As the cost of living in New York City exponentially rises, many residents are faced with the options of working multiple jobs at the same time or moving to a different city. Although people believe that this issue is evident with only lower income families, middle income families are experiencing the same issue at a different magnitude. Most middle income families who once lived in Manhattan are slowly radiating outwards towards Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx. In fact, with all of the investment and development happening in Brooklyn, apartment and condominium prices are increasing to a point where middle income families are working paycheck to paycheck.
Soon, middle and lower income families who do not own their current residence will be displaced by the rising cost of rent. People have turned to the NYC Housing Authority hoping to secure a rent controlled apartment. However, the list has grown so long that it’s impossible for a majority of displaced residents of lower income to enroll in an affordable apartment. Middle income families who are in search of an affordable apartment are generally ineligible because of their annual income.
If we look into the living conditions of the existing public housing complexes in NYC, we will find that a majority of residents are living in poor conditions where paint is chipping away, windows are old, and HVAC systems are out of date. Residents also don’t have the opportunity to make changes to their floor plans or build more closet spaces, so their apartments are usually an unorganized chaos of belongings.
How can we provide a new form of public housing that is affordable for both lower and middle income families and allows for future ownership?
While researching the history of the cost of living in NYC between 1900 and 2010, I discovered several architectural and social issues on the relationship between location, price of living, wealth distribution, and architectural typologies. The cost of living in lower Manhattan was affordable between the years 1940 and 1970; ranging from $40 in the 40’s and rising to $335 a month in the 70’s. If we adjust these prices for inflation between 1940 and 1970, $50 is equivalent to approximately $125. According to the Department of Labor and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average income in New York City was $1,745 in 1935 and $12,159 in 1972. This means that in 1972, the cost of living was equivalent to 1/3 of the total annual income per household.
Continuing this research to 2015, the average cost of living in Manhattan was $3,800 a month and the average income in NYC was $71,115. If we take $71,115 gross income and view it from a net income perspective after taxes, the average net income of someone living in NYC is $50,912.49. According to this data, $45,600 goes towards paying rent for an apartment in NYC, which leaves $5,312.49 for an average family or person to spend towards utilities, food, childcare, and so on and so forth.
From this information, it’s clear that the cost of living in NYC in the 21st century would be impossible for the lower and middle class income families. Without rent controlled or multi-tenant apartments throughout the city, most of these individuals and families would be forced to move to the outskirts of NYC or to other cities. It was also evident that the price per square foot for purchasing or renting an apartment in NYC was exponentially increasing between the years 1940 and 2010. In 2015, the average price per square foot for purchasing a condominium in Manhattan was $1,453 and for renting was $55.41. With these costs, it’s impossible for anyone earning a pre-tax annual income of $80,000 to rent an apartment larger than 600 to 700 square feet and be able to save any money. In a New York Times article entitled, What is Middle Class Manhattan?, author Amy O’Leary focuses on the struggles of middle class professionals living in NYC and writes,
“By one measure, in cities like Houston or Phoenix — places considered by statisticians to be more typical of average United States incomes than New York — a solidly middle-class life can be had for wages that fall between $33,000 and $100,000 a year. By the same formula — measuring by who sits in the middle of the income spectrum — Manhattan’s middle class exists somewhere between $45,000 and $134,000. But if you are defining middle class by lifestyle, to accommodate the cost of living in Manhattan, that salary would have to fall between $80,000 and $235,000. This means someone making $70,000 a year in other parts of the country would need to make $166,000 in Manhattan to enjoy the same purchasing power. Using the rule of thumb that buyers should expect to spend two and a half times their annual salary on a home purchase, the properties in Manhattan that could be said to be middle class would run between $200,000 and $588,000.”
The increasing rent and purchasing prices for apartments, condominiums, homes, and cooperatives in NYC is creating a new mindset and embrace of micro living by both the younger and the older generations. People from generation Y who have recently graduated in the 21st century are familiar with the new types of industries and products available through technology based careers and are drawn to metropolitan areas such as NYC. Although young and earning a middle class salary, people with this mindset are drawn to the vast amenities and lifestyle, which leads them to rent small studio apartments or share apartments with friends and strangers.
This new lifestyle emerged from the rising cost of living in NYC and lead to innovative living situations among independent individuals. We’re now seeing many young couples and individuals choosing to live in small studio apartments located in the lively areas of NYC. A simple search on Google or YouTube for tiny apartments in NYC will result in thousands of blogs and videos that showcase innovative renovations of apartments between 100 and 400 square feet.
How can we combine this new embrace of tiny studio apartments, a prime site in Manhattan, and a revolutionary notion of public housing to provide equal and fair housing opportunities for the lower and middle class income individuals and families?
Let’s start by answering the question: “Why is public housing necessary?” By asking current tenants and past tenants of public housing this question, we’ve come to the conclusion that public housing is necessary for residents of NYC with low to moderate incomes. Public housing in NYC should also provide opportunities for economic growth so that individuals and families are able to succeed and either move out of public housing or eventually own their apartment.
What if the NYC Housing Authority could provide residences for low to moderate income individuals and families with the potential to own and renovate their apartments?
