Carol Lamberg's Neighborhood Success Stories: Creating and Sustaining Affordable Housing in New York

Reviewed by Nicholas Dagen Bloom

Neighborhood Success Stories: Creating and Sustaining Affordable Housing in New York  by Carol Lamberg Empire State Editions, 2018 280 pages

Neighborhood Success Stories: Creating and Sustaining Affordable Housing in New York
by Carol Lamberg
Empire State Editions, 2018
280 pages

Building and operating subsidized housing in New York City is a tough business. Carol Lamberg, a master at the trade, offers us a candid and nuanced account of the perils and promise of this enterprise in her readable autobiographical account, Neighborhood Success Stories. Lamberg, who served for decades as the Executive Director of the Settlement Housing Fund, helped build the organization into one of the most respected affordable developers and managers in the city, with outstanding multi-family properties in the Bronx and Lower East Side.

Neighborhood Success Stories merits attention from New York historians. The book is another reminder that the emphasis in New York history on the mayors and key figures like Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs has obscured the worker bees who usually get the work done.

Mayors LaGuardia, Wagner, Koch, Bloomberg, and de Blasio get all the attention for affordable or public housing. Lost in the “top down” approach are key figures such as NYCHA founder Mary Simkhovitch; the Rose family that was deeply involved in Mitchell-Lama; or the Koch-era HPD leader Felice Michetti who today manages thousands of subsidized units. New York’s deep bench in the private/public world of housing development and management was as important as the largescale programs.

Neighborhood Success Stories provides a rare window on the actual process of developing and managing of individual subsidized projects (“making the sausage”) in New York, with the most compelling sections of the book devoted to Lamberg’s risky renovation project in the Bronx, New Settlement Apartments (1990). Her team started with fifteen abandoned, tax-delinquent, city-owned properties and eventually redeveloped them, with some additions, into 1022 quality apartments. The unaided private sector had failed to maintain these buildings before Lamberg arrived, despite their location near good transit and the Grand Concourse. They had been considered beyond saving. In most other cities they would have stayed abandoned or would have been cleared. Not in New York.

Lamberg leads us through the complex negotiations with the city and state required to secure the buildings, the funds, and the community programs she desired. The ingredients of the success that has followed, now almost thirty years in, are universally applicable to all good affordable or public housing. The first crucial element was state/city cooperation that led to a very deep subsidy package, backed by bonds issued by the state’s prospering Battery Park City project. In fact, the financing was so generous that the cost of development and debt service for the apartments at New Settlement was carried entirely by the public financing. This was atypical then and now but set the stage for success by allowing for a robust management, security, and renovation regime to follow. Well-funded housing programs, as a rule, perform better than poorly funded ones.

What stands out in New York, and Lamberg’s own experience, is the desire to build subsidized housing that is better than that required by most government programs. New York’s early public housing, like Harlem River Houses, New Settlement Apartment’s nicely renovated apartments, and today’s stunning new projects such as Via Verde work because they give families pride and raise the tenor of neighborhoods. Lamberg makes clear, time and again, that the pressure to make economies in subsidized housing can wreck the viability by creating environments that are not respectful to tenants and are, in the worst cases, more difficult to manage. In many cases, Lamberg actively resisted taking the cheapest route because she understood that economies would come to haunt the tenants and future managers. Lamberg reports, in fact, that working on New Settlement Apartments with the city government led to major problems with the renovation that had to be remedied and litigated in later years. Still, the buildings were renovated to a high standard that long-term residents appreciated from the moment they arrived.

Lamberg has a fascinating follow up to the renovation story by detailing her more recent efforts (ca. 2014), just before she retired, to secure renovation funds for New Settlement Apartments. Managers always struggle to find and maintain sufficient funds to maintain buildings in affordable housing programs because rents are designed to be low. This refinancing is a key element, for instance, of the mayoral program dedicated to “preserving” affordable housing. Lamberg secured the refinancing needed for renovations, but it took a great deal of arm twisting, personal connections, paperwork, and deep knowledge of the available subsidy programs.

New Settlement Apartments was to be a mixed-income building, thus guaranteeing a decent rent roll and social aspiration. Careful tenant selection had to be a crucial element in Lamberg’s plan. At the same time, Mayor Koch was under pressure to address the homeless crisis. Lamberg would, however, only agree to set aside 30 percent of the units for the formerly homeless. Even this low percentage could have been a big risk, given the very low rents and more common behavioral issues from these tenants. In an echo of NYCHA’s early selective years, Lamberg’s team closely vetted potential tenant families, including those coming from homeless shelters. Her staff chose what some might consider to be the “deserving poor” as tenants and were not afraid to reject people who they felt would prove unreliable tenants because of addiction, poor housekeeping, or a criminal record. This toughness included evictions in later years for those who refused to pay rent or live to the building standards; it turned out that even careful vetting was sometimes insufficient.

Lamberg makes a strong case that these selection standards, which were controversial then and remain so today, paid off in the long run. As part of the book project, she interviewed several long-term residents, most of whom were single mothers delighted to get an apartment. She finds that many residents had achieved social mobility/stability by sending their children to college, completing schooling on their own, and finding better jobs. The residents acknowledged that a stable, good place to live at a decent price in a good location was key to their success.

These resident families also benefited from a lavish community program within the complex that lives up to the “Settlement” title. Lamberg and her team (and she is generous with credit to those who directly manage the project, such as Jack Doyle, the Executive Director of the apartment complex) deeply invested in social programs with a strong accent on college prep and child care. These programs encouraged social mobility and scored many successes. The social mission of the development has now expanded to include a lavish, purpose-built community center and affiliated school that Lamberg and her team developed with the School Construction Authority adjacent to New Settlement Apartments. Getting that center built, we find out, was a challenge unto itself.

We tend to throw around affordable and public housing numbers or goals too glibly. Lamberg’s book is a reminder that behind those numbers are thousands of managers and other professionals struggling to develop and maintain housing that by design does not collect the full rent that it could under a free market system. Despite modest rents, these managers must still pay market prices for interest, labor, fuel, and renovations. Making up that gap between rent and costs occupies a lot of time and worry for managers from modest size projects like New Settlement to the vast and underfunded city public housing system. Programs come and go with the political trends and nothing is secure in the long-term.

After reading the book, I imagine most readers will come away humbled by how much success there is in this field given the massive challenges to getting anything done in New York. Lamberg’s book helps explain, in large measure, why subsidized housing in NYC is large but never sufficient to reshape the housing market--and is constantly in need of new sources of capital to remain solvent and decent. It is extremely difficult to build and sustain this type of housing in capitalist America.

Nicholas Dagen Bloom, Professor of Social Science at New York Institute of Technology, is co-editor of the Journal of Planning History, and the author of several books, including most recently How States Shaped Postwar America: State Government and Urban Power.