The Marvel of NYC’s Water Supply

Rocket Thrower & Unisphere by Jim Henderson

Another school holiday, another museum. The family and I went to the Queens Museum. Although I am a lifelong New Yorker, I had never been there before. It is a great, small museum, with just a few galleries. It is right smack in the middle of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. The museum is a stone’s throw of the majestic Unisphere, which is even more amazing from close up. We had gone to see the survey of Zhang Hongtu‘s work, which was very good. But readers of this blog would likely be more interested in two exhibits on long-term loan to the museum. The first is From Watersheds to Faucets: The Marvel of New York City’s Water Supply System:

For the 1939 World’s Fair, city agencies were invited to produce exhibits for the New York City Pavilion, now the Queens Museum. Each exhibit shared “what the various branches of municipal government are doing to serve the citizens of today.”

To educate New Yorkers about the water supply system, the Department of Water Supply, Gas, and Electricity, created the relief map now displayed at the Queens Museum. A team of cartographers began work in 1938 with a depression-era budget of $100,000, roughly $1.5 million in today’s dollars. But at 540 square feet, the model was too big for the allotted space. Ten years later, it made its only public appearance in the City’s Golden Anniversary Exposition at Manhattan’s Grand Central Palace.

In 2008, after decades in storage, the 27-piece relief map was in desperate need of conservation. The model was sent to McKay Lodge Fine Arts Conservation Lab in Oberlin, Ohio and restored to its original brilliance. In collaboration with the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, it will now remain on long-term loan in its originally intended home in the New York City Building.

The second exhibit is pretty famous and it is very cool to see up close: the Panorama of the City of New York, the biggest full-scale architectural model in the world. The Panorama was commissioned for the 1964 World’s Fair. The museum has kept the Twin Towers on the Panorama, which is pretty powerful, once you notice it.

The two exhibits together give you a sense of the grandeur of a world-class city both in itself and within its broader physical context. Another thing to put on your NYC bucket list.


Garrison Keillor by Jonathunder

A poem, by Garrison Keillor:

I am thankful for ATM machines
For the smell of coffee beans
For the dishwasher and for the GPS
Thought up by the Pentagon, a great success
That makes it unnecessary for us men
To ever need to ask for directions again.

Thank you thank you thank you thanks a lot
For what we have and for some things that we do not

I am thankful for macaroni and cheese,
Of mac and cheese I have only good memories
Boil water. Put the macaroni in. It’s
A very nice meal in about ten minutes.

And speaking of food of low status,
Thank you for instant mashed potatoes
Which is simply dehydrated potato flakes.
Mashed potatoes in one-tenth the time it takes
To boil one and whip it up nice and smooth.
And if you want to know the absolute truth
That dry organic peanut butter I hate it.
I like the kind with sugar and fat, saturated.

Thank you thank you thank you and merci
Peanut butter has always been merciful to me.

And for the U.S. Postal Service I say thanks
Delivering mail from Florida to Fairbanks,

I am grateful for blogs and other new media
And of course for the miraculous Wikipedia
Which puts information at your fingertips
An innovation as great as sailing ships,
Or putting a steam engine on the rails,
So thank you Larry Sanger and Jimmy Wales.
And thank you Larry Page and Sergey Brin
Who in 1997 launched a search engine
Google, which simply is superb
A noun that quickly became a verb.

Affordable New York

Beyond My Ken

I just came back from a great couple of exhibits at the Museum of the City of New York that would be of great interest to the readers of this blog. The first, Affordable New York: A Housing Legacy, provides a history and education of affordable housing programs that have been integral to the development of the City:

New York City has a long history of creating below-market housing for its residents. Today the city offers subsidized housing to families across a wide economic spectrum; more than 400,000 in public housing, and many more in privately or cooperatively owned apartments. With affordable housing a cornerstone of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration, New York’s housing legacy—often overlooked and little understood—is more relevant than ever.

Affordable New York traces over a century of affordable housing activism, documenting the ways in which reformers, policy makers, and activists have fought to transform their city. A focus on current and future housing initiatives demonstrates how New Yorkers continue to promote subsidized housing as a way to achieve diversity, neighborhood stability, and social justice.

The exhibit has a lot of good pictures that give a sense of the range of options that exist for affordable housing development. It also provides a condensed history of the NYC experience with subsidized housing.

