From “Providing Housing” to “Building Communities”: a brief History of the Albany Housing Authority

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From “Providing Housing” to “Building Communities”:

A Brief History of the Albany Housing Authority

Robert Briggs – Author

Barry J. Romano - Editor


The broadly diverse fifty-six year history of the Albany Housing Authority has been shaped by the many phases of its existence. Some have echoed larger patterns in public housing that affected the country as a whole, while others have been unique in time and place. Its birth in 1946 came as a response to veterans’ needs for housing. Like many other agencies across the nation, it was involved in the construction of tower projects like the Thacher and Lincoln Park Homes. It is now actively involved in housing programs that focus on helping its residents become part of a community, as evidenced by the HOPE VI and Section 8 voucher programs. The Albany Housing Authority, or AHA, has also expanded its influence to include a variety of social service and outreach programs. It has tested its ingenuity and ability to adapt to housing needs in a unique situation. Across decades, the Albany Housing Authority has survived and matured into an organization that endeavors to promote a sense of community as well as effectively discharge its core duty of providing decent, safe, affordable housing.

Early History and Historical Context

Many people think of World War II as a time that tried the nation and tested its resourcefulness, patriotism, and courage. However, the years immediately following the war presented challenges of their own. Many returning soldiers faced a struggle to secure employment and housing. On August 1, 1945 the Federal Government’s Special Committee on Postwar Economic Policy and Planning released a small booklet entitled Postwar Housing,1 which emphasized the need for housing coordination to be focused on a local level.

In his end of year message for 1945, Mayor Erastus Corning singled out two issues of immediate concern to the City of Albany. One was the construction of a city-owned bus terminal. The other was the establishment of a housing authority. Mayor Corning reasoned, “With a Municipal Housing Authority in existence it is, first, considerably easier to gather together all the information that is needed on our housing problems to give us accurate and complete knowledge of its various phases. Second, if such a Housing Authority should determine that there is a need for public housing, it would be in a position to start immediate negotiations with Federal and State Agencies with the view to constructing the necessary projects without delay.”2

The Mayor’s initial concern was housing returning veterans who were unable to secure living arrangements for their families. Building housing was one thing, but administering that housing and screening applicants would require systematic oversight by an agency. Mayor Corning told the American Veterans Committee (AVC) that, “With the formation of the Albany Housing Authority, the referral service would be rendered by one city sponsored agency.”3

At its meeting on February 4th 1946, the Albany Common Council passed a motion authorizing Mayor Corning to seek State legislation that would create a housing authority for the city. On February 25th, 1946, the Public Authorities Law was amended by the addition of Section 1284, making official, the birth of the Albany Housing Authority. The original legislation called for five members to make up the governing Board of Commissioners of the AHA and imbued them with “the powers and duties now or hereafter conferred by the public housing law upon municipal housing authorities.”4

The organizational meeting of the Albany Housing Authority was held on March 31st 1946. The founding members of the five-person committee were Roy G. Finch, M. Michael Dobris, Rev. William Hunt, Rev. Reginald M. Field, and Edward F. Kennel. Mr. Finch was named the first chairman. At the meeting, the bylaws of the Housing Authority were adopted and, in addition to the five governing members, the position of Executive Secretary was established. As well as being responsible for maintaining the AHA records, the original bylaws state that the “Executive Secretary of the Board of Commissioners shall be the Executive Director of the Authority and shall have general supervision over the administration of business and the affairs of the Authority…”5

On June 1st, 1946, by appointment of Mayor Corning, Bernard V. Fitzpatrick became the first Executive Secretary of the newly created Albany Housing Authority. Fitzpatrick had a long history of municipal service. Having served in the Mayor’s office in one capacity or another since 1926 he was familiar with the workings of municipal government. During the Mayor’s one-year absence from office while serving in the military, it had been Fitzpatrick who faithfully sent newspaper clippings and kept the Mayor abreast of the happenings at City Hall. The June 1, 1946 edition of the Times Union referred to Fitzpatrick as one of the most popular individuals in the administration. Fitzpatrick was granted an annual salary of $5,500, an amount that exceeded his salary as Mayor Corning’s administrative assistant by $1,650.

