2020 Theses Master's
Preservation Through The Self-Help Housing Movement
Older, multi-family, residential buildings were threatened by abandonment, landlord neglect, demolition, and fire in New York City’s most distressed neighborhoods before, during, and following the 1975 fiscal crisis. However, several of these resources survived this period through the value that tenants, communities and housing advocates saw in them. In this thesis, I sought to answer these questions: What role did tenants have in the preservation of distressed buildings? How did city agencies and housing advocates enable and help them? How did these actors perceive the preservation of distressed residential buildings through self-help? To what extent have the physical characteristics of the buildings been preserved? How have these actions preserved other aspects such as affordability, community, and continuity of residents? What lessons can be learned from New York City’s history of self-help housing?
The thesis is organized into three parts. Part I provides background information about housing issues in the city during this period, the tenant movement, and rehabilitation and low-income tenant ownership policies. Part II presents a narrative of self-help housing experiences—from squatting, sweat equity, and urban homesteading—in Morningside Heights and Manhattan Valley neighborhoods that are connected through key actors and organizations. In Part III, I asses my research findings regarding physical, community, and affordable housing preservation.
I argue that through the self-help housing movement, tenants in New York City preserved physical built characteristics of their residences and neighborhoods. Their collective actions brought and held together communities. They generated affordable housing for themselves and others. These occurrences may not have been possible without the support of advocacy groups and government bodies who provided support, financing, and formality. Most buildings discussed are still standing and attractive neighborhood resources. Yet, not all have been able to preserve their social integrity—the collaborative spirit that saved them and affordability to the lower-income residents they served.
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