Black Families and Home Ownership

New York City has a rich housing history that includes immense challenges, great feats, and everything in between. New York is one of the most diverse cities in the world, and it’s home to a wide array of communities. In honor of Black History month, we’ll be looking at the housing policy that led to the creation of the historic Harlem River Houses, and we’ll explore the reasons for their little-known legacy. 

It’s no secret that there have always been racial disparities in housing. Going as far back as the 1930s, practices like redlining and zoning have been commonplace institutional obstacles stifling Black families seeking access to homeownership, a crucial step in the American Dream. 

Redlining is the practice by banks of selectively denying housing loans to Black Americans. Zoning refers to a set of governmental land designations that “prioritized single-family homes … and separated residents by race” (Housing Net). 

Both practices laid the foundation for housing segregation in America, the legacy of which still echoes through various modern discriminatory practices. Still there have been policy interventions to move toward equitable access, one being the Harlem River Houses.

Harlem River Houses

In 1937, seven residential buildings were opened alongside the Harlem River in Manhattan, New York. This was the first time, in any of New York’s five boroughs, that federal money was used to construct public housing, ultimately creating housing options for the city’s Black communities.

Different factors contributed to the historical need for these buildings: 

  • The Great Depression left about 25% of Harlem’s population unemployed
  • Real estate values in Harlem had decreased in the early 20th century, as did the number of local businesses
  • Segregated public housing left few housing options for the city’s Black communities
  • Roosevelt’s New Deal and the creation of NYCHA opened the door to a whole new era of public housing capability 

With historic levels of economic disparity as the cultural backdrop, using federal money to construct public housing was a bold experiment, the success of which could greatly influence the fate of future public housing efforts. In 2017, then Congressman Adriano Espaillat had this to say about the buildings:

“The Harlem River Houses was one of the first public housing developments built, and in remembering its legacy serving the African-American residents of Harlem, we must pledge to secure its future and the accessibility of public housing for all residents. The NYCHA waiting list is at a record high of nearly 260,000 families, and now more than ever, we must recognize the crucial role public housing plays in keeping our city diverse, affordable, and accessible for all.”

The project also owes much of its success to one of its architects: John Louis Wilson, Jr. He was one of the few Black architects that was registered in New York at the time and the first Black graduate of Columbia University’s graduate school of architecture. Later, he would go on to found the Council for the Advancement of the Negro in Architecture. 

The buildings did not conform to the traditional architectural style of the day, instead exploring elements like enclosed communities spaces and a uniform five stories per building (this was meant to make the space feel more affable). “Wilson pioneered the use of large courtyards, open spaces, the planting of trees, and community rooms—many of the features known to be vital for healthy housing” (NYC Housing Authority). All of these housing decisions are still implemented today, revealing the impact of Wilson’s experimentation.  

Interested in reading more about how the topic of homeownership relates to other communities? Check out our older blogs: 

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