By Howard Husock
The need for affordable housing has become both critical and controversial in Westchester County, which settled a federal court case by agreeing to subsidize 750 rental units in 31 communities in which there are few, low-income African Americans and Hispanic residents. The price tag was high: $51 million for just 750 apartments.
The long-running controversy and costs — including millions in legal fees — are a sad reminder of