Affordable housing is one of New York City’s most elusive problems: How do you provide shelter for lower-income residents in a city built for the 1%? Over the decades, many projects have sprung up based on the prevailing architectural and sociological theories at the time, from high-rises (so-called “towers in the park“) to low-density units designed to mesh with existing neighborhoods (like the Hope VI program). But do policy makers know what life is really like in the city’s affordable developments, which house an estimated 1.5 million people, and what is and isn’t working?
Last fall, the Princeton University Press published Affordable Housing in New York: The People, Places, and Policies That Transformed a City, a critical look at housing developments across the boroughs. David Schalliol, a sociology professor at St. Olaf College and photographer was enlisted to document the sites for the book. He and the editors tried to find a way to make the material more accessible and to depict a portrait of what life was truly like for residents, not a biased representation or detached historical analysis.
“The typical narrative is that [public housing] is an unmitigated failure,” Schalliol says. “When we see those presentations, it focuses on that portion of history—the imagery focuses on that arc and emphasizes the decrepit nature of public housing or other problems experienced in public housing.”
Schalliol does his homework before photographing a site, but aims to portray everything with fresh eyes. He visited all 32 featured sites in the book and interviewed residents, property management, and custodial staff as he documented the buildings and communities.
“I carry that (information) with me, but what am I really seeing? What am I really experiencing?” he says. “Speaking as someone who’s trying to understand what’s happening, I think about the power of an image: How does it reinforce a narrative? Does it challenge the narrative if it needs to be challenged?”
The projects ranged in age from the 1950s until today. Schalliol noticed that the age of the building or the style of architecture mattered less to residents than how well the structure was maintained. “The images I produced for the project don’t gloss over problems but reflect a sense that this is ‘home’ even with all of the complications,” Schalliol says. “Some may be difficult to express in a single frame, like the tension between market value and limited equity value experienced by cooperators; for public housing residents, there may be frustrations related to dealing with a large bureaucracy. Others are more easily documented, like uneven maintenance work or problems exacerbated by limited economic means.”
Schalliol also noticed that affordable housing often means a great deal more to its residents than just having a roof over their heads. “Affordable housing facilitated more than a cheap place to live, but allowed for the opportunity to build a more satisfactory life and community,” he says.
Typically, most photos of housing projects are snapped either at the very beginning of their life, when they’re brand new and just getting publicized, or at the very end when people have already left the building and it’s unoccupied, the post-post occupancy as Schalliol calls it. “Those are the two comparative sets of images,” he says. “There aren’t enough showing the life in between.” That’s how his series is best understood—not as an accompaniment to a sensationalized media story or as the glory shot for an architecture review, but as a reflection of every day life.