The other exhibit, Jacob A. Riis: Revealing New York’s Other Half, is a bit more somber, but when viewed in the context of the first it shows the great progress we have made in providing decent housing to a broader range of City residents:

Jacob Riis (1849-1914) was a pioneering newspaper reporter and social reformer in New York at the turn of the 20th century. His then-novel idea of using photographs of the city’s slums to illustrate the plight of impoverished residents established Riis as forerunner of modern photojournalism. Jacob A. Riis: Revealing New York’s Other Half features photographs by Riis and his contemporaries, as well as his handwritten journals and personal correspondence.

This is the first major retrospective of Riis’s photographic work in the U.S. since the City Museum’s seminal 1947 exhibition, The Battle with the Slum, and for the first time unites his photographs and his archive, which belongs to the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library.

The pictures of the homeless kids are heartbreaking — Newsies without the songs — and the recreation of one of Riis’ public talks is pretty extraordinary. The shows are running for a few more months, so there is still plenty of time to see them.



A propos of yesterday’s post on the great paradox of housing policy — people say that they want restrictive land use policies which limit the construction of new housing at the same time that they say that they want more affordable housing in their communities — I present Exhibit 1: Votes by Community Boards Running Strongly Against de Blasio Affordable Housing Proposals. This document provides evidence that people are strongly opposed to affordable housing in their own communities while bemoaning the lack of affordable housing in nearby communities. This state of affairs is so extreme that it deserves its own acronym, Not in New Yorkers Backyards, or NINYBY.

This document was produced by New York Law School’s CityLand periodical and it discusses a

comprehensive chart tracking every vote taken by community boards citywide on the ZQA and MIH text amendments. On September 21, 2015, the City Planning Commission referred for public review the Zoning for Quality and Affordability (ZQA) and Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) citywide text amendments. Since the public review process has begun, community boards across the city have met to discuss and vote on each of the two proposals. All 59 New York City Community Boards have until November 30th to vote on two citywide text amendments.

CityLand has created a comprehensive citywide chart that is tracking every community board action taken on ZQA and MIH.

*     *     *

Thus far, an overwhelming number of community boards have voted against both of these proposals, with MIH doing marginally better than ZQA. Within the boards themselves, the votes have been lopsided, with several recording unanimous votes against. Most Boards have backed up the votes with statements expressing their reasons for opposition. Some Boards that approved the measures included stipulations to the Yes votes.

New York City is never going to even begin to address its affordable housing issue if it does not implement policies like these proposed by the de Blasio Administration. Those who oppose these policies should at least admit that much is true.

Planning for Affordability

DSCN3187 prospectnewtown e 600"

Prospect New Town in Longmont, Colorado

Rick Hills and David Schleicher have posted Planning an Affordable City to SSRN. The abstract reads,

In many of the biggest and richest cities in America, there is a housing affordability crisis. Housing prices in these cities have appreciated well beyond the cost of construction and even faster than rising incomes. These price increases are a direct result of zoning rules that limit the ability of new supply to meet rising demand. The high cost of housing imposes a heavy burden on poorer and younger residents and, by forcing residents away from these human capital rich areas, has even reduced regional and national economic growth. While scholars have done a great deal to identify the problem, solutions are hard to come by, particularly given the strong influence of neighborhood “NIMBY” groups in the land-use process that resist any relaxation of zoning limits on housing supply.

In this Article, we argue that binding and comprehensive urban planning, one of the most criticized ideas in land-use law, could be part of an antidote for regulatory barriers strangling our housing supply. In the middle of the last century, several prominent scholars argued that courts should find zoning amendments that were contrary to city plans ultra vires. This idea was, however, largely rejected by courts and scholars alike, with leading academic figures arguing that parcel-specific zoning amendments, or “deals,” provide space for the give-and-take of democracy and lead to an efficient amount of development by encouraging negotiations between developers and residents regarding externalities from new building projects.

We argue, by contrast, that the dismissal of plans contributed to the excessive strictness of zoning in our richest and most productive cities and regions. In contrast with both planning’s critics and supporters, we argue that plans and comprehensive remappings are best understood as citywide deals that promote housing. Plans and remappings facilitate trades between city councilmembers who understand the need for new development but refuse to have their neighborhoods be dumping grounds for all new construction. Further, by setting forth what can be constructed as of right, plans reduce the information costs borne by purchasers of land and developers, broadening the market for new construction. We argue that land-use law should embrace binding plans that package together policies and sets of zoning changes in a number of neighborhoods simultaneously, making such packages difficult to unwind. The ironic result of such greater centralization of land-use procedure will be more liberal land-use law and lower housing prices.

