Private Projects, Public Ambitions: Large-Scale, Middle-Income Housing in New York City
AbstractThis dissertation explores the rise and fall of New York City’s postwar experiment with large-scale, middle-income housing. While most middle-class Americans were busy moving to the suburbs, New York charted a different course, subsidizing private developers to build massive housing complexes for the city’s workforce. Across the rest of the country, subsidized apartments soon became synonymous with the racialized poor. But in New York, strong labor unions, a powerful tenant movement, and sustained demand for city living pushed city leaders to embrace a more expansive vision of mass housing. Indeed, the very ambiguity of the term “middle-income” enabled policymakers to target multiple, strategically important constituencies, whether unionized blue-collar workers, public sector employees, salaried professionals, or, by the mid-1960s, an increasingly well-mobilized minority middle class.
Most scholars have focused on the role of government and labor in devising New York’s uniquely generous postwar housing programs. The emphasis, in much of this work, is on the progressive, social democratic characteristics of New York’s hybrid welfare state, often in pointed contrast to the market-based, neoliberal policies of the post-fiscal crisis era. My dissertation complicates this periodization, highlighting not only the uniqueness of the city’s program, but also the centrality of for-profit actors in the city’s below-market housing system from an early stage. Indeed, I argue that New York’s liberal leaders, far from undercutting the capitalist housing market, opened up new opportunities for private profit in the middle-income tier. In the face of limited public funds, it was precisely this partnership that enabled the city to develop such an expansive program of below-market housing.
By the 1970s, with New York suffering from depopulation and economic decline, many middle-income projects were in disarray. But today, in the context of a surging real estate market, these developments play a key role in shoring up the city’s socioeconomic diversity. In an unexpected historical reversal, projects planned as state-sanctioned gentrification now function as critical bulwarks against the gentrification of surrounding neighborhoods. In tracing these longer-term demographic changes, the dissertation thus forges new connections between the histories of below-market housing, real estate development, and incipient gentrification.
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