Joseph Laden’s most memorable and visible accomplishment is likely to be the complete rehabilitation of Thacher and Lincoln Park Homes. To many, the Thacher Homes represented everything that was bad about public housing. Many said that, like Pruitt-Igoe, the Thacher towers should be torn down and chalked up to experience. One ten-year Thacher resident said, “The public can’t win no way they try.”70 For Laden, however, demolition was tantamount to surrender and he believed it was too soon for that. The total destruction of Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis represented the loss of 300 million dollars. Albany was different. For one thing, the Thacher Homes were a smaller and much less expensive project. Rehabilitation was a viable answer, but would not be easy.
It would, however, have to be a total rehabilitation. As Laden explained, “We could have patched and painted a couple of years ago, but that is not the solution now. You are just throwing money down the drain.”71 One important element was to change the make-up of the Thacher Homes. Experience had shown that tower living was unsuited to large families. The difficulties involved in supervising children in the towers made the living situation unpleasant. For that reason it was decided that after rehabilitation, the towers would be exclusively for the elderly and childless couples.
The Thacher rehabilitation would be a comprehensive plan. Four of the towers would be completely gutted. The size of the apartments would be increased and blind corners near the elevators, notorious for muggers, would be eliminated. The fifth tower would house a heating plant and office space for the Authority on the first two floors. . The family housing lost in the towers would be replaced in two ways. First, the Housing Authority would build forty-four new townhouses. Those townhouses were given the designation NY-9-11, and built on Green and Plum Streets.72 Second, to improve the quality of housing stock in the area, the Housing Authority would rehabilitate roughly the same number of existing homes.73 This rehabilitation project would be given the designation NY-9-12. The total cost for the rehabilitation and new construction was estimated at 19 million dollars.
The rehabilitation of the first two towers would be completed in the fall of 1982. The townhouses became available during the summer of 1983,74 and the last of the rehabilitated homes were put back on the rental market in 1985. Anxious to remove the stigma of the Thacher Homes, the entire site was renamed Steamboat Square in honor of the historic area on which it stood, close to where the nineteenth-century steam ferries that plied between Albany and New York City had docked. How did the rehabilitation change the character of Thacher? George Marbley emphatically remarked, “Well, I’ll tell you this. It’s been a big change from the sixties to now.” Steamboat Square was successful because it took into account the needs and desires of those most suited to living in the towers while simultaneously providing alternative housing for families with children.
Laura Moody, the AHA staff architect, points to the Steamboat Square initiative as a precursor to HOPE VI, incorporating many of the goals that program now emphasizes. It took a distressed project, reconfigured and modernized it, and created new, low-rise housing with individual entrances for families. It rehabilitated existing housing stock and helped to stabilize the surrounding neighborhood. Laden reserved the ground floor of each building for possible leased space in the hope of mixing public with private ventures. The National Commission on Severely Distressed Housing recognized Steamboat Square as an example of a successful rehabilitation project and a model for what could be done with housing projects in decline.
In 1982 the Housing Authority announced that Lincoln Park would receive a similar rehabilitation.75 The first two floors of three towers were converted to family housing with a private entrance. By giving families their own entrance to the building they were able to avoid the lobbies and halls. Being on the lower floors made letting children play in the outdoor areas of the project easier to supervise and control. The upper floors of the three Lincoln Towers were reserved for singles and couples. The building at 63 Morton Avenue was reserved for seniors. The total cost of the renovation was estimated at $6.9 million. One difference that set the Lincoln rehabilitation apart from the Steamboat Square rehabilitation was that land and finances were not available to build additional, new housing, at Lincoln. This difference is a poignant one when considering the two ventures.
Laden fought hard for the interests of those living in public housing. In many ways he was more successful in negotiating with the tenants than his predecessors had been. In the late summer of 1978, he defused the possibility of another rent strike, this time at the Ezra Prentice Homes. Tenants were upset about pest control, leaking roofs, and the lack of a traffic light at South Pearl and Mt. Hope Drive. Laden told the tenants that barring the traffic light, which he would need to discuss with the city, their concerns could be easily met.76 By staving off another rent strike Laden ensured that more money would not be lost -- money that was sorely needed to maintain and improve the housing stock.