For me, the paper highlights one of the great paradoxes of housing policy — people say that they want restrictive land use policies which limit the construction of new housing at the same time that they say that housing is too darn expensive in their communities.

The paper’s proposal to adopt “binding and comprehensive urban planning” is an intriguing one that could solve that paradox, but I wonder if there is sufficient political will to implement it over the interests of the parties that benefit from our current ad hoc system of land use regulation.

Promoting Opportunity with Development

"ArlingtonTODimage3" by This image was altered by Thesmothete with additional graphical elements to indicate the location of transit stations and the extent of development around them. - Derivative of :Image:ArlingtonRb aerial.jpg. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons -

Enterprise Community Partners have posted Promoting Opportunity Through Equitable Transit-Oriented Development (eTOD): Barriers to Success and Best Practices for Implementation. It opens,

Development patterns directly relate to a community’s strength. Individual families, the local economy, municipal governments and the environment all benefit when well-located housing, jobs and other necessary resources are connected by efficient transportation and infrastructure networks. Equitable transit-oriented development (eTOD) is an important approach to facilitating these connections. This paper defines eTOD as compact, often mixed-use development with multi-modal access to jobs, neighborhood-serving stores and other amenities that also serves the needs of low- and moderate-income people. The preservation and creation of dedicated affordable housing is a primary approach to eTOD, which can ensure that high-opportunity neighborhoods are open to people from all walks of life. eTOD supports the achievement of multiple cross-sector goals, including regional economic growth, enhanced mobility and access, efficient municipal and transportation network operations, improved public health, and decreased cost of living.

Yet it is sometimes difficult for planning agencies, local governments, transit agencies, housing organizations, private developers, and other institutions that influence development to act in concert to overcome barriers to eTOD. Each stakeholder has a unique mission with disparate goals and compliance burdens and must comply with complex and sometimes contradictory rules and regulations. However, improving coordination between these sectors can shift a potentially adversarial relationship into a symbiotic partnership. As the public resources that support transportation and infrastructure networks and housing affordability remain threatened, such efficient coordination is an especially important goal. (5, references omitted)

eTOD has a lot going for it: it’s environmentally responsible, it’s socially responsible, it can promote nice development. It is a shame that it is so hard to pull off. It would be great if HUD could take the lead in promoting eTOD, perhaps in tandem with its recent fair housing initiatives.

Building HOME

housing construction

The HOME Coalition, a coalition of affordable housing organizations, has posted Building HOME: The HOME Investment Partnerships Program’s Impact on America’s Families and Communities, its 2015 report. I don’t think HOME is a household word, at least when it is in ALLCAPS, so here are the basics, taken from the report:

For over 20 years, the HOME Investment Partnerships Program (HOME) has proven to be one of the most effective, locally driven tools to help states and communities provide access to safe, decent, and affordable housing for low-income residents. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) reports that since HOME’s authorization in 1990, $26.3 billion in HOME funds have leveraged an additional $117 billion in public and private resources to help build and preserve nearly 1.2 million affordable homes and to provide direct rental assistance to more than 270,000 families. The HOME Coalition estimates that this investment has supported nearly 1.5 million jobs and has generated $94.2 billion in local income.

*     *      *

With HOME, Congress created a program that provides states and communities with unmatched flexibility and local control to meet the housing needs that they identify as most pressing. HOME is the only federal housing program exclusively focused on addressing such a wide range of housing activities. States and local communities use HOME to fund new production where affordable housing is scarce, rehabilitation where housing quality is a challenge, rental assistance when affordable homes are available, and provide homeownership opportunities when those are most needed. Moreover, this flexibility means that states and communities can quickly react to changes in their local housing markets. (7, emphasis removed)

The report calls attention to the fact that Congress has been making big cuts to HOME funding since 2010. These cuts show the complexities inherent in federal housing policy, coming as they do right on the heels of the creation of the National Housing Trust Fund in 2008.

Congress appears to giveth and taketh away from housing programs in equal measure. As an added bonus for Congress, it taketh away on-budget items (HOME) and giveth off-budget items (NHTF, funded by Fannie and Freddie surcharges), making it an even more politically expedient trade-off. HOME dollars are a lot more flexible than NHTF dollars, so even a dollar for dollar trade has significant downsides for state housing programs. There is a lot not to like about this development in federal housing policy.