The Market

Calling all history buffs: the Museum of the City of New York's affordable housing exhibit opens today

By Virginia K. Smith | September 18, 2015 - 1:15PM

The term "affordable housing" as it applies in New York a bit of a head scratcher. The city's complex, rather Byzantine network of subsidized housing includes public housing, options for buyers like Mitchell-Lamas and HDFCs, rentals in 80/20 buildings, and apartments so expensive (think $1,900/month studios) that the very definition of "affordability" itself gets called into question. 

And of course, it didn't all get this way overnight: New York has a rich history of affordable housing policy over the decades, and the Museum of the City of New York is diving straight into what it calls the "often overlooked and little understood" back story with a new exhibition, Affordable New York: A Housing Legacy, that opens today and runs through February 16th. It's timed to coincide with the rollout (and ongoing dialogue) around Mayor de Blasio's ambitious Housing New York plan to create 200,000 new affordable units over the course of the next decade.

One thing you'll learn right off the bat: Coveted rent-stabilized and rent-controlled apartments don't even technically fall under the umbrella of "affordable housing," since they're not given out based on need. That, and the city has been trying to address the problem ever since "model tenements" started going up in the late 19th century to alleviate the public health issues that arose from slums.

MCNY opened the exhibition last night with a symposium on the state of affordable housing, as well as speakers including Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen and former Congressman Barney Frank, the latter of whom ended on a fiery speech about cutting military funding and funneling those federal funds towards affordable housing. (In fact, on a panel that ranged from REBNY reps to nonprofit housing activists, everyone seemed to agree that the key, missing ingredient is more government money. In more ways than one, housing New Yorkers is an expensive proposition.)

Other highlights? Ismene Speliotis (executive director of the Mutual Housing Association of New York) calling out developers and landlords for declining to take the LINC rental vouchers issued to help families move out of the shelter system; and L&M Development CEO Ron Meilis saying that the recent lawsuit challenging community preference rules for affordable units is threatening the city's entire paradigm for keeping developing communities intact. (Affordable housing advocates have also told us that maintaining—and strengthening—the community preference system is a key part of their plan.)

Predictably, the city's affordability crisis wasn't solved in a single night, but for those of us who don't have millions to spend to stay here, is useful food for thought.


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