships to policy questions that are on the table. For example, de Blasio ran on a platform that talked about granny flats and legalizing basement apartments. We did this large axonometric drawing where we envisioned an entire neighborhood where accessory dwelling units propagate to their fullest throughout. What would that look like?

Depiction of neighborhood after construction of proposed accessory dwelling units

In some ways that’s about anticipating density, but in other ways it’s just about accepting the density that’s already there but relieving the pressure on the spaces that many people are crammed into now, basically.

So the proposal functions on two levels. There’s a small-scale low-rise infill typology which would require some sort of involvement of a developer; could be nonprofit, could be for-profit. But there’s a housing component which could exist on the scale of a lot or a few lots within these low-rise neighborhoods, and with it comes housing that’s much better aligned with the demographic needs of that neighborhood.

But the other part of that typology we’re proposing provides points of access to unutilized space in those neighborhoods, whether it’s backyards or rooftops. So it’s kind of an extension of the public corridor from the sidewalk to these other spaces.

Video explanation of SITU’s infill typology proposal

And again, we’re walking this line between reality and some kind of fiction, because obviously this presupposes rethinking of lot lines and property and things like this. But we felt that an exhibition was the right place for this kind of thinking. Policy organizations only have about four years to get something through in an administration, whether it’s legalizing cellars or meeting a certain target for a number of new housing units or something else. Their work tends to be about the low-hanging fruit; the things that could actually reasonably be done. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t much larger issues that need attention. We felt like the exhibition was a chance to point to the larger issues without the urgencies and the political liabilities of getting things done quickly. And that was very much the mandate of the curator as well.

What you end up with — and again, in some sense this was more of a provocation — is a picture of incremental neighborhood-driven growth. So you have your infill typology that creates all these points of access to different parts of the neighborhood, but then you have all these DIY accessory dwelling units popping up which a local contractor could build, or the residents themselves — so a combination of local individual actors and local smaller-scale development.

Then there’s a whole other side of this that has to deal with what kind of ownership and development could finance this type of work.

Working with the Center for Urban Real Estate, SITU developed an ownership and affordable housing development model based on the idea of capturing the value of unused air rights

As an architect, how do you view the relationship between this kind of speculative work and the building projects you take on?

I think they’re really totally separate. Look at the work of Aldo Rossi or Venturi; many have attempted to try to reconcile their theoretical work with their built work. After you study it, the conclusion is that they’re separate things. They’re both important, but very different.

What we’re proposing here is very self-consciously not an architectural proposal. It’s not that we said “this design is a solution to this problem”; we thought that would be a ridiculous way to approach this. It’s more the design of a typology, the design of a strategy that could be played out an infinite number of ways by an infinite number of designers — or non-designers, in the case of the DIY stuff; turning over agency to the people that are going to be living there.

I will say that we drew on a lot of our expertise and knowledge base to develop a proposal that we think would actually work on some level. There’s some conversation about how local manufacturing could play a role in efficiently delivering small-scale residential units to these neighborhoods and how it could be optimized through BIM and parametric platforms. That’s very much a reflection of how we like to work here as a practice, and also what kind of capabilities we have in the studio. We have a fabrication division, and we’ve got a large production facility. That background, as both designers and builders, informs our proposal.

But it’s definitely distinct from an architectural proposal as such. While it is a topic with spatial dimensions, this is not an architectural issue, but rather a social one.

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