Tenants Services Article

City Must Build on Past Successes

NY Daily News, 10/18/2000
NY Daily News, 10/18/2000
In January 1934, a week and a half after taking the oath of office as Tenement House Commissioner of New York City, Langdon W. Post witnessed a particularly brutal fire in the Lower East Side, where seven children died.

"There are no words, there are no pictures", he would later write in his book, The Challenge of Housing, "capable of depicting a fire in an old law tenement firetrap in one of New York's slum sections …".

Sickened by the tragedy, Post undertook the City's first vigorous effort to enforce its housing codes, particularly the fire safety provisions applicable to the 67,000 Old Law tenement buildings standing since the 19th century.

Of course, Post was hardly the first New Yorker to campaign for better housing. Jacob Riis had published How the Other Half Lives in 1890. Ten years later, prominent reformers Robert W. DeForest and Lawrence Veiller documented poor housing conditions in The Tenement House Problem, a report prepared for New York Governor Theodore Roosevelt.

Renting an affordable apartment was always a problem for the New Yorker of modest means. In the 1920's, faced with a post-War shortage, soaring rents and massive tenant protests, New York enacted its first form of rent control and imposed a limited moratorium on evictions. At the same time, more housing was built between 1921 and 1929, an average of almost 75,000 units/year, than in any other decade before or since.

Yet by Post's time, 2,000,000 people still lived in Manhattan's slums. He soon came to realize that while the Tenement House Commissioner indeed had the power to vacate an unsafe building, he was powerless to keep its poor tenants from moving into another one just like it.

Moreover, America was deep into the Depression, and unemployed New Yorkers, many of them construction workers, could no longer afford to pay market rents.

Post and other visionaries concluded that if the City itself did not build affordable housing, the slums would endure and large numbers of poor and working people would have no chance to rent a decent home in their lifetime. A few years later, in his second inaugural address, President Franklin Roosevelt would famously declare one-third of the nation to be ill housed.

Searching for new approaches, Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia appointed Post chairman of the newly created New York City Housing Authority, which had just been granted the power to build and manage housing projects. The NYCHA immediately began to assess the City's needs and to develop the best ways to build affordable housing.

In 1936, Eleanor Roosevelt dedicated First Houses, a reconstruction project on the site of slums purchased from Vincent Astor. To this day, its architectural design is considered unsurpassed.

A model housing competition sponsored by NYCHA drew hundreds of entries. The Museum of Modern Art, for its 10th anniversary show, "Art in Our Time", included the final design for Williamsburg Houses. It was described as an "oasis of open space and comfortable orderly buildings in the middle of a blighted slum area".

Under the auspices of the NYCHA, Post distributed pamphlets to the public with titles such as "Housing…or Else", "Must We Have Slums?", the "Failure of Housing Regulation", and "Eight Reasons for Public Housing".

In the decades to follow, the NYCHA went on to build and manage almost 200,000 units of affordable housing. Today, it is still empowered to build new housing, but has no money to do so.

Langdon Post would surely recognize NYC's housing ills, circa 2000 - a shortage of half a million decent and affordable units, millions of housing violations, huge annual losses from the housing stock, even 10,000 of the Old Law tenement buildings that he so despised.

Were Post still in charge, he would not hesitate: "The only feasible method of undertaking a long range housing program is to regard housing as a city function, subject to the same budgetary requirements as any other city departmental service".

Today, as ever, building housing in the public domain for ordinary folks, of all incomes, would rejuvenate New York, create badly needed jobs at decent pay, and bring rent levels down.

Now is the time to embrace an old idea that can work very well.

Dated:  New York, New York
December 6, 2001

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