NYCHA

A few quick thoughts on the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), about which there is a lot more to say. It’s the biggest landlord in the city, with 175,000 homes for about 400,000 people. Its first development (called First Houses) was opened in 1935. At the opening ceremony, Harry Hopkins, one of President Roosevelt’s New Deal advisors, said “Private capital has never spent a dime to build a house for a poor person”, an eternal, universal truth.

US public housing is roughly the equivalent of UK council housing and has a similar checkered history, with its inter-generational, positive contribution to the lives of millions of working class people continuously undermined by government underfunding, hostility from the vested interests of private developers and stereotyping. As someone said to me when I was an intern with a public housing authority 29 years ago “The only people who like public housing are the people who live there”.

Most US public housing is visually distinctive. So walking around this city, it’s very easy to see why it attracts such love and hate. The other day, I was strolling through the Upper West Side, generally one of the most expensive places in the city to live, when I came across Frederick Douglass Houses, which I noticed partly for its name, but also because it illustrates one of the often-overlooked qualities of public housing – as a firewall against gentrification.

Frederick Douglass Houses, with about 2,000 homes, is between Amsterdam Avenue and Manhattan Avenue and a two-minute walk from Central Park. I can’t imagine what a private developer would pay for the site, but individual private homes in the area typically sell for $5 million, so maybe a billion dollars?

Of course, this “exchange value” in no way relates to the “use value” of Frederick Douglass Houses to the thousands of low-income people who live there (one of the main differences from council housing is that access to US public housing depends on meeting minimum and maximum income thresholds, something the UK Tory government was stopped from doing a few years ago).

There’s a walkway passing through the site that links the park to the more affluent places on the Upper West Side. It occurred to me this might mean Frederick Douglass Houses is about as close as some New Yorkers get to public housing, perhaps reversing some of the (often racialised) fear and stigma that has grown up around it.

But of course, as with many UK council estates in similarly “desirable” areas, there’s a plan out there somewhere to get rid of Frederick Douglass Houses.

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