August 23, 2015; Newsweek

A new museum show on the history of subsidized housing in New York City featured in Newsweek’s story, “Tracing New York City’s Affordable Housing Problem,” brings historical perspective to the current debate over how New York City and the U.S. should be addressing the shelter needs of its citizens. The article describes how the Museum of the City of New York is featuring an exhibit titled “Affordable New York: A Housing Legacy.” According to Newsweek, “The museum has described Affordable New York as ‘the first ever exhibition tracing the past, present, and future of subsidized housing in New York City.’” In fact, New York City’s experience with subsidized housing has been the model for national housing programs up to the present day.

But even before the creation of subsidized housing in New York City in 1932, there’s a long history of housing innovation in New York City, going back to the mid-19th century, when, flooded by European immigrants, the landlocked island was transformed from a pastoral panorama of villages and farmland into a dynamic metropolitan hub for industry, commerce, and finance. Housing these immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Germany, and later all the Eastern European countries required housing and social innovations that broke the rural European models based on feudal relationships where residence was tied to production, either as a farmer or craftsperson. The transformation of housing led to the development of high-density tenement housing where the landlord was no longer the employer or patron.

Housing finance works like this: Owners need to charge enough rent at a certain level of occupancy to pay the mortgage and operating expenses of the building and to permit a profit to justify their capital at risk. Unlike the rural European housing model, where production was a part of the lease, tenement economics relied on density and cash rent from paid employment. Jared M. Day’s study, Urban Castles: Tenement housing and Landlord Activism in New York City, 1890-1943, tells how housing entrepreneurs (not landed gentry) transformed low-income housing in the city. Much of this history of pre-subsidized housing in NYC is told at the Tenement Museum, which is housed in a preserved tenement building on the Lower East Side of New York.

Before government became involved in housing, nonprofit organizations were addressing the social needs of tenement dwellers, who were the low-wage workers of the local and national economies. Robert H. Bremner, in his classic text From the Depths: The Discovery of Poverty in the United States, documents how social welfare organizations and social reform groups helped the “less fortunate” and became change agents in the political arena: “No one accused charity agents of radicalism; and yet, in the long run, their work undermined many cherished opinions regarding the cause and cure of poverty.” Though their work with slum dwellers, these nonprofits transformed the discussion about poverty from “personal character” to “social disadvantage” and stimulated the creation of public health laws, building codes, and legal rights for tenement dwellers. Bremner writes, “The major contribution of the prewar years towards the solution of the tenement evil was to demonstrate the inefficiency of traditional methods of dealing with the problem. Fundamental improvement awaited the adoption of more positive programs of action.” Rick Cohen’s recent article on “social housing” in Great Britain gives some background on a program that was a source of inspiration for New York City’s reformers in the early 20th Century.

When New York officials created public housing in 1932, the subject on display in the new exhibit at the Museum of New York, local officials had two generations (1890-1930) of housing policy making under their belts. In Urban Castles, Jared Day writes: “New York’s local and state elected officials initiated a wide range of new housing proposals, including the development of public housing, which dramatically transformed the debate over low income housing, high rents, and landlord-tenant relations.”

Those elected officials and their allies in the nonprofit sector, including Senator (later Mayor) Robert F. Wagner and Francis Perkins among many others, took the New York City experience with them to Washington D.C. and into the battles that led to the Wagner-Stegall Housing Act of 1937. How fitting that two nonprofit organizations, the Museum of the City of New York and the Tenement Museum are working to preserve this local and national legacy.—Spencer Wells