If the NYC Housing Authority was able to purchase a parcel of land for a new building project, there would be the potential of constructing a building that consists of studio condominiums ranging between 400 and 600 square feet. These condominiums could be sold under the average cost per square foot value of NYC to a low or moderate income individual or couple. For example, if we use data from 2010 that shows the average price to purchase a condominium is 1070, the cost of a 400 square foot condominium would be $428,000 and for a 600 sq. ft. would be $642,000.
Although the prices are out of range for most low to moderate income people, the NYC Housing Authority could potentially sell the apartments slightly above the construction cost of the project so that some money could be gained for the construction of future projects. With this in mind, the average cost of construction in NYC ranged between $400 and $600 per sq. ft., which means a 400 sq. ft. condominium would cost $200,000. If we added a 20% profit for the NYC Housing Authority, the total cost of a 400 sq. ft. apartment would range between $240,000 and $280,000, which includes circulation and other public building areas.
If we assume that a $280,000 condominium will be sold to a low or moderate income family with a mortgage from the NYS Housing Authority at a 4% rate, the monthly payment for the mortgage alone would be $1,336.76 which is significantly less than the $3,500 rent in 2010. The NYC Housing Authority could also form a lease to own contract with these individuals and families in order to protect the property from being sold for an agreed number of years.
For moderate income individuals and couples, a micro dwelling in NYC for this price would be an affordable investment and it would allow the person(s) to sell the property in the future for a profitable gain. Low income individuals and couples would be able to afford a micro dwelling at this particular price, but would also qualify for public assistance or section 8. In this particular case, the NYC Housing Authority could provide a sum of money to aid the individual(s) in making their monthly payment.
Once the individual(s) live in the apartment for an agreed time period and decide to sell their apartments, the building would soon become a mixed-income building where the low and moderate income person(s) are owners of their condominium and are able to live comfortably among the new tenants and developments in the surrounding area.
So what could one of these NYC Micro Dwellings look like and where would we potentially locate the building?
While searching for a parcel to design this theoretical project, I thought back to the many parking lots along the High Line. This renovated above ground train track system has become a prime location for investment and many higher income individuals and families have purchased a nearby condominium. The High Line also attracts people from all generations, backgrounds, and income; making it a desirable location for this particular public housing project.
In particular, there is a parking lot on the corner of 10th avenue and W 20th street adjacent to the new condominium residences at 505 West 19th Street, designed by architect Thomas Juul-Hansen. With its location adjacent to the High Line and a 10 story luxury condominium, this site provides several design opportunities for a residential tower. This site will encompass the existing parking lot, spanning from the corner of 10th avenue and W 20th street, to the area under the High Line and combine two existing parcels into one.
As a theoretical architecture project, the NYC Micro Dwellings will be a new build NYC public housing building that provides studio condominiums for low to moderate income individuals and couples who are in search of a 5 to 10 year transitional residence. These potential tenants will be able to buy their condominium through a lease to purchase agreement. Each condominium will be either 400 or 600 sq. ft. and every unit will be universally accessible by all people. This means that bathrooms and kitchens will be larger than most studio apartments in NYC.
Regarding interior programs and layout of the building, the ground floor will be split into a lobby for all tenants with access to an outdoor tenant only garden space under the High Line as well as a large one story supermarket. The second floor will have condominium units along the perimeter of the building with stairs and elevators along the south perimeter wall. A laundry room will be located on the second floor with access to a garden atrium space. During the spring, summer, and early fall months, the atrium space could be fully open to the laundry room through two 4 panel lift and slide doors. The third to 10th floor, condominium units will be located along the perimeter walls of the building except the south wall for circulation and they will also be located south of the atrium space. The rooftop will be a lush garden area with access for tenants in the spring, summer, and early fall.
As one enters any of the condominium units, one entire wall will be filled with built-in storage cabinets, entertainment center, and Murphy bed. By providing an abundance of storage area for an individual or couple, the tenants will have the ability to stow away most of their unused items and maintain a clean and organized apartment. Each unit will have a personal balcony space that is constructed at a slight angle to encourage discussions between all neighbors. The balconies are accessible through a 4 panel lift and slide door that opens the interior spaces to the exterior.
Upon entering the kitchen, there is a full refrigerator, large counter and storage cabinets, as well as a custom tall cabinet with a built-in foldable kitchen table or work desk. The custom cabinet is also capable of stowing away stackable or foldable chairs. Every unit is also designed according to the American Disability Act (ADA), so every kitchen and bathroom will include ample space and cabinetry for all tenants to use. All interior finishes will be of high quality and is intended to provide a bright, open, and large multi-purpose space along with a spacious kitchen and bathroom.
Through an analysis of building forms and architectural components, the NYC Micro Dwellings relates to its surrounding context by providing a public program on the ground floor – a supermarket, which is currently not around or near the site – and large rectilinear windows throughout the building. The angled balconies and wood façade of the NYC Micro Dwellings relate to the new adjacent building by Juul-Hansen as well as the wood furniture on the High Line.
By providing a new form of public housing where the intent is to allow tenants to lease until they own their apartment, the issues of displacing generations of families living in particular areas of NYC will no longer be prevalent. The NYC Micro Dwellings combines the newly embraced culture of living in small apartments with the need for equal opportunity investments for low to moderate income individuals and couples. Located by the High Line in NYC, this public housing complex provides opportunities for all low to moderate income individuals and families to invest and remain in their hometown.