To help defray costs of setting up the Housing Authority, the city’s Common Council initially allocated a municipal budget of $4,750. The Report of the Comptroller for that year indicated that only $2,732.65 was spent on salaries and “printing, stationary, etc.”6

Even though the Authority’s initial concern was to house veterans, board members and the Executive Secretary had large-scale public housing projects in mind. On October 21, 1946, Bernard Fitzpatrick was present at a meeting with several members of the New York State Division of Housing. The Housing Authority proposed to begin work on 600 units of public housing pending state funding. Sadly, the State Division of Housing felt that with building materials still being tightly controlled so soon after the war, and with federal emphasis being on veteran’s housing, it was unlikely that so many units of public housing would receive funding. Albany would not see its first large-scale public housing project for several years.

The Albany Housing Authority did, however, immediately begin to assist with emergency housing for veterans. They were involved with the creation of barracks style housing that was erected in St. Mary’s Park, as well as coordinating the moving process for veterans and their families into various properties in the city. St. Mary’s Park was located off Washington Avenue, and is the current site of the Albany High School, just west of Beverwyck Park. The city’s involvement in the project would be short lived. Disagreements with the State Housing Agency over how the project was to be administered caused Mayor Corning to withdraw the city’s participation in July of 1946. Although the State Housing Commissioner at the time, Herman T. Stichman, claimed to be “mystified” by the Mayor’s action, Corning felt that with the state directly overseeing a city authority, complications would arise that would leave the city at a disadvantage.7 The city surrendered 500 veterans’ applications to the state. As of March 31st, 1947, 130 families would be housed. Although the city had withdrawn from the project and left it under state control, the AHA kept its connection with some residents of the project.

Fitzpatrick’s role as Executive Secretary of the Housing Authority would be a brief one. He resigned his position on March 15th, 1947 to become the Deputy Commissioner of Welfare for Albany County. The position of Executive Secretary remained vacant till January 8th, 1948, when Harry J. Wands was appointed.

The First Large Scale Projects

The Housing Act of 1949 made federal funds available for urban renewal and public housing. This would later be bolstered by the Housing Act of 1954 that provided “a workable program” for urban renewal efforts.8 Early in 1950, the AHA began plans for its first federal grant to build large-scale permanent public housing in conjunction with urban renewal efforts in Albany. Sites were selected on Colonie Street and Van Woert St. The federal government rejected the Van Woert St. site, but approval was given for Colonie St. 9 The Public Housing Administration (PHA) approved a loan of $210,000 with an initial advance of $26,000. Edward J. Toole was selected as the architect. The Colonie St. project was given the designation NY 9-1, and ground was broken January 23, 1952.10 At its inauguration the project would be named the Robert E. Whalen Homes, in honor of a well-known Albany attorney who had participated in the State Constitutional Convention of 1938.11 The first tenants moved in on January 15th 1953, and the project was completed later that year at a total cost of 1.5 million dollars. In their original configuration, the Whalen Homes consisted of 108 apartments in six, three-story brick buildings. Mr. and Mrs. George J. Lynch were proclaimed the first official tenants of the Whalen homes, and Mayor Corning greeted a box laden Mrs. Lynch as she entered her new home in the “C” building of the site. When asked what she thought of her new apartment, she replied simply, “It’s lovely here.”12 Before the completion of the first project, the Albany Housing Authority saw another change in its management. In 1951 Michael Murphy would become the new Executive Director.

The building of the AHA’s second project, NY-9-2, ran almost concurrently with the Whalen Homes. Designed by Edward J Toole, it was placed in an area heavily modified by urban renewal efforts on the newly configured streets of Brady, Lawn, and Maguire in North Albany. Unlike the Whalen Homes, the second project consisted of 292 units of row housing spread across 23 two-story buildings on an over 30-acre site. The project was finished at the end of 1953 with the first residents slated to move in that December. Project NY-9-2 was inaugurated as the Edwin Corning Homes in honor of Mayor Corning’s father who had been Albany’s Democratic Party Chairman in the 1920’s and had also served as lieutenant governor under Alfred E. Smith.

