As part of the research conducted for the upcoming exhibition Uneven Growth that opens later this month at The Museum of Modern Art, SITU looked into the role that illegal conversions play in the ecology of the New York City housing market. Below are some findings – first written by SITU for MoMA’s Post blog and reproduced here.


A curtain divider creates a bedroom out of a living room in this apartment in Flushing, Queens. This one bedroom apartment is shared by a mother, her son and an elderly unrelated couple. Jeyhoun Allebaugh, 2014.


Governed by a unique “Right to Shelter” mandate, New York is distinct from other municipalities across the U.S. in its legal provisions for temporary housing assistance. While this constitutional right may provide some relief for homeless New Yorkers, the extra-legal reality is that the cost of shelter has forced far greater segments of the City’s population into informal housing markets – a condition that is at once pervasive andhidden.

Even though housing in New York is rarely compared to conditions found in cities like Mumbai or Rio, one simply needs to scratch the surface in order to find the varied informal financial, social, and spatial networks that live in the shadows of New York City’s legal frameworks. Evidenced by cash-based economies, strained infrastructure, or illegally converted dwellings, much of the populations operating in these zones are poor and often concealed from view. Unlike many other parts of the world – where density is on view and a central part of policy, planning, and design discourse – a distinguishing characteristic of the informal housing market in New York is the interiority of its condition.

Because this segment of New York’s population is packed into housing stock that is completely at odds with contemporary demographic realities, the informal markets have carved up and occupied the interiors of the city in order to create viable housing options. Concealed within the City’s seemingly endless rows of apartment buildings, townhouses, and high-rises is a network of typologies that have adapted, subdivided, or converted existing spaces to accommodate the growing number of those who cannot find a place within the formal housing market. Existing somewhere between the designation of “homelessness” and the “lowest income” of the affordability ladder, this population works in the lowest paid jobs. Most frequently they are employed in the service sectors providing the support necessary to keep this so-called ‘luxury city’ upright and thriving.

While it is precisely these informal networks that most readily propagate the evidence of uneven growth in New York, it is, by definition, a condition that resists measurement. The Census conducted by the City of New York in 2010 yielded highly contentious results – by some measures undercounting by 200,000 people. These omissions were particularly acute in parts of the outer boroughs with the highest concentrations of illegally converted apartments. Whether the evidence is anecdotal or gathered by virtue of proxy indicators (i.e. utility consumption per square foot or Building Department violations), it is certain that the informal housing market is pervasive in certain neighborhoods in Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx. This reality points to the fact that the quality of life that so many New Yorkers have become accustomed to relies upon the services provided by a sizable population whose presence is rarely acknowledged or discussed. The network of Three Quarter houses, cellar units, illegal subdivisions, and flophouses that constitute this foundation conceal a significant number of citizens. In their invisible state, they are left out of the discussions, policies, and design decisions that shape the city in which they live.


I. Riis

Jacob August Riis, Family in room in tenement house, ca. 1910. Gelatin silver print. From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York.


A quiet and persistent reality, New York has long been reluctant to betray its interior. In the late 19th century, a Danish immigrant and activist named Jacob Riis leveraged the then nascent technology of the tungsten flash to document the conditions of the City’s most vulnerable populations – those living in tenements on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Compiled in his seminal work, How the Other Half Lives, Riis’ photographs revealed the realities of some of New York City’s more abhorrent housing conditions. This act of documenting and exposing the City’s informal ‘underside’ to the wider public, allowed Riis to demonstrate that amidst the prospering urban population was an integral but invisible city with unmet and unacknowledged needs. The most remarkable legacy of this work is the social reform movement it catalyzed, which ultimately led to the first significant US legislation addressing tenement house reform. Despite having been undertaken over a century ago, Riis’ project remains more relevant than ever as the same conditions of hidden density persist across the City today. At an inflection point between two NYC administrations with very different agendas, Riis’ work remains contemporary – a precedent for rendering visible a reality pervasive, yet hidden.


II. Illegal Conversions

311 New York City service complaints (from 2010 to Present) reporting illegal conversions of residential building/spaces. Source: New York City Department of Buildings


Because of its very informal nature, it is extremely difficult to quantify and geographically document instances of illegal conversions. Late last year New York City publicly released 200 data sets through the online NYC Open Data portal. A constantly growing source of metrics about the city, few of these data sets help to reveal what is actually going on behind the buildings’ facades. One exception that does speak to the existence of an informal housing market is the 311 Service Requests data set that provides users with enough information to parse out occurrences of illegal conversion complaints. While information related to these complaints – such as whether there was a confirmation of a conversion or what kind of action was taken – is still not available, the data provides a notional, if incomplete, picture of neighborhoods where informal housing markets are concentrated. The visualization provided here shows a so-called heat map that indicates the areas in question. Represented by concentrations of bright blue, this map reveals that the majority of the “hot spots” occur in the outer boroughs, particularly, in the more remote sections of Queens, such as Jamaica, Elmhurst and Jackson Heights, where large numbers of first generation immigrants live.


III. Cellars

Entryway, cellar apartment in Woodside, Queens. Photo: Jeyhoun Allebaugh, 2014.


In New York City, a legal distinction is made between cellars and basements (the former is defined as having more than half of the unit’s height below curb level). At odds with both zoning and building code, most of these units are illegally occupied in high density neighborhoods, where housing options above ground are often not viable for recent immigrants with precarious financial and legal circumstances. While accommodating the city’s growing population at affordable rates, cellar units also help homeowners pay their mortgages. Yet, because cellar units are illegal under current regulations, tenants residing in them cannot claim basic housing rights. Certain cellar units have inadequate egress and ventilation which make them unsafe to occupy. Still, the appropriation of these spaces, while perhaps less than ideal, offers a much needed affordable option.

