Do 36 Harlem Tenements Hold the Key to the City’s Affordable Housing Future?

Better days are ahead for the Randolph Houses on West 114th Street—not that the 36 tenement buildings in Central Harlem

Two of the 22 tenement buildings on the south side of 114th Street, all of which are vacant. (Property Shark)

Better days are ahead for the Randolph Houses on West 114th Street—not that the 36 tenement buildings in Central Harlem have ever truly known good days.

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Built in the 1890s, along with thousands of other substandard cold water flats serving the booming population of European immigrants, the buildings were abandoned amidst white flight. Like so many other unwanted apartments of that generation, they were taken over by the city in the 1970s and turned into public housing. Attempts at upkeep have been made over the years, but the upkeep never really was, well, kept up. The buildings have deteriorated to such a state that only 109 of their 452 units are occupied, but the city cannot afford to fix them.

To finally revive the Randolph Houses, the city’s Housing Authority and Department of Housing Preservation and Development are partnering with a private developer to retrofit the properties into modern, low-income housing. A request for proposals was released last week, and the winning developer will be charged with transforming the buildings into a mix of 140 public housing units and at least 155 affordable housing units.

“At the Randolph Houses we are not just breathing a new life into these buildings—we are creating new homes, new opportunities, and a more affordable and sustainable New York,” HPD Commissioner Mathew Wambua said in a release.

This is a reduction in the overall number of apartments, including the number of NYCHA units, though for myriad technical (and wonkishly interesting!) reasons, it is actually a three-fold gain for the city’s subsidized housing stock.

It is not simply a matter of disrepair but safety that the Randolph Houses have lost hundreds apartments. The deterioration is so bad that those units are no longer legally habitable. The entire south side of the street, comprising 307 apartments, sits vacant. And since NYCHA only receives federal funds from HUD for occupied apartments, an increase to 140 from the current 109 will actually mean more money for the agency.

“Technically, it’s a reduction in the number of units, but it’s an increase in the number of units that are online today,” Amy Chester, deputy director of NYCHA’s development department, told The Observer.

Why NYCHA is not building 452 refurbished units is another matter. Because of a HUD calculation known as total development costs, only so much money is allocated per unit to housing authorities across the country for construction and maintenance of buildings. With New York’s especially  high construction costs, these funds never cover the full price of construction and rehabilitation projects.

This is not the only reason a partnership with HPD and an outside developer is necessary. Theoretically, NYCHA could take out a loan to cover the difference in costs, but HUD forbids public housing rents be used to cover loan repayments. That is why a developer is needed, to create affordable housing units—in this case pegged a family of four making $49,080, or 60 percent of the area median income—to cross-subsidize the project. (To clarify, the distinction between affordable housing and public housing is that the former is built and managed by private developers with oversight by HPD while the latter is wholly owned and managed by NYCHA as part of the Section 8 housing program. Both are allocated to tenants through income-restricted lotteries.)

The north side of the Randolph Houses are still occupied, though some units sit empty. (Property Shark)

Another factor is a federal statute dating from the 1990s, the Faircloth limit.. This caps the number of public housing unit’s a city can have. Essentially, New York cannot build new projects, certainly not on the scale seen during the middle of last century, and must instead manage the number it has, subtracting a few dozen or hundred from one project while adding others elsewhere.

“NYCHA can’t or won’t be building a new super block with 3,000 units like we used to,” Ms. Chester said. “But you also can’t build solely public housing because of TDC. Whatever you build, it has to be cross-subsidized.”

Those good with math will realize that the city is calling for only about 300 apartments in the redeveloped projects, a reduction of more than 30 percent in the number of units. This is because most of the apartments at the Randolph Houses date to the turn of the last century, when the original buildings were built. “If you go to the Tenement Museum, it looks just love that.” Others have been even further subdivided, creating unhealthy and even illegal—they violate current building codes—living conditions.

This addition-by-subtraction might frustrate some hard-line housing advocates, who see any reduction in the city’s low-income housing stock as a threat to New York’s livability and diversity, but Harold Shutz, a senior fellow at the Citizen’s Housing and Planning Commission, thinks the city is making the most of what it has. “I think it’s a very reasonable response to a bad situation,” he said. “On the whole a positive, though the advocates probably won’t see it that way.”

“They’re not only brand-spanking-new apartments, but they’re also going to have better units, in terms of quality of life,” Ms. Chester said. The repairs being undertaken include removing the back portion of the buildings to create a deeper rear yard, which allows for more light and air to reach the apartments but also reduces the size of the buildings. “Some of the bedrooms are without closets while others barely have room for beds,” Ms. Chester said.

Another big benefit is that the program will help reoccupy an entire block of historical architecture. Even if the tenement style may be unloved, it played an epochal role in the shape of the city, its buildings and its inhabitants, so much so the Randolph Houses have been considered for state historic preservation status.

The agencies have undertaken similar projects before. At the Chelsea, Elliott and Forest houses, new HPD affordable housing projects have been built on NYCHA land. The most notorious example may be Prospect Plaza, in Brownsville, where four hulking towers are being demolished and replaced with more contextual, rowhouse type blocks of affordable housing.

What makes the Randolph Houses unique is this is the first time affordable and public housing units will be intermixed within the same buildings. “This initiative is a first by utilizing a HUD mixed finance program combining public and non-public housing in a single development,” NYCHA Chairman John Rhea said in the release. “We look forward to the successful rehabilitation of Randolph Houses as a model for future redevelopment.”

mchaban [at] | @MC_NYC

Do 36 Harlem Tenements Hold the Key to the City’s Affordable Housing Future?