On two occasions, Joseph Laden backed the tenants against powerful city interests. First, in late 1982, plans were discussed to build a low security prison facility in the South End. Those tenants who lived in the South End naturally opposed the location. They received the full support of the AHA, with the added message that “the Authority would side with its tenants”.77 Second, Laden opposed a 3.5-acre industrial park that would be built near the newly remodeled Steamboat Square. He argued that such a development would serve to cut Steamboat Square off from the Pastures area, which was in the process of being redeveloped.78 Steamboat Square needed to feel that it was part of a community. Laden also argued that the land was needed for parking, hoping to preserve the area as open.79 The industrial park was eventually constructed, but not before Laden had voiced his opposition several times in public.
Joe Laden was keenly aware of the problems of managing both state and federal projects. When housing projects are built, their completion doesn’t mean that they are paid for. Housing projects typically cost several million dollars. Bonds are normally issued to immediately pay the contractors and paid off through loans subsidized by the state or grants from the federal government. Housing authorities ideally operate in such a way that their rents combined with subsidies allow them to pay for their bonds and make payments to the city in lieu of property taxes. These payments are negotiable, but certain ideal percentages are used as benchmarks. In the 1970’s, the city was entitled to ten percent of the difference between rents collected and utility costs. If the cost of maintenance and utilities exceeded the rents collected, the Housing Authority could not pay the city without assistance. In federal projects like Lincoln Park Homes, HUD paid any shortfall that the Housing Authority might experience. In the 1970’s, however, state projects like Creighton Storey were only subsidized in terms of bond payments. That meant that when maintenance and utility costs exceeded the rents collected, the burden was shifted to the city, which lost the payments in lieu of taxes that it should have received from the AHA.
When maintenance costs were high, the Housing Authority also had to raise rents to cover operating costs. Tenants living in federal projects were insulated to some degree by federal subsidies. Those living in the state projects often faced rent increases not assessed to those in federal projects.80 Laden aggressively sought to resolve this and lobbied for the federalization of Ezra Prentice, Creighton Storey, and Townsend Park Homes. When a state project is federalized the federal government pays any bonds that are outstanding. . The project is also eligible for federal capital improvement and operating subsidies to assist with ongoing expenses. In an effort to save taxpayer money, the bonds for Ezra Prentice, Creighton Storey, and Townsend Park Homes had already been combined into a single issuance.81 Ultimately, only the Ezra Prentice Homes and their extension were federalized in 1981.
Disappointments of the 80’s: Two Cancelled Projects and the Highway Lawsuit
In the 1980’s, despite the general turnaround of the Albany Housing Authority, a few frustrating setbacks occurred. The first involved the fifty units of solar powered housing. The Housing Authority had already been awarded 2.2 million dollars to construct housing that would utilize passive solar energy.82 The problem lay with the site. The Albany Housing Authority had chosen a 9.8-acre ravine site just west of the Thruway Bridge on Delaware Avenue.83 The site was chosen because the slope would allow for the long roofs necessary to accommodate effective solar panels. Sketches of the project depicted modern looking homes with enclosed yards. The owner of the site, Mary Breiton, had entered into a tentative agreement to sell the land to the Housing Authority. Soon after plans were announced, the Delaware Area Neighborhood Association (DANA) began actively protesting and gathered over 2,000 signatures in opposition. In an effort to calm the situation, Laden opened the Housing Authority files to DANA representatives. The project was innovative, and a new low-rise low-density project for families was sorely needed.84
DANA was not interested in any kind of compromise and gave many reasons for protest. They included soil instability, pressure on infrastructure, and the fact that Mary Breiton had second thoughts and withdrew her offer to sell.85 In addition to these official reasons was a message sent by several anonymous residents that they were concerned about the people who would be moving into the neighborhood. Laden fought hard, but ultimately HUD rescinded funding as there was no feasible way that the AHA could acquire title to the land in light of the vehement opposition.86 DANA had won its battle, but the cost was high. With the funding lost, Albany would never see those fifty units of public housing, especially as the Reagan administration would slash HUD’s budget in the ensuing years.
