This post is the first of five appearing on the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) Community Service Fellowship Program (CSFP) blog, describing my summer working as Neighborhood Planning Intern at the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD).
New York claims to be a welcoming city, but all the pride flags and Black Lives Matter stickers and “immigrant and refugees are welcome here” signs fly in the face of our exclusionary financial pressures. Our city has a “right to shelter” law, but is struggling to accommodate demand not just from the homeless but also the more fortunate. Neighborhood after neighborhood sees sea change. People clinging onto the only homes they know are harassed by rising rents, conveniently inconvenient construction, the deprivation of heat and hot water, and a host of other bad behaviors.
The NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) is on the forefront of this battle, helping tenants keep their footing as the sand shifts under their feet. The agency develops and preserves affordable housing, protects tenants from harassment, ensures the safety of homes, and engages neighborhoods in planning their futures.
Within the agency, the Office of Neighborhood Strategies (ONS) is responsible for this last piece, ensuring meaningful engagement of tenants, landlords, and other stakeholders. The Neighborhood Planning team, which I am a part of, is a small but critical linchpin in this work. The team is responsible for the housing component of the City’s comprehensive multi-agency neighborhood planning studies and leads HPD’s own neighborhood housing studies itself. The team is also leading Where We Live NYC, a comprehensive, multiyear fair housing planning process that is studying how segregation affects New Yorkers’ access to opportunity. My colleagues are active listeners inside and outside of the office, personally and professionally, seeking to understand residents’ struggles to meet a fundamental human need and problem-solve as best they can.
HPD cannot solve New York’s housing crisis alone. Conference calls and community engagement activities regularly involve one or more of a dozen different city departments. The Housing Authority (NYCHA) remains significant in New York, with the City pouring its own resources in as state and federal authorities abdicate their responsibilities. Moreover, these efforts are made possible by support from the top. “Affordable housing is part of the bedrock of what makes New York City work,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio’s prefatory letter for his signature housing plan. “It’s critical to providing financial stability for working families, helping them get ahead and build a better life.” The mayor’s Housing New York plan laid the framework. The Housing 2.0 plan reaffirmed it and redoubled the goals.
Scanning Craigslist posts and observing the flurry of “looking for a roommate” posts on Facebook, I have found it easy to share in our city’s collective despair. More than half of New Yorkers are rent-burdened though the city sometimes seems to ooze wealth. These frustrations are real and they are potent. The earnest efforts of my colleagues here at HPD, however, give me hope.