Current projects

These are projects currently begin conducted by members of the Housing Environments Research Group (HERG):

“Investigation into the durability and long term benefits of Limited Equity Cooperatives in NYC” – Housing Environments Research Group (HERG)

Limited Equity Cooperatives (LECs) in New York City provide permanently affordable and secure housing to thousands of low and middle income New Yorkers.  They represent one of the most progressive and unique housing policy experiments that NYC has produced.  After 50-30 years of existence, they are now facing many threats and rumors as to their demise abound. However, there are also many signs of their durability and success.  The Housing Environments Research Group aims to take stock of how this alternative homeownership program is faring in the current fraught political and economic climate.

We are just completing a round of expert interviews to help us understand the policy consensus around LECs and to determine how to focus our research program. These interviews reveal that professionals in housing finance, housing policy and technical assistance are concerned about failures and challenges in LECs. At the same time, they agree that they have no solid information on the nature or extent of these challenges and failures.  To gain a deeper understanding of the challenges LECs face and the benefits they offer, we will soon conduct ethnographic inquiry into the current status and viability of LECs in NYC that are rumored to be failing, and we will investigate how these buildings fare in comparison to low-income rental buildings in the same neighborhood.  Additionally, we aim to quantitatively analyze housing data to understand how NYC’s stock of LECs is faring on the whole.

While we have a strong policy interest in this work, we also seek to understand whether, and if so how, collectively owned forms of housing build community, citizenship, and social support for their residents and how they thereby contribute to the social and democratic life of the city.  HERG has researched these questions in the past, but the economy, the political climate, and the lives of residents have changed much in intervening years, and the time is ripe for renewed inquiry. The work of Caldwell and Siegel, described below, suggests that LECS do make important contributions to these areas of life right now in New York City.

“Crisis Tectonics: How Housing Market Crises Reshape the Urban Landscape”- Desiree Fields, PhD candidate in Environmental Psychology, CUNY Graduate Center

This dissertation examines how the expanded role of housing in economic growth (the financialization of housing) challenges the practice of affordable housing and community development, and threatens the supply and quality of affordable rental housing for low-income and minority communities and vulnerable populations. I trace the genealogy of policies, programs, and organizations that emerged from New York City’s property abandonment crisis of the 1970s, and how this infrastructure is now working to address overleveraged investments in the city’s rent-regulated housing. Known as “predatory equity”, these investments (mainly by corporate investors such as private equity funds) were designed to release untapped equity in rent-stabilized and rent-controlled housing stock. I argue that the financialization of housing facilitated the emergence of predatory equity, structures the daily lives of tenants far removed from Wall Street, and shapes the terms under which policymakers and community groups can address the negative externalities of these investments. The scale of capital and complex layers of actors involved in predatory equity deals often stymy efforts to recapture housing for nonprofit ownership and permanent affordability schemes, enlarging the sphere of influence of for-profit affordable housing groups. Among tenants, physical deterioration associated with predatory equity causes declining living conditions and health and safety concerns; the resulting vacancies and social disorder break up communities and foster pervasive insecurity and instability. This work provides empirical grounding to deepen theories of financialization, which often highlight abstract circuits of finance and a grand scale of capital flows at the expense of social and spatial aspects of this process.

“There is Nothing Natural, but There is Much to Celebrate, about Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities (NORCs)”– Hillary Caldwell, PhD candidate in Environmental Psychology, CUNY Graduate Center

Popular and academic interest is mounting around the notion that most individuals in the United States want to “age in place” (as opposed to being relocated to a specialized facility for older adults), but that for most, this is a struggle. Cities would seem to support aging in place by making a wide range of social and health services, and public transportation, easily accessible. However, urban processes of gentrification and the privatization of public space, on top of decades of state disinvestment in the social wage, make aging in cities difficult, especially for low and moderate-income individuals. As such, the emergence in U.S. cities of “Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities (NORCs),” in which unusually high proportions of low to moderate income residents are aging in place, is rather interesting. In these neighborhoods and housing developments programs are being developed, with public and private funding, to further support older residents. Seen as opportunities to deliver services at economies of scale, these programs are being applauded and replication attempts are underway in various other contexts. What goes under‐emphasized in the literature and press on NORC programs is that they were first developed, and still predominately exist, in Limited Equity Cooperatives (LECs) in New York City. My research explores the importance of this connection through critical ethnographic inquiry into one of the original NORC programs. I suggest that NORCs are not, in fact, naturally occurring, and that they should be understood in terms of their historical production. Conditions that appear to have encouraged the aging in place of so many residents and the development of a supportive service program in this case include: the permanent affordability and cooperative governance principles of LECs, the use‐value orientation of residents, and architectural features that are common to many LECs and to public housing developments across U.S. cities. I argue that LECs and other shared equity homeownership programs should be considered and promoted for their social, as well as economic, value. Although not well known or supported, they are an especially interesting housing model to consider in the context of the foreclosure crisis, a widespread lack of affordable housing in cities, and an aging population. In addition, I suggest that NORC‐like programs might also be fostered in communities besides those with an LEC structure, if conditions such as permanent affordability and a democratic governance structure are put into place.

The House That Miss Ruby Built: Conceptions of Value and Space in a Housing Cooperative” – Jill Siegel, PhD candidate in Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania

This dissertation examines the overlap between identity and finance through the lens of affordable homeownership. Based on two years of ethnographic fieldwork, I consider the double meaning of value—the value of the property as well as the value of persons. In the American ownership society, there is a higher status of homeowners as opposed to renters. Yet, in part as a result of the ongoing housing and financial crises, many critics question the relentless promotion of homeownership as the best solution for all households. Through an investigation into affordable housing cooperatives, I examine how new economic and financial practices shape subjectivities and socialities, especially with regard to issues of race, ethnicity, class and gender. How can new understandings of “value” change ways of thinking about ownership itself, about the states of possessive individualism/collectivism? I also consider how these cooperatives, an alternative to private ownership, can act as a potential buffer against the effects of the housing crisis and recession since, as decommoditized housing removed from the cycle of private ownership and profit, they have a fixed value and are not subject to the volatility of pricing in the private market.



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