In early 1985, the Housing Authority saw the end of a legal battle that had been raging for several years. In the late 60’s, state highway engineers had planned the route of the new Interstate 787 alongside the Hudson River. In doing so, the road passed adjacent to the 159 Church Street Tower of the Thacher Homes. The noise from the road, particularly at night, was a considerable nuisance. In 1974, shortly after the completion of the highway, the tower was designated non-housing. The noise level was unacceptable even in the towers that were further away from the busy highway. In response to the loss of a building and the nuisance of the noise, which intensified the problems of the Thacher Homes, the AHA sued the State Department of Transportation for 15.9 million dollars. In 1978 the State Supreme Court, stating that it needed to be heard in the Court of Claims, rejected the case.87 In 1983 the Court of Claims ruled that the Albany Housing Authority could not sue because it had filed more than three years after the completion of the highway. The AHA appealed on the grounds that the disturbance was ongoing. The Appellate Division of the Supreme Court rejected the appeal in January of 1985, upholding the lower court ruling.88
The final painful blow came over a 22 unit duplex project that was to be built near Central Avenue. Following HUD’s mandate to offer scattered public housing in economically stable neighborhoods, the AHA had planned to build 11 duplexes on Quail St. and in the surrounding area.89 Shortly after the announcement, opposition rose again. This time, however, from commercial interests. The vacant lot where the bulk of the housing was to be built happened to be an undesignated and “unofficial” parking lot for local businesses. Although used without the permission of the owners, a local construction firm, opponents of the housing were convinced that without the parking, congestion would plague the area. At the head of the opposition was Alice Baker, president of the Central Avenue Civic and Merchants Association.90
The purchase of the land presented no problem. The difficulty was that in order to build housing, the land would have to be rezoned as residential. Whether or not the housing would be built rested on one vote in the Albany Common Council meeting. Both sides attended the fateful meeting. The Common Council voted against changing the zoning, and only two aldermen voted for the change. One of them was Nebraska Brace, a noted black civic leader in Albany. Triumphant, Alice Baker tried to soothe the situation by saying, “These people will thank us down the road… …when they wind up with a better place to live”.91 Her words were hollow. The 2.8 million dollars for the project was lost, and the prospect of new family housing in an easily accessible area of the city was lost with it. Saddened by the whole affair, Laden would later comment that he never thought he would see the day parking would be chosen over housing.
In 1990, ready for a well-deserved retirement, Joseph Laden resigned from his position as Executive Director. He had worked for the city since 1966, and had been Executive Director of the Housing Authority since 1974. As Director, he had brought in approximately forty million dollars of federal funding. He had overseen the rehabilitation of two of the city’s most distressed projects. He had also garnered the reputation of a concerned leader who turned around the struggling Authority, saving it from the fate of many other Housing Authorities across the country.92 Laden’s involvement in housing had extended to the national level. He served as president of the Public Housing Authority Directors Association, and in the mid 80’s, when rapidly rising premium costs threatened many housing authorities nationwide, he helped found the Housing Authority Insurance Group, a public housing industry-owned captive insurer that issues a broad range of policies covering over fifty percent of the traditional housing stock in the United States. In 1988, HUD honored Laden for his work on an initiative to deregulate housing authorities.93 The initiative focused on bringing both autonomy and responsibility to local housing authorities, granting them more flexibility in identifying local solutions to local problems.94 The 90’s and Steven Longo: Service and the New Face of Public Housing
Laden was succeeded in the spring of 1990 by Steven T. Longo. At 32, Longo was the youngest Executive Director in the Albany Housing Authority’s then 44 year history. He had proven himself as the director of the Albany Community Development Agency for the previous three years and this experience made him a solid choice based on his resultant familiarity with the AHA’s operation and that of its federal overseer, HUD.
In many ways, the 1990’s represented a return for the Albany Housing Authority to its original mission. In July of 1990, as individual electric meters were being installed in Ida Yarbrough, Longo commented, “ It is a goal of public housing to prepare its’ resident for the private sector.”95 Many of the programs offered by the Housing Authority reflected this goal. In October of 1990, a cooperative program was unveiled in conjunction with Key Bank.96 More than simple financial counseling, it included a component designed to aid twenty-five tenants facing impending eviction in negotiating a re-payment agreement with the Housing Authority to avoid dispossession.
