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A British solution to New York's housing woes

The East London borough of Hackney is an example of some of the most promising public housing


IS THERE a better way to do public housing? That's the US$32 billion question facing the federal monitor appointed to oversee New York City's dysfunctional Housing Authority (NYCHA), fresh from its recent lead paint debacle.

Estimates say the still-rising costs for repairs to all NYCHA properties are now approaching the annual gross domestic product of Bahrain.

Few cities in the world face housing problems as big as New York's. That said, New York might learn a thing or two from the East London borough of Hackney.

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Hackney has been upgrading its public housing projects - or council housing estates, as the British call them.

The approach entails a combination of new construction along with renovating some existing buildings, everything underwritten by the addition of market-rate apartments.

Leveraging market-rate construction on public housing sites isn't a new idea, of course. It has provoked occasional storms of protest in the US.

It matters here that the council itself, not some private developer, is in charge. The council represents the residents already living on the estates, who are its constituents and have the most reason to fear displacement.

It also matters that Hackney has a young, design-conscious mayor named Philip Glanville. He and his district colleagues have enlisted a London firm, Karakusevic Carson Architects, known for working closely, and well, with council residents.

Its goal: producing homes that these tenants desire, in newly mixed-income neighbourhoods where everyone reaps the benefits.

I visited a couple of estates in Hackney - one named Colville, the other, Kings Crescent - both in the midst of transformation. It will be some time before they are finished, but the results so far look good.

They are in different parts of the district. Colville Estate, from the 1950s, is in an area of Hackney that has been changing. The estate is wedged between a canal that has become home to a variety of upscale restaurants and fashion studios, and a park that remains surrounded by council housing estates.

Where Colville abuts the park, two new apartment towers replace a parking lot and a smaller, dilapidated estate housing block that was demolished some years ago.

Austere and vaguely Brutalist, at 16 and 20 stories the new towers are clad in handmade water-struck Belgian bricks, one tower red, the other a smoky gray (the darker colour a result of firing the same bricks another time).

The towers, for which Karakusevic Carson partnered with the distinguished London-based firm David Chipperfield Architects, have their own name, Hoxton Press.

Hoxton Press is an all-market-rate development. The old Colville consisted of some 430 subsidised apartments in aging, inward-turning housing blocks on narrow streets.

All those old buildings are coming down. Those 430-odd apartments are being replaced by 925 new apartments, in phases, in the coming years.

The new apartments built so far occupy a mid-rise complex of mixed-income, red-brick buildings around a network of playful, richly detailed open spaces. Hoxton Press, which acts as a signpost and gateway to the new Colville Estate, is the only all-market-rate part of the project.

All in all, the Colville makeover produces more subsidised units than before, including apartments for middle-income tenants. The estate will become roughly half market-rate, half subsidised.

Construction is being done in phases to prevent displacement. Every resident of the old Colville who chose to remain on the estate has been guaranteed a new, better home.

A similar makeover by Karakusevic Carson, working with HHBR Architects, is refashioning Kings Crescent Estate, from the 1970s, in a different part of Hackney.

There, changes involve renovations to older, existing buildings as well as the construction of sleek new midrise gray-brick apartment blocks that fill in stretches of long-vacant land where poorly maintained council towers were demolished in the early 2000s.

More than 100 older apartments are now fitted out with features residents requested, like winter gardens and balconies. Another 170 will be refurbished soon and 200 more apartments built. New and old buildings have been seamlessly integrated.

Together, they define new courtyard blocks along a grid of streets and open spaces that weave Kings Crescent into the surrounding neighborhood.

Subsidised and market-rate tenants at Kings Crescent share entrances, floors, apartment layouts and open spaces. There are no "poor doors" to distinguish entrances for different incomes.

Subsidised tenants bought into the scheme because it delivered obvious benefits. Market-rate residents bought into it because it gave them first-rate apartments in a rapidly gentrifying neighbourhood.

Materials are high quality, units light-filled, the brick architecture substantial, dignified, well proportioned, simple and modern.

In its waning months, the Bloomberg administration in New York floated a proposal to erect market-rate towers on select NYCHA properties, as a way of bridging the authority's fiscal gaps.

Residents went ballistic. But the approach was entirely unlike Hackney's. There was next to no community engagement or serious planning or specific promises upfront about what benefits tenants would reap. The developers would be private.

In Hackney, the process hasn't made everyone happy, but the majority of tenants got what they wanted: new or renovated apartments, homes with gardens and terraces, buildings that felt solid and were made of brick, not concrete or glass. They wanted to remain together, as communities.

They wanted to live in low- and mid-rise blocks, between three and 12 stories, not skyscrapers. Towers, for poor tenants, conjured failed public housing projects of the 1960s and 1970s.

For wealthy residents, towers provide lofty views from which to look down on neighbours. Navigating the conflicting semiotics, Hoxton Press, at Colville, with its involvement by Chipperfield, wears its luxury lightly.

Two first-rate London landscape firms, Muf and Vogt, handled the intricate design of the courts, gardens, paths and other public areas at both Colville and Kings Crescent.

Mr Glanville and his colleagues on the Hackney Council deserve credit here. They proceeded from a bedrock belief that good design and humane urban planning are basic rights, not privileges for the rich.

New York doesn't do urban planning. Its political leadership doesn't seem to care much about design or its social impact.

The gamble at Colville and Kings Crescent is that, step by step, engaged architects and a local government, jointly working on behalf of vulnerable residents, can turn public housing around and manage gentrification.

We shall see how these mixed-income communities in Hackney evolve. But so far, that gamble is producing some of the most promising public housing I've seen in a while. NYTIMES