With assistance from Chhaya CDC, a housing advocacy organization dedicated to working with South Asian communities in Queens, we were able to gain access to document a cellar apartment in Woodside that was rented by a Bangladeshi family. The son, photographed here, currently attends Queen’s College, and lives in the unit with his father, a taxi driver. Shortly after these photographs were taken 7 additional family members from Bangladesh arrived to live in this apartment as well. According to current housing policy, this apartment—and thousands of others like it New York—are illegal, making their residents vulnerable to forced eviction at any time. As Chhaya has argued and campaigned for, there is much room for policy change to incentivize renovations that would allow the formerly illegal units to be safely brought to code. This can be done by introducing alterations such as a second means of egress and meeting minimum requirements for air, light and sanitation.


IV. Three-Quarter Houses

Pairs of bunkbeds occupy each bedroom. Three-quarter house in East New York, Brooklyn. Photo: Jeyhoun Allebaugh, 2014.


Three-Quarter houses offer housing to single adults under the model of supportive programs. Tenants who turn to these Three-Quarter houses for help are often returning from prison, short term hospital stays, drug treatment, or are suffering from family crises and cannot afford housing on the formal market. So-called Three-Quarter houses are generally one and two family houses or (more rarely) large apartments that rent out individual beds. While government agencies indirectly fund them, these apartments are often abandoned by the landlord or management and left unregulated and overcrowded. Without the proper oversight theses houses often fail to provide the promised services that the at-risk tenants need in order to transition into independent living. Instead, unlicensed and under maintained Three-Quarter houses often charge people with no alternative housing options for a bed in overcrowded, poorly maintained or even hazardous spaces. Meanwhile, residents are often unlawfully evicted if they refuse to comply with the house rules.

The tenant in the house pictured explained to us that the management company has abandoned the property leaving occupants to run it more or less on their own. The landlord has failed to pay the electricity bills for over a year, leaving the entire second story of the house without power. As a result, the tenants occupying this level were left with little choice but to reside there while looking for support and representation from the outside. The tenant, one of nine in the apartment, is a client of MFY Legal Services – an organization that provides pro-bono legal counsel. MFY assisted us in gaining access to document this apartment.


V. Flophouses

Michael Fidler, 66, originally from Brooklyn, has been living in this cubicle in the Sun Bright Hotel at 140 Hester Street for 11 years. The accommodations there measure 7 by 5 feet. Photo: William Farrington / Polaris


Relics of the tenement houses that Riis photographed more than a century ago, flophouses remain a fixture across the City. Flophouses are temporary residences where tenants generally pay less than $10 a night in order to sleep in tiny spaces where ceilings are often missing, bathrooms are shared, and ventilation is poor. Flophouses might take the shape of motels, SRO’s (single room occupancies), or other dormitory style housing. A typology concentrated in Chinatown and the South Bronx, these spaces frequently house single adults – a growing demographic within the city that crosses socio-economic boundaries. Flophouse tenants possess little-to-no privacy, housing stability is largely absent, and building conditions deteriorate with lack of oversight and regulation. However, with few viable affordable alternatives for single room occupancy housing, these spaces provide workforce housing to those who continuously sustain New York. Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg has, on more than one occasion, affectionately referred to New York as the “Luxury City.” This characterization, perhaps inadvertently, points to the primary role that the service sector plays in the everyday functioning of this city. Rendering visible and acknowledging this condition as a defining characteristic of New York is an essential starting point towards addressing the severity of inequality. New York’s current Mayor, Bill DiBlasio, was elected, in large part, because of his focus on addressing what he has called “Two New Yorks” and has made inequality in general and housing in particular central issues in his rhetoric during the first year of his administration. The informal housing market is just one of many symptoms of this unevenness, but it does provide a point of entry, a tangible manifestation of the extreme polarity that so defines New York.


VI. Shared Spaces

Two young couples and their four children share a two bedroom apartment with another single individual in Jackson Heights, Queens. Patrick Mandeville, 2014.


Existing housing stock in New York is often at odds with the demographics it hosts. Many newly arrived immigrant families move in with relatives or other families with already established networks. To accommodate the newcomers, existing families subdivide their homes, creating new, affordable housing options. While it is a condition that can be found city-wide and across architectural typologies, one of the most striking manifestations can be found in parts of Queens amidst concentrations of single and two-family detached residences. Originally designed for the nuclear family, these spaces now frequently serve multiple families at a time, often constituted of multi-generational households. This density, ensconced within spaces designed for idealized familial units of past eras is ubiquitous, if hidden from the street, in many parts of the City.

Two young couples and their four children share an apartment with another single individual in Jackson Heights, Queens. In this two bedroom apartment, the living room bathroom and kitchen function as communal spaces hosting synchronous and shared activities.

In another space documented in Flushing, Queens a rental unit is shared by residents who have subdivided using a curtain to create divisions within the living room space. This apartment is shared by a young Korean-American man and his mother who rent out their one bedroom to an elderly unrelated couple. Minkwon Center for Community Action, an organization dedicated to doing advocacy and legal work on behalf of the Asian-American immigrant communities based in Flushing, helped us gain access to document this space.


A shared and sub-divided apartment in Flushing, Queens. Jeyhoun Allebaugh, 2014.