A Brief History of Public Housing on the LES

New York Times, February 1938.

Editor’s note: The New York City Housing Authority’s decision to lease some of its property for luxury development has focused new attention on public housing on the Lower East Side. Eric Ferrara of the LES History project takes a look back at the origins of public housing, which can be traced to our neighborhood.

When the City Planning Commission formed on January 1, 1938, one of its primary initiatives was to revitalize the most poverty-stricken neighborhoods of New York City. After identifying the Lower East Side waterfront as one of the Big Apple’s neediest districts, the commission proposed amending long-standing zoning regulations in order to restore property values, to encourage new construction and to raise the standard of living for thousands of families.

Plans were drawn to rezone a stretch of Manhattan coastline—extending half a mile inland—between the Brooklyn Bridge and East 14th Street. This area served as the city’s primary industrial district for over a century, at various times hosting the largest concentration of stables, factories, warehouses, and coal, lumber and iron yards in the city. However, by the 1930s, these industries had moved on, leaving the long-neglected “Dry Dock District” an unsightly amalgam of abandoned piers and crumbling tenements, where some of the New York’s poorest families lived in hazardous, unsanitary conditions.

NYCHA Plans Luxury Housing Alongside Five LES Public Housing Projects

Photo via Alfred E. Smith Houses Facebook page.

The next big housing battle on the Lower East Side is upon us.  In the past month, officials with the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) have been briefing elected officials and some tenant leaders about plans to lease a huge amount of property alongside public housing to private developers for market-rate apartments and retail.    Last night, at a meeting of Community Board 3′s land use committee, activists began to mobilize against the proposal, one tenant leader saying in regards to NYCHA, “if you want a war you’ve got a war.”

The cash-strapped agency has been talking about selling or leasing some of its property for years.  A 2008 report from the Manhattan Borough President found that the housing authority has more than 30 million square feet of unused property rights (including parking lots, playgrounds and open space).  In September, NYCHA Chairman John Rhea signaled that he was preparing to move ahead with the leasing plan as a way of narrowing the authority’s annual $60 million budget gap.

Family of Woman Murdered in Baruch Houses Sues City

Jomali Morales

The family of Jomali Morales, the woman violently killed in the Baruch Houses last winter, has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the city, seeking unspecified damages.

Morales’ body was found in an elevator at Baruch February 12th. She had been stabbed 20 times. A 19-year old resident of the city’s largest public housing complex, Markeece Dunning, was arrested and charged with second degree murder.  The 42-year old woman, who was born and raised on the Lower East Side, had been out in the neighborhood, celebrating her birthday the night of the killing.

According to the Post, Morales’ mother, Petra Montanez (also known as Petra Vitale), filed the civil lawsuit against the New York City Housing Authority in Manhattan Supreme Court.

The suit alleges the city knew the Baruch Houses were “infested with criminals” but neglected to evict tenants with “vicious properties, violent outbreaks and prior violent acts, criminal backgrounds, gang affiliations and criminal behavior,”

Morales did not live in Baruch. She had been staying temporarily with her mother, a Grand Street resident. Dunning was arrested one month after the murder. He allegedly confessed to the crime. He had been arrested on at least 11 previous occasions for drug possession, trespassing and gang assault, among other charges.  Dunning has pleaded not guilty to the charges in the Morales case.  He’s due back in court in October.