Press | September 17, 2015

A Long View of a Perennial Problem

The Wall Street Journal

By Corinne Ramey


While researching affordable housing, Thomas Mellins visited numerous New York City Housing Authority complexes. At one building, where drug use was supposedly rampant, his worried tour guide suggested he steer clear.

Just then, a beaming woman emerged from the building. Her development had been awarded a NYCHA grant, she said proudly, and hoped to win a contest for its community garden.


Such are the contradictions facing Mr. Mellins, the curator of “Affordable New York: A Housing Legacy,” an exhibition opening Friday at the Museum of the City of New York. In the works for more than a year, it includes 108 images, 86 pieces of ephemera and nine building models, in addition to videos on iPads and monitors.


It declares, in large text painted on a wall, that “approximately one in eight New Yorkers lives in subsidized housing.” (The museum defines “affordable housing” as that targeted at specified income groups. Thus it includes NYCHA and other housing subsidized by the public, private and nonprofit sectors.)


Mr. Mellins traces the history of New York’s affordable housing to 1867, when the city passed its first tenement law, creating standards around sanitation and requiring fire escapes. In 1934, the city created NYCHA, the first public-housing authority in the country. In the decades that followed, nonprofits, labor groups and tax-incentivized developers built housing for low-income New Yorkers.


While Mr. Mellins is cautious of what he calls “New York exceptionalism,” he does believe that New Yorkers have played an outsize role in national affordable-housing policy. He credits New York’s large inventory of subsidized housing to a belief in activist government and a progressive social policy.


“I’m telling a story that has a lot to do with ambition, optimism, fighting the good fight,” he said, “but you also need to acknowledge realities.”


The exhibition includes such realities as race, politics and crime. One display, for example, notes that some private landlords in the early 20th century felt that subsidized housing created unfair competition and “smacked of Socialist Vienna [and] Red Moscow.”


Ephemera include reproductions of art deco-style Works Progress Administration posters proclaiming that “Planned housing fights disease” and “The solution to infant mortality in the slums: better housing.”


On another wall, a window-sized decal shows a red slatted window with a hearty houseplant on its sill. The decals, produced by the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, were placed in windows of abandoned housing, much of which previously served middle- and low-income people “when the Bronx was burning” in the 1980s, Mr. Mellins said.


“This is our own little Potemkin village,” he said of the decals.


For the museum, the focus on affordable housing is a way of connecting history to the present, said Director Susan Henshaw Jones.


Everybody is talking about income inequality, shelters and the homeless, she said, but “they do so without recognition of this unbelievable, New York City-specific legacy, of extending ourselves to create housing for the working class or the poor.”


Mr. Mellins, she noted, as become “a complete zealot” on the topic.


An independent curator and architecture historian, Mr. Mellins, 58 years old, has organized earlier shows at the Museum of the City of New York as well as the New York Public Library, and has co-written several books on New York architecture.


His research entailed visiting local archives, interviewing people in the affordable-housing community, and visiting housing sites.


The professional occasionally intersected with the personal: When his wife asked what he wanted for his birthday, he said his only wish was to visit Via Verde, a South Bronx multi-income development with green roofs and solar panels.


His wife and son, although puzzled, went along for the birthday outing.


In the exhibit, Mr. Mellins avoids what he calls a “how-to guide” for creating more affordable housing in New York. The exhibit does discuss Mayor Bill de Blasio’s housing plan, which aims to build 80,000 apartments, and preserve 120,000, over a decade.


But if he were, say, having a beer with Mr. de Blasio, what advice would he offer?


“I would say, Mr. de Blasio, when you said ‘a laboratory for housing innovation,’ you hit the nail on the head,” Mr. Mellins said.


He wouldn’t dare offer policy prescriptions. But, like any student of history, he knows a good source of lessons learned.


“I think serious thought about the future,” Mr. Mellins said, “should look at the past.”


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