The Corning Homes brought the Housing Authority back to its roots. Although the veterans’ housing project in St. Mary’s Park was successful in many ways, it was always intended to be a temporary solution. The Legislature had set its initial life at five years in 1946, but had granted two one-year extensions since many families were still unable to find permanent homes. December 31, 1953, was set as the date by which the state was required to have all of the homes razed and the site ready for surrender to the city.13 At the end of October of that year, Judge M. Michael Dobris, the then chairman of the Authority, announced that several of the 50 remaining veterans’ families would be able to move into the soon to be completed Corning Homes.14 Even with the Housing Authority’s aid, the final 20 families on the park would have to be removed by the city as it finished the state’s demolition work on the last few remaining buildings in June of 1954.15

Towers in the Park and the South Mall

The late 50’s and early 60’s would bring two changes to Albany that would impact public housing. The first was the change in the city’s composition brought about by mass moves to suburban townships such as Colonie, Guilderland and Bethlehem, and by the development of new residential subdivisions in the sparsely settled western and south-western areas inside the city limits. The second was the Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller South Mall project, which was announced in March 1962 and required purchase by the state and demolition of the structures on 98.5 acres of densely occupied city streets on the south side of downtown Albany. Estimates of the number of people displaced by the South Mall varied from 7,000 to 9,000 people. In November of 1962, the New York State Division of Housing and Community Renewal released a survey of housing needs in Albany.16 In the report it noted that between 1950 and 1960 Albany had lost 3.9% of its population, dropping from 134,995 people to 129,726 over the course of the decade. The simple shift of 5,269 people obscures an underlying, more relevant ethnic shift. Between 1950 and 1960, the minority population increased by 86.6% or 5,091 people, while the non-minority population declined by 10,360. This change mirrored a then common occurrence in the United States. With the prosperity of the 50’s, many white middle-class households left the central city in favor of single-family homes in the suburbs. An article in the March 20, 1960 edition of the Times Union lamented two problems. First, a rapidly increasing demand for new housing was driving up the cost of building materials. Second, new homebuyers were demanding ranch style and split-level housing as opposed to two-story or taller homes. The article stated that efforts to resurrect the two-family home had failed miserably.

It was impossible to build this new, popular style of housing in the center of the city. Land was simply too expensive and in too short supply. As a result Albany began to extend west and southwestward, developing new lower-density neighborhoods beyond Pine Hills and along the more distant portions of New Scotland Avenue, Hackett Boulevard and Whitehall Road. This new, automobile-dependent lifestyle offered greater privacy and more indoor and outdoor space. In 1957, during this period of drastic transition, Michael Murphy would leave his post as Executive Director of the Housing Authority and be replaced by Robert Bender, a former city alderman and resident of the South End.

The out migration of the middle-class from the city did not resolve housing issues. The 1962 housing survey classified 6,469 or 14% of all housing units in Albany as “deteriorating,” and 1,578 units, or about 3.5%, as “dilapidated.” Comparatively, Albany had greater percentages of “deteriorating” and “dilapidated” housing than the City of New York. Many of the deteriorating housing units had no running water or private toilet. In fact, 2,018 units of housing that had been deemed structurally sound had no running water or private toilet either. By 1961 all rent control measures placed on Albany by the state had been removed and rents had risen roughly $13 a month in just one year. This was during a time when the median monthly rent with controls in place had been around $40 a month. The new families who were coming into Albany, many with lower incomes, were entering a housing market full of substandard units with steadily increasing rents.

After the passage of the 1954 Housing Act, numerous proposals were made for federally funded urban renewal projects in Albany. They were intended to replace slums and blighted areas with new housing, businesses and public facilities. With the middle class on the move to the suburbs, Albany’s inner city neighborhoods, like those of many other American cities in the North-East and Mid-West, were decaying and beginning to suffer the first signs of economic downturn. One of Albany’s urban renewal projects was aimed at the city’s South End. It called for dramatically altering the existing structure and configuration of buildings and streets in the area.

The public housing that was to be built in the renewal area was a radical departure from past efforts in the city. Following the example of other new projects around the country, Albany opted for “towers in the park” which concentrated residents vertically as opposed to horizontally. The historic street system with its small blocks was largely eliminated, creating new “superblocks” of towers and open space. The idea was to use only small portions of a lot for building while leaving the area surrounding it more open. New York City had already used this concept to build public housing projects such as the Elliot Houses in Manhattan, and the Brownsville Houses and Albany Houses in Brooklyn.17

The new tower style developments were often concrete slab type construction. This was designed to allow large numbers of units to be built quickly and more economically. A lower start-up cost per unit was important to housing authorities that were often expected to build large numbers of units with limited grant money.