The Albany Housing Authority also continued to garner grants for various pilot programs. In December of 1990, the AHA announced that it had been selected to participate in a HUD research grant to determine the best method of abating lead paint exposures.97 In January of 1991, the Housing Authority announced that it was preparing a grant to move the adult learning program, Project Momentum, to public housing, providing it with more space for classrooms and day care.98
In the early 1990’s the Albany Housing Authority also embarked on an experimental and innovative approach to enhancing the security of the projects and their residents. Police officers were offered reduced rents to reside in public housing. The hope was that having police officers in residence would improve the image of the projects and discourage crime. Most of the tenants readily accepted the idea, although there was some concern among tenant leaders that the officers would be receiving excessive rent abatement.99 By October of 1991, nine officers were living in the Prentice, Lincoln Park, and Yarbrough Homes, and paying $100 dollars a month in rent. Two federal grants provided for police officers to begin walking beats inside the projects themselves.100
In the summer of 1993, the AHA was awarded 2.4 million dollars in modernization funds by HUD.101 Although the funds were to be divided among several of the projects, the money subsidized a much-needed external and internal renovation at the Yarbrough Homes. This included linking the two towers to accommodate seniors with disabilities and allow them to go between buildings without having to go outside.
In the spring of 1994, discussions began to establish a small store on the ground floor of one of the Yarbrough towers to serve the community. It lacked an affordable location to buy necessities.102 The goal of the store was to provide a needed service for the community, but more importantly, to provide a training program for tenants of the development, giving them jobs and an opportunity to gain practical experience.
Father Peter Young approached Steve Longo with a novel idea. Rather than simply open the store under the aegis of a private for-profit company, why not combine the store concept with the Altamont drug rehabilitation program? The AHA would get more than just a store. It would also get individuals with a desire to belong to the community. Yarbrough was beginning to experience troubling security problems and vacancy was high. Father Young’s proposal, in addition to the store, would place members of the treatment program into Yarbrough as tenants. These tenants would have their own organization, the Recovering Tenants Association or RTA. The benefits of the arrangement would help both the AHA and the Altamont program. The RTA tenants would staff the store as well as monitor the security of the building. The idea met with opposition from some tenants and members of the community who were uneasy at the idea of having recovering substance abusers in the building. Tyler Trice, president of the Yarbrough Tenant Association and the Tenant Leadership Council, explained, “Initially there was a lot of opposition to Father Young getting those apartments. I think it was some of the stereotypes that are associated with people who use drugs and people that come out of prison, but there’s a big difference between the people that Father Young was attempting to provide housing for and the average person that comes out of prison. They’ve already made the decision that they want to change their life.” That difference has carried the program a long way.
The Board of Building, Zoning and Housing Appeals approved variant use in June of 1995, and the store opened in 1996.103 The new tenants also worked hard to make Yarbrough a more pleasant place to live. From patrolling floors and helping police the development to creating a local chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous, the RTA strove to make itself an asset to the community.
The human capital provided by the RTA has also gone a long way towards helping to unify the Yarbrough Homes. Just by nature of their design, it has been difficult in the past for the individuals living in the high-rises to get to know and be involved with the families living in the low-rises. Tyler Trice and other members of the RTA have assumed a major role in the leadership of the Yarbrough Homes. One of the primary events in recent years has been an annual block party. Now in its fifth year, the party provides a venue for residents of the high-rise to mingle with the families of the low rise and gives the tenant leadership an opportunity to recognize and appreciate the two factions they represent.
The program has largely been successful. As a transitional program for those recovering from substance abuse, it has provided an important component of recuperation, a stable affordable home. For the other residents of Yarbrough, it has provided a group of dedicated tenants who have helped make it a safer place to live. The members of the RTA have a unique perspective on the problems that a community with a strong drug presence experiences. They also command a certain respect as individuals striving to live a clean and sober lifestyle. This respect has allowed them to take a stand on Yarbrough as an environment they want to keep drug free.
During its renovation, a small retail store was also opened at the Westview Homes, but it is operated by a private, for-profit entity. The store provides a convenient location for seniors to purchase the occasional needed item in between shopping trips as well as another opportunity for the residents to interact with their neighbors.
By 1996 the Albany Housing Authority had grown enough in its scope and diversity that a Deputy Director position again became necessary to the operation. By re-creating that position, which had been cut during the financial crisis of the mid-70’s, Steve Longo was able to dramatically reduce the demands on his time for oversight of some of the day-to-day operations and shift focus to planning for the future of the AHA. Then fifteen-year employee and Director of Operations, Barry J. Romano was chosen for the position.
