GSAPP Lab Looks for Solutions to New York’s Housing Crisis

Galia Solomonoff and her Housing Lab team researched everything from Governor Hochul’s housing compact to reimagining the shelter system.

Eve Glasberg
May 25, 2023

Since launching in the fall of 2019, the Housing Lab at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation has focused on how existing buildings inside cities can increase inclusion, resilience, and access. The lab identified low-rise, high-density, multi-household buildings as a space of critical opportunity in New York City. Like many urban areas, New York’s housing crisis pushes vulnerable households further to the margins of opportunity, health, and access. This deepens entrenched patterns of exclusion along lines of race, age, ethnicity, gender, and immigration status.

The lab, established with the support of the IDC Foundation, brings together GSAPP faculty and students, who work closely with partners in community groups, private firms, and the public sector, to leverage expertise around some of the most critical challenges facing urban housing today. By collaborating with architects, developers, and planners to advance interdisciplinary work and design affordable, adaptive, and resilient housing, the lab is a locus for testing and demonstrating methods of practice-based scholarship.

Columbia News caught up with GSAPP Professor Galia Solomonoff, who became director of the Housing Lab in January 2023, to discuss the lab’s recent work. Along with GSAPP alum Eddie Palka, adjunct associate research scholar at the Housing Lab, and GSAPP students Lula Chou, Jamon Zixuan Mok, and Kavyaa Rizal, Solomonoff has been concentrating on research related to the housing affordability crisis in New York City and neighboring counties.

What has your team discovered about the city’s housing crisis this semester?

Working within the University’s fourth purpose framework, we've researched housing affordability in New York City over the last five months. Our data and research show that since 1983, housing has become progressively more unaffordable in New York, and this tendency is worsening. We learned that incomes have increased at a much slower rate than rents across the city. For example, a statistically average household in the city currently needs to spend 66% of its gross income every month—twice the recommended threshold of 33%—to rent the average, on-market, one-bedroom unit, despite being for a household of three. For reference, this would leave the average three-person household with $743 after taxes for all other monthly expenses. Many New Yorkers currently hold on to their homes in painful and precarious ways.

Our research has identified potential policy proposals and focus areas to help alleviate the situation. For instance, New York uses a metric called Area Median Income (AMI) to define who qualifies for affordable housing in the city. However, this metric does not represent New Yorkers' median income, but is artificially inflated due to the already extremely high rents in the city. Additionally, the AMI is a single number used across the city, regardless of a resident’s income in any specific borough or neighborhood. We propose revising the way AMI is used as a qualifying factor for affordable housing, so that buildings participating in affordable housing programs in the city are truly reasonably priced for the neighborhoods in which they're built. At this juncture, we recommend housing subsidies to alleviate the rent-salary disconnect.

Our work and results were organized into a slide deck and lecture, which we presented on May 4, 2023, at Columbia to industry experts from academia, city government, and private practice, working in real estate, finance, architecture, and urban planning. We subsequently received an incredible amount of feedback from various stakeholders on how to make progress on this critical issue affecting almost three-quarters of New Yorkers. As we continue our work, we plan to publish and disseminate the research more widely to aid informed discussions throughout New York and the surrounding region.

The lab has also been studying New York State Governor Kathy Hochul's housing proposal. What is the status of that project?

Since Governor Hochul announced the New York Housing Compact in March, it has caused quite a stir. It was met with more criticism than support, and did not go through this year as it did not pass budget negotiations. The criticism was particularly strong in neighborhoods that feared the compact would override local-level authority on land use, increase the mixed-income population, and change the character of the neighborhood. Given the comprehensive nature of the compact in addressing housing challenges, as well as the media attention it has received, our intention was to effectively understand the compact’s proposals, and communicate this information in an accessible manner.

We explored each housing instrument featured in the compact, and its impact on targeted localities, particularly in New York City and neighboring counties. Even though the compact didn’t pass, it presents a novel approach. We considered it to be a vital component of our research this semester, and developed tools to explain it in graphic ways. We believe similar housing policies will need to be considered and implemented in the future, to increase access to affordable housing in both the city and throughout the state.

Any other lab projects?

There are two themes we have been researching that need further exploration.

Rethink the shelter system—New York City has spent over $33,000 per homeless person since the Department of Homeless Services was set up in 1993. With the homeless population skyrocketing in recent years, this expenditure reached $3.1 billion in 2021 alone, with most of the budget going to shelter operations. Yet less than 30% of shelter-seeking families are eligible due to onerous conditions, and the fact that shelters remain a major source of building violations. People remain in the shelter system for up to three years on average, stuck in poor living conditions. We need to improve this system to prevent opportunistic operators from exploiting New York's right-to-shelter law, and reimagine how people can avoid a housing crisis.

Universal Basic Income—UBI has been a polarizing topic ever since Andrew Yang brought it up during the 2020 Democratic primaries. While routinely billed as ridiculously expensive and un-American in the way it seemingly disincentivizes the desire to work, there are case studies in Alaska, North Carolina, California, and Finland with clear results. Given how housing is often the single largest household expenditure and one of the most important bills in a household, we researched UBI as a tool to reduce the rent burden in a potentially less expensive way. The idea of UBI targeted to households most at risk of becoming homeless is an expensive proposition. However, it would cost six times less than the current shelter system. 

Housing affordability in New York City is complex and varied. It engages physical systems and technologies, design, policy, and economics. These factors dramatically influence the quality of life of all New Yorkers. Our study demonstrates how the lack of affordable housing limits the city and makes it less stable. Changing the current conditions and making housing progressively more affordable will require collaborative, dramatic action.