Tag Archives: Reconstruction Finance Corporation

Catherine Street & Monroe Street (Knickerbocker Village)

16 Apr

In continuing our exploration of public housing last time, I mentioned the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC), created by Congress in 1932 with a whole slew of mandates that included providing loans for low-income housing.  This was really the first federal involvement in affordable housing of any kind (pre-dating the First Houses, the first public housing built in the country) and it turns out its first loan went to somebody we’ve mentioned before – Frederick French.  So a connection! I love a connection (and in fact last time I talked about Fred French it was kind of all about how I love a connection) so of course I gotta dive right in.  Don’t worry, this also fits with our whole exploration of the large housing complexes of the Lower East Side too, so we’re really batting 1.000 today. As I mentioned, the RFC was created to deal with a lot more than affordable housing financing; it was essentially an attempt to combat the effects of the Great Depression by stimulating lending.  The RFC had a mandate to provide financial aid to state and local governments and to make loans to banks, railroads, and yes, private real estate developers.

There was a catch of course: the private developer had to build affordable housing.  The goal was two-fold: to increase the supply of low-income housing and to help stimulate the construction industry.  Except there was another requirement, that any new construction be part of slum clearance; that is, the new “affordable” housing had to replace “slums.”  This would become pretty standard housing policy for the federal government and it seems that it was baked in pretty early.  The outcome essentially (whether it was truly the intention) was that there would be no net increase in the number of affordable units – you tore some down and replaced them with some new ones.  And in fact those new ones were often more expensive than the old (just like now! so hey, this tactic isn’t so new after all).  That was the case with Knickerbocker Village at least.

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In fact the story goes that Fred French originally purchased tracts of existing tenements in the Lower East Side with the idea of tearing some down and putting up a high-end development for junior Wall Street executives.  But this was during the Depression (1931) and there was no credit to be had.  So when the RFC was created Fred French took a different tack.  He chose the worst parcels in his holding – the so called “Lung Block” for its high prevalence of tuberculosis – and proposed it to the RFC as a worthy place for slum clearance.  They agreed – ultimately lending somewhere between 85%-97% of the total $10 million cost to build.  Some 650 families were evicted and their homes torn down, replaced by twelve 13-story buildings surrounding 2 court-yards.  Despite the low-interest loan it was still a seemingly expensive project; to keep the monthly rents low the tax assessment on Knickerbocker Village had to be reduced by 2/3.  This made the monthly rent $12.50 per room (as required by the RFC); the buildings that they replaced, by comparison, had rented for about $5 per room.  So most of those evicted families weren’t coming back (but hey, that’s why we were soon to build public housing right? For the poorest of the poor?).

Aerial View Knickerbocker Village Market Monroe Cherry St. New York City

It was instead largely middle-class professionals who moved into Knickerbocker Village.  But when they did (in 1934) they found the development essentially unfinished – things like no working elevators or fixtures in the bathrooms and kitchens, and none of the promised public facilities, such as laundry rooms or play rooms, in working order.  Their complaints to the Fred French Company fell on deaf (and apparently rude and dismissive) ears.  French and co may have forgotten that they weren’t dealing with the poorest of the poor here – a large number of Knickerbocker Village tenants were lawyers and journalists – and within weeks they’d joined together to form a rent strike and a highly visible political and press campaign against the building.  It was a campaign they won, with management agreeing to repairs and reimbursements (some $25,000 in total) within 6 weeks of the rent strike.  The successful tenants were emboldened to form a permanent Knickerbocker Village Tenants Association, to undertake a program of cultural and educational activities within the development (albeit with an activist tilt).  The Fred French Company wasn’t impressed and fought back through various methods – denying meeting space, starting a rival tenants association, and ultimately declining to renew the lease of a number of tenant association leaders.  The association sued to force renewal of the leases and though they lost the court case, the move by the Fred French Company backfired – the “eviction” of these tenants caused so much sympathy that the tenants association grew to over a thousand members.  Leaders of the group would go on to help form the Citywide Tenants Council in the late 1930s – a group we’ll hopefully explore more a little later.

Because as always there’s too much to follow in one sitting here.  Knickerbocker Village was also where Julius and Ethel Rosenberg lived, before they were arrested and executed as alleged Soviet spies in the early 1950s (see what happens when you start a tenants association?).  Knickerbocker Village was also home to numerous members of the Bonanno Crime Family, including Benjamin Ruggiero, portrayed by Al Pacino in the movie Donnie Brasco (see what happens when you start a tenants association?).  And today (and for some time) Knickerbocker Village has been part of the Mitchell-Lama program, which is something I definitely want to write about someday.  And then there’s all the other things of course that don’t even have to do with housing!  I know I tend to end too many of these with exclamation points, but why not?  It’s spring again!  It’s in the 60s!  Okay, okay, calm down. I’m gonna end this one with a semicolon. ; Damn. ;

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Leonard Street & Maujer Street (Williamsburg Houses)

11 Mar

There’s more I want to say about public housing.  Well actually, what I really want to do is to go through all the NYCHA developments in chronological order – but then, I want to do a lot of things. I guess I’ll just add it to the list of all the other lists I want to get around to someday: skyscrapers, churches, oldest buildings in New York, tangents related to President John Tyler (and yes, I have some really wild weekends).