On August 3, 1998, the Albany Housing Authority opened the Joseph F. Laden Professional Development and Teleconference Center. The center offers a wide variety of training programs. These include interactive, long distance learning, satellite based career and management extension courses such as those offered by the Housing Television Network, and site-based practical courses that support skill enhancement. These courses are offered to both AHA employees and tenants, and cover a variety of topics, from basic maintenance procedures to management strategies for modern housing authorities. By taking courses at the Laden Center, tenants have an opportunity to gain employment skills while current employees can continue to hone and update their abilities, making them eligible for promotion and other opportunities. The center can also be used as a conference location that can be rented by outside agencies or groups. Equipped with a modern kitchen, the AHA facilitates catering and other required services for lessees. The center has become another innovative asset for the AHA.
In January of 1999, the Housing Authority opened the WAGE (Working to Achieve Gainful Employment) Center in Steamboat Square at 200 Green St. Funded by a half million dollar, two year HUD grant, the center was designed to provide both job and computer education. Its location in the project made it easily accessible to families living in the community, encouraging higher attendance at its programs. Combined with the Laden Center, they provide another outreach program aimed at improving the quality of life for residents of AHA. . Helping raise the standard of living for residents does more than just improve the living conditions and resources of the tenants. It also helps improve the fiscal viability of the AHA. Barry Romano points out, “As we improve their earning capacity, under the federal formula, their rent is increased proportionately.” In this kind of symbiosis, improvements to tenant resources expand the resources of the Authority. In turn, those expanded resources can be applied to the benefit of more clients.
The 1990’s brought more than just new programs. They also brought a new vision for public housing. Tied to these ideas were the notions of defensible space and a feeling of community attachment. Defensible space is a phrase that was coined in the 1970’s by architect Oscar Newman. The principle behind it is simple. Newman believed that as an individual came to feel a sense of ownership over a space, they would move to protect it and care for it.104 High-rise developments make it difficult for tenants to feel ownership of areas that they share with so many people, whereas low-rise developments with features like private entrances and front yards provide tenants and owners a sense of control. Moving beyond individual feelings of ownership, it is also important that individuals feel like they have a stake in the community. With these two dimensions in place, people feel doubly bound to the space they call home.
With these ideas in mind, in 1992, HUD unveiled the Urban Revitalization Demonstration, which, along with the Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act of 1998, became the HOPE VI program. It was designed to help replace “distressed” public housing across the nation. A direct outgrowth of the National Commission on Severely Distressed Public Housing, it encourages housing authorities to work with private entities to develop replacement housing that is more than a simple substitute for that being replaced. Its ultimate goal is the construction of mixed income communities that are both viable and nurturing.
Regrettable, but noteworthy from a historical perspective, in April of 1997, the Corning Homes had their first fatal fire in 44 years. Killed in the blaze were Maria Weaver Washington and her three-year-old daughter, Arnetha.
In October of 1997 the Housing Authority announced that it had again applied for a HOPE VI grant, this time with an emphasis on replacing the Corning Homes.105 Fortunately, Mayor Gerald D. Jennings had a strong commitment to housing issues, was a staunch ally of the housing authority and was well respected by then HUD Secretary, Andrew M. Cuomo. With the Mayor’s support, the grant was awarded.
