Elegant Empathetic Affordable Housing

Whole Earth, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

Elegant Empathetic Affordable Housing


An interview with Michael Pyatok, america's master craftsman of community partnerships and architectural design

Pyatok: I always love to tell the story of my own neighborhoods in Brooklyn, the tenements where I grew up. We lived in four-story, walk-up buildings with eight units flanking a central staircase. Each apartment was twelve feet wide by fifty feet long and had just two windows on each of the short ends. The reason those neighborhoods were so successful had very little to do with the housing design itself. It was about the economy of the times and the culture of the times. Back in the forties and fifties, and into the mid-sixties, a lot of the people in those neighborhoods had factory jobs. They were doing something that was productive and they felt proud of it. It was certainly more dignified than flipping burgers. There was only a 3-percent unemployment rate, so the? had jobs. They had all kinds of local stores to shop in; they didn't have to go to chain stores. They didn't have to own automobiles because the subway was cheap, so they had great mass transit. And they had a housing subsidy called "rent control." A lot of people may not agree with rent control, but it really helped the working class to make it in New York during those decades.

With those four ingredients in place, and a public school system that was still in pretty good shape, it was possible for kids to grow up and become productive citizens even though their families were earning in the bottom 25 percent. It didn't matter what the housing was. It's all these other supports that "make the village work," and that help to raise these families. If those supports aren't in place (and they're not now, in a lot of the inner-city neighborhoods), and there's no housing subsidy, and you have to go to chain stores, and you have to own a car, and the job base is very insecure--and those jobs you do get, you just can't make it on--the rest is just facade. You can give people like that the greatest-designed housing in the world, and you're just spitting in the wind.

PW: Can the village work if it's public housing?

Pyatok: Public housing has had its problems for a complex set of reasons. First, because a semi-public agency is charged with authority over a vast area, usually a whole city or a whole county. They end up producing thousands of units over the years, and it's very hard to be a centralized landlord with so many units. You just can't develop intimate connections to or understanding of your residents, and your staff becomes overburdened and burnt out dealing with so many people with so many problems. Employees become pretty callous, and their hearts are not in their work after not too long.

Then, too, the projects were never funded adequately enough to really maintain the properties well and provide all the kinds of services that such families need. So, they were sort of designed to fail: given too many units, too many families, not enough money to provide the kinds of services needed.

Nonprofit housing developers are different. Whereas a typical housing authority in, say, a city of 300,000 may have 10,000 to 15,000 units, a successful nonprofit working in that same city may have, after fifteen years of working, 500 to 1,000 units total. Under those circumstances, they can provide a lot more intimate service to their charges and will very often find ways, from the get-go, of including at least childcare so the parents can be freed up to participate in their job training or actual jobs.

PW: This is a "small is beautiful" argument.

Pyatok. Yeah, it's true. It really is true. I think all the projects we've done over the years have ranged from twenty to 100 units. The biggest low-income project we did was ninety-two units--and that came with childcare, a community center, retail, and a very active management company that sponsors lots of events and helps the tenants organize and become self-motivated in creating events for themselves and their neighbors.

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