Dr. Ben Carson, who has no experience in the fields of housing or urban development, is on his way to being confirmed as U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. After surviving a Senate confirmation hearing on Thursday, the Voice has some suggested reading for the secretary-in-waiting.
The neurosurgeon from Baltimore cited his time as a doctor in one of America’s poorest cities more than a few times throughout the hearing. “There is a strong connection between housing and health, which is of course my background,” he said in his opening statement, noting that “low-income and minority families” are particularly affected by “substandard housing conditions.”
“Giving them hope starts with giving them a safe and productive environment,” he said later. “Understanding how you create those environments is something that I think is going to make a very big difference.”
If Carson means what he says, he might want to pick up a copy of the New York City Housing Authority’s latest report, released at the Center for Architecture just hours after his confirmation hearing in D.C. The document spells out new design guidelines for renovating public housing, covering everything from kitchen cabinets and boilers to permeable pavements and roof replacement.
The end goal is to improve the quality of life in public housing, with a particular focus on health.
For example, the guidelines discourage fenced-in green areas in favor of more open public spaces. This could have a big impact, said Columbia University architecture professor Lee Altman, because the total amount of park and public space at NYCHA properties is more than twice the size of Central Park.
The new guidelines also encourage better materials. “It’s not just, ‘This is nice, we like the colors of this,’ but, ‘How is this improving air quality?’” said said Bruce Eisenberg, deputy director of NYCHA’s design office.
So, will Carson pick up on NYCHA’s latest work?
“There’s a health and housing connection,” Deborah Goddard, NYCHA’s executive vice president for capital projects, said in response to a question from the Voice. “Doing it right, designing it well, speaks to creating a healthier environment for our residents. I think it’s an equation that’s straightforward and simple, and I’m glad he endorsed it.”
While many professionals in the field are despairing over Carson’s appointment, NYCHA has kept its public statements about the nominee cautious but positive. After all, despite generations of funding cuts, the feds continue to provide a majority of NYCHA’s revenue.
Without that funding, it’s impossible to put even the best design guidelines into action. But NYCHA has suffered a 30 percent cut in capital funding since 2001, Goddard said, amounting to a $1.1 billion loss. Over the same period, the authority has lost $1.05 billion in operating funding. There’s little hope that a Trump-Carson regime would do anything but cut budgets even more.
During the question-and-answer session, architect Herbert Oppenheimer, who worked on NYCHA projects in the 1960s and 70s, reminded the audience that quality design for public housing is not a new idea. Then he brought up the funding question.
“I don’t want to depress all of you, but I do think that heralding these wonderful design guidelines is a little bit like moving the deck chairs on the Titanic,” he said. “Hopefully four years from now we can really bring funding back.”
The audience laughed. Then it applauded.