The AHA worked with the New Jersey based Michaels Development Company to draw up plans. Although the initial idea was to replace a portion of the Corning Homes, it soon became apparent that the whole housing project should be torn down. Barry Romano points out that the Corning Homes were “…post-war baby boom housing. They were never designed to last as long as they did.” Characterized by dark narrow stairwells and cinderblock walls in the living and dining rooms, they reflected the distressed and antiquated nature of the project. The demolition of all 292 units expanded the HOPE VI project into a multifaceted program of investments in housing and community building.106
HUD requires one-for-one replacement of occupied housing units when a public housing project is demolished. This is to protect tenants of public housing from being permanently cut off from aid. In the footprint of the Corning Homes, the Housing Authority and Michaels Development Company planned to build 160 units of semi-detached housing. This left roughly 200 units to be built elsewhere in order to ensure that there would be enough low-income housing for the displaced families. In a combined project with the Urban League of Northeastern New York, the Dudley Park Apartments were purchased and renovated into a 140 unit, duplex development. Renamed Capital Woods, the apartments are now owned and managed by Schuyler Heights Housing Development Fund Company, a wholly owned subsidiary not-for-profit arm of the housing authority. 107
In another creative venture, the Albany Housing Authority joined forces with Norstar Development USA to initiate a massive rehabilitation of North Swan Street, between Clinton and Livingston Avenues.108 The idea was to use a portion of the 28.6 million dollars awarded for the HOPE VI redevelopment, combined with money raised by Norstar through private investment, to build new housing, as well as rehabilitate a few homes. The project met with opposition in the community, but there remains hope that it can be integrated into a plan to redevelop the Arbor Hill area. A Boston-based firm, Community Builders Inc., has been awarded a contract to develop a master plan for the improvement of Arbor Hill. Even though AHA plans are on hold, the delay has provided an opportunity to the AHA tenants who live in Arbor Hill. The leadership of the Yarbrough Tenant Association has been attending community-planning meetings, and one of the planners from the Community Builders has been invited to speak to residents of Yarbrough about becoming involved in the process. Pleased with the success of the Tenant Association block parties in unifying the Yarbrough Homes, the hope is to foster an attachment to the larger Arbor Hill community.
The style and scope of public housing is not the only thing that is changing. The outlook toward the clients of the Albany Housing Authority has changed as well. The base clientele of the AHA is largely governed by federal guidelines. Federal laws like the 1969 Brooke Amendment and subsequent legislation, cap the percentage of tenant income the AHA and other housing authorities can charge for rent. In the mid to late 70’s, HUD’s federal preferences included a mandate that housing was to be reserved for those families and individuals who earned less than one third the median income of their region and also required focus on families that had no employed members, were homeless or in substandard housing. Not only did this concentrate poverty in public housing projects across the US, but it also prevented housing authorities from renting to working families who were income qualified, but did not meet federal preferences. Steve Longo explained, “What happened was that around the country, two waiting lists were created, the federal preference list and the non-preference list… Congress never intended for public housing to be an entitlement program like Medicare or Medicaid. By design there is not enough for everybody. They never said they were going to provide housing for everybody, so enormous waiting lists came to exist in each city and no one was ever reached on the non-preference list.”
In 1996, during the drawn out federal budget negotiations, the first moves were made to abolish federal preferences. In 1998, section 514 of the Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act (QHWRA) finally removed the preferences once and for all.109 This allowed public housing authorities to rent the bulk of their housing stock to families who were working and earning more than 30% of the median income for their area. This has supported the Albany Housing Authority in encouraging greater economic diversity among its residents.
New programs available through Section 8 have also provided unprecedented opportunities to participants. One of these programs is the Family Self Sufficiency (FSS) program. This allows eligible families participating in the Section 8 program to be rewarded rather than penalized for making progress toward their employment and housing goals. In normal circumstances, participants in the Section 8 program have their rent subsidies reduced as they earn more income. This can be discouraging to those endeavoring to live completely unsubsidized and in the private market. With the FSS program, a person whose income increases remains subject to a reduction in their monthly rent subsidy, but rather than lose that money into the system, it is placed in an account on their behalf each month for four years. If the individual in the FSS program meets certain pre-agreed personal goals at the end of that time, they graduate from the program and the money in the account is given to them. While there are no restrictions on how the money is to be used, the hope is that FSS program graduates will use the money as a nest egg to facilitate private home ownership or some other significant enhancement to their quality of life. Martin Duffy, Section 8 Program Administrator for the Authority enthusiastically comments, “You can’t beat that!” Similar changes to Section 8 legislation provides for the transfer of vouchers towards mortgages, thereby further enhancing opportunities for home ownership.
On Saturday July 13, 2002, a block party was held to celebrate the first tenants of the new townhouses on the former Corning Homes site. Seventy-two of the one hundred and sixty homes were occupied by working families. The party on Jennings Drive and Rooney Road was a different kind of inaugural for a different kind of project. For the first time in Albany, public housing was erected without a general designation being assigned to the development. Orville Abrahams, the site manager for the project, explained, “We didn’t want to stigmatize it by calling it Corning Homes or anything else. We just want it to be part of the North Albany neighborhood.”110