Albany’s new housing project in the South End was to have four, twelve-story towers built on an area bounded by Rensselaer, Green, Bassett, and Church streets. The new project also differed from the two existing projects in that it was named before the final bid was even accepted by the US Public Housing Authority. The towers were to be called the John Boyd Thacher 2nd Homes in honor of the late former mayor of Albany. The Housing Authority also established a maximum income before the project was begun. In order to qualify to live in the new apartments, a family of three could earn no more than $2,400 annually.18

On December 15th, 1958, demolition began for the new public housing site.19 The old homes in the area were completely destroyed, and construction of the massive towers began. The buildings were designed by Urbahn, Brayton, & Burrows of New York City.20 The general construction was overseen by H. R. H. Construction of New York City.

Construction of such large buildings was not a simple task. In July of 1959 it was discovered that some of the dowels that supported reinforcing rods in the foundation were bent, and had to be replaced.21 Beyond problems in construction, the buildings themselves had interesting quirks that had been purposefully incorporated into the design. There was to be no garbage collection. Trash was thrown down a central chutes into an incinerator. Each building had a staggered elevator system. One elevator stopped only on even floors, and the other only on odd floors. Perhaps the decision that sparked the most initial curiosity was the choice to have no shower plumbing installed. The reason for the decision was twofold. One reason was to reduce building costs. The other was to prevent water damage. Robert Bender, the AHA Executive Director, quipped, “You’ll have to remember, there’ll be a lot of children living in those buildings.”22

The first of the towers was completed in early 1961. In the February 26, 1961 edition of the Times Union, a huge two-page spread advertised the development. “Lofty Apartments Spring from Slum” was the headline for one article on the Thacher Homes. Aerial photos of the project showed the austere towers looking out over the Hudson River and dwarfing the surrounding buildings.

Construction on the Thacher Homes had scarcely begun when the Albany Housing Authority began looking for a site for the city’s fourth public housing project. The plans for the project were twofold. Designed by August Lux and Associates, the first portion would involve the construction of a fifth twelve-story tower near the Thacher Homes and designated for elderly residents. The second portion would involve two-twelve story buildings and two eight-story buildings. These four towers were to be built incorporating a small portion of Lincoln Park, and for that reason they were named the Lincoln Park Homes. Built by the MSI Corporation, the Lincoln Park Homes were completed in1966.

Tower living brought with it new challenges. Those living in the upper floors were unable to watch children playing on the grounds, and children were left to play in halls and stairwells. The novelty of elevators was also attractive. The strain of overuse and vandalism forced the Housing Authority to spend thousands of dollars a year just to keep the elevators functioning.23 Although the outside area of the towers was open, the inner areas were hidden from view. This made them hard to patrol effectively with security. By May of 1963, tenants of the Thacher Homes would say that it was impossible to leave after dark, and that they lived in fear.24 In June of 1967, faced with increasing vandalism and crime, the governing board of the Housing Authority would order Robert Bender to “completely circulate” the residents of the Thacher Homes for the second time since the development was built.25 This circulation entailed reassigning tenants to new apartments in an effort to scatter families and break up groups of people in particular areas that were viewed as problematic.

George Marbley remembers the beginnings of the Thacher Towers. He moved in 1966 with his family of nine children and became quickly aware of how the towers’ layout did not take into account some simple aspects of family living. One immediately obvious problem was the lack of ground floor restrooms. Marbley recalls, “During this period of time we had a lot of kids in these buildings… big families… a lot of them… all through here. Now a lot of the families at that time would let kids go out and play in the playgrounds. We had little playgrounds around here and they’d go try to make it back in the building to use the elevator. You would find waste and urine on the elevator, the hallways weren’t mopped, stairwells, everything was a mess.” Father Peter Young, a respected priest and advocate for South End residents, also remembers those times. “People that were coming in were not in any way prepared for that kind of living. … The bathrooms were upstairs in the apartments and not downstairs where they needed to be, so the kids would run into the elevator and go to the bathroom all the time. Then they finally put bathrooms in the lobbies. We were working with these little things all the time in the community because there were a lot of people in the projects.”

Maintenance problems were also taking their toll. With the new towers, it was vandalism and emergency repairs as opposed to simply age and a high tenant volume as was the case with the Whalen and Corning Homes sites. Bender struggled to keep maintenance fully staffed, but he experienced a high turnover rate and a lack of interest among maintenance firms in the area. Several times in the sixties he would complain to the board of the AHA that he was unable to adequately recruit for maintenance positions.26

In the mid-sixties the Albany Housing Authority faced a unique change that would further challenge the already burdened housing situation in the city. The demolition of more than a thousand buildings to make way for the Governor’s South Mall, eventually to be known as the Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza, had made Albany’s already tight housing market much tighter. To ease the crisis, Rockefeller promised housing would be built to replace what was lost during this process.