But in thinking about whether public housing is a failure or not – or maybe I mean to say in rethinking the idea that public housing is implicitly a failure – I keep thinking how desperately private developers in gentrifying neighborhoods must want to get rid of them.  They’re impossible to gentrify! (Well maybe not impossible – the whole nefarious practice of selling open NYCHA land to private developers is a step in that direction, though one for the time being that’s perhaps been halted).  But still, when public housing is torn down – as it has been in numerous American cities besides New York – it’s almost never replaced by brand new 100% affordable housing.  Of course not! 100% affordable housing is terrible for people who want to make a lot of money….and kind of hand in hand with that, who hate “excessive” government involvement.  It sets a really bad precedent – a precedent that these people have been trying to kill for a long time (and quite successfully).  In these public housing replacements there’s always a mix – and often a majority mix – of market rate buildings and apartments.  There’s almost always a loss in the net total of affordable units.  Well of course again! That’s the whole point of getting rid of public housing.

So give New York its credit: it wasn’t just the first builder of public housing, it’s also been good about not tearing its public housing down.  Hell, some of it is landmarked even – including First Houses that we talked about last time.  Another one is the Williamsburg Houses – made up of 20 four-story buildings covering 12 city blocks between Maujer and Scholes Street and Leonard Street and Bushwick Avenue.  Williamsburg Houses were begun in 1936 – just one year after the first tenants moved into First Houses – and opened in 1938, making them some of the earliest public housing projects in New York.  Unlike First Houses however, Williamsburg Houses weren’t built by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) alone, but instead were a collaboration with the Housing Division of the Public Works Administration (PWA).  It wasn’t until 1957, almost 20 years after opening, that the project was turned over to NYCHA’s full jurisdiction and ownership.

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It’s worth noting this distinction for a moment, because it points in part towards why public housing really isn’t built anymore.  The PWA – the  builder of Williamsburg Houses – was a federal program; this was federal money building affordable housing.  What made the PWA especially unique is that it wasn’t just federal money (ie. financing) but actual direct involvement of the federal government in the planning and construction of public housing.  This was something new entirely.  Prior to the PWA the first federal agency to involve itself with housing was the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC).  The RFC was created in 1932 to (among many other things) provide low-interest loans to limited-dividend housing corporations.  It only made 2 such loans though during the first two years of its existence.  So when the PWA, and its housing division especially, with its more robust involvement, came along in 1933 (as part of FDR’s New Deal – and originally called the Federal Emergency Administration of Public Works, until 1935) it represented a pretty big change. In the scheme of things its housing program was actually pretty short-lived, but in a 3 and half year period (starting in 1933) it collaborated on the construction of some 51 projects in 36 cities (though as its critics (it’s critics on the left I mean) would point out, that apparently only created some 29,000 units).  The Housing Act of 1937 (aka the Wagner-Steagall Bill), while strengthening the federal government’s commitment to housing, began to shift greater control to local authorities – returning the government’s role to essentially that of financing.

Maybe it was PWA’s influence, or maybe it was just the excitement of the early days of NYCHA but when it came time to design the Williamsburg Houses it seems they went all in.  NYCHA had a 5 person architectural board, including Richmond H. Shreve – a partner in Harmon, Lamb and Shreve of Empire State Building fame – and William Lescaze, considered one of the pioneers of modernism in American architecture.  Shreve appointed Lescaze as the chief designer for the Williamsburg Houses.  He opted for 4 “super” blocks, turned at 15 degree angles to the street grid – oriented to the sun and prevailing winds (prevailing winds?!) – and featuring a number of large and small courts that would flow into a large public space in the center of each block.  The facades were light-colored, in tan brick and exposed concrete, with entrances marked by blue tiles and stainless steel canopies.  The whole thing, though controversial at the time for its use of the “super” block, its breaking from the street grid, and its use of tan instead of red brick, was praised upon completion and has since been called by AIA, “the best public housing project ever built in New York.”

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I don’t know – I don’t really see it, and I feel like most people would probably agree.  But maybe that’s just because I’ve successfully internalized the fact that housing projects equal bad.  I mean, these look like housing projects, ya know? (Though I have to say, they do look better in black in white – nostalgia?)  But hey, 25,000 New Yorkers applied for the 1,622 available apartments when they first opened.  That’s actually a much better ratio than the 58,832 New Yorkers who applied for the 105 “affordable” units in a new development on Manhattan Avenue in Greenpoint last year (which, of course is mainly composed of market-rate apartments – figure that those 105 “affordable” units make up 20% of the total).  So who cares what Williamsburg Houses look like – these were 1,622 affordable units built all at once.  That’s equal to 15 luxury developments that include 105 “affordable” units but otherwise drive up the rents everywhere around them every place they go up.  And that are also also ugly.  I mean personally, if I have to choose, I’ll take ugly affordable any day.  Who’s with me?

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