A Landmark of Affordable Housing

Built in 1936 as the very first public housing development in New York City or the nation,  The East Village’s very own First Houses was landmarked on tomorrow’s date in 1974.

The start of urban renewal, and I do not use the term ‘slum clearance’, can be traced to the development of First Houses in the East Village. The project, which was spearheaded through the cooperation of the Federal government with that of New York City, was the first public, low-income housing project in the nation.  It is located on Avenue A between 2nd and 3rd Streets and along 3rd Street.  You can access the fascinating designation report for First Houses here.

Opening of First Houses in 1935.

Opening of First Houses in 1935.

Today, tax breaks for real estate developers to include some affordable housing in market rate developments (or in some cases, just for building purely market rate housing) is the most common solution offered to address a lack of quality, affordable housing.  But in the mid-20th century, First Houses blazed the trail for a series of sweeping public investments in infrastructure and affordable housing, which became the preferred approach to tackling these problems in this era.

Mayor LaGuardia strongly supported this experiment in affordable housing, which involved keeping and re-using existing affordable housing to make it more humane and livable.  Contrast that outcome with today’s Mayor, who is supporting the demolition of five even older tenements on East 11th Street with 72 apartments to make way for a hotel developed by his donor friend and appointee to the NYC Economic Development Corporation.  Both Mayor LaGuardia and Mayor de Blasio labeled themselves “progressive” politicians.

First Houses construction 1935, from NYPL

First Houses construction 1935, from NYPL

At the time First Houses was deliberately designed with a land coverage of 41.6% to allow for light and sun and open space and recreation areas, generally consistent with guidelines at the time. In an interesting reversal, the current Mayor seems to have repackaged the Bloomberg “Infill” program and is seeking to build on such open spaces in other NYCHA locations (though not First Houses).   The desperate need for open green space has led people to explore the creation of underground parks.

As in many New York City Housing Authority developments, residents often struggle to get needed repairs and maintenance by the agency. But GVSHP worked with the tenants association to use the complex’s landmark designation to apply additional pressure for long-overdue repairs at the time.

First Houses Avenue A and 3rd Street

First Houses Avenue A and 3rd Street

As the designation report stated, the dedication of First Houses was a “momentous occasion not only for the City but for the entire nation, that the low height of the buildings lend a human scale of the project and encourage a feeling of neighborliness, that the landscaped courtyard, a modification of the garden apartment concept, provides an oasis for residents…”

These elements of design and public investment in repairs and creation and appropriate scale and open space remain needed lessons for today’s public policy.  First Houses is as much a landmark and a beacon today as it was when first built eighty years ago, and landmarked over forty years ago.

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