In conjunction with the State Division of Housing and Community Renewal, the Albany Housing Authority began work on NYS-136. Designed by Lux and Quakenbush and built by the Cozzolino Construction Corporation, the project was completed in 1967 and dubbed the Ezra Prentice Homes. The new development offered low-rise family housing on South Pearl Street.27

Even with the Ezra Prentice Homes, more housing was needed to replace that which was lost to demolition under the South Mall initiative. Plans were begun to construct another state sponsored development commissioned as NYS-137 and located near the Empire Plaza. The name of Roosevelt Terrace was chosen for the project, and plans drawn up by Blatner, Mendel, and Mesick were submitted in late 1966 to the State Division of Housing and Community Renewal.28 The project was to be built in the South Mall area as partial fulfillment of Rockefeller’s housing promise. Everything was proceeding as planned, but when the estimated building cost rose from its starting point of ten million dollars to nearly nineteen million dollars, the State Division of Housing and Community Renewal informed the Housing Authority that state funding was no longer available, effectively scrapping the whole project in early 1969. The March 12, 1969 minutes of the AHA Board of Commissioners meeting noted that canceling the project at such a late stage would be costly.29 The site had already been graded and steel pilings driven. However, without full State funding, nothing could be done. The designation NYS-137 would not die with the project, and circumstances would create the need to accelerate construction of public housing at other locations.

In 1968 and 1969 the Housing Authority was struggling to get funding and plans together for senior citizen apartments on Central Avenue. The demand for this kind of housing was so great that the Authority entered into a contract with the State Broadway Company to renovate and lease the Hampton Hotel beginning in 1969. The Hampton Hotel project received the designation NY-9-6, and it eventually provided 100 units of temporary housing.

In May of 1969 the Urban League Fair Housing Coalition held public meetings to discuss nine sites that had been proposed for public housing. The meeting was heavily attended by those who had lived in the South Mall area, and whose homes had been lost to the construction of the Plaza. There were two major concerns of former South Mall residents. First, that there had still not been enough housing created, public or private, to replace what had been eliminated in downtown Albany. Second, that “towers in the park” style housing was unacceptable. Some at the meeting even referred to the towers as “cement jungles.”30 Others stated what the poor really wanted was houses and gardens. The problem was, for the most part, this wasn’t feasible. The South Mall construction had eliminated approximately forty blocks of housing and displaced roughly 3,500 families. Building another forty blocks in Albany with the limited monies available for public housing was impossible.

Still, something had to be done. The lack of housing was beginning to reflect poorly on Governor Rockefeller who was already being accused by many of being fiscally irresponsible. Rockefeller’s political plans included a bid for the presidency, and a lackluster performance in an area such as housing tied to his monolithic South Mall building project could be damaging. In September of 1969, leaders of the NAACP met with Governor Rockefeller specifically to discuss the problem of low-income housing.31 Rockefeller promised to get on the ball. The fact is that several projects were already in the works. In July 1969, Edward Kennell, the then vice-chairman of the Albany Housing Authority, had announced that two projects were to be built. One with federal money to be located in Arbor Hill and designated as NY-9-5, and the other, an extension to the Prentice Homes known as NYS-137-A.

These two projects were in addition to the tower for seniors being built on Central Avenue, designated NY-9-7. It consisted of 195 units, and was intended to meet the growing needs of Albany’s low-income elderly population. The project was designed by Robert Louis Trudeau who also designed the arch gateway to the Albany Law School. Built by Sofarelli Associates Inc. and completed in 1972, NY-9-7 was christened the Westview Homes. Hailed as a “strikingly modern structure” because of its unique rounded shape, the tower was close to the shopping district and easily accessible by bus. One early resident recalled the need for “a place with transportation … we wanted a church.” The Westview Homes were ideal because “you really didn’t need a car.” The tower was developed as a turnkey project meaning the general contractor was in charge of construction and completion, and then sold the ready-to-rent units to the Housing Authority, who purchased it with state or federal funds.32

Continuing to use the NYS 137 designation while intensifying the building schedule, the state announced two more projects that would be built with state funds; a project of family units designated NYS 137-B, and another tower for seniors, NYS 137-C. The Ezra Prentice Homes and the NYS 137 series would be the only large-scale projects in which the AHA would work in conjunction with the state. All other projects were funded through federal money and would be independently developed by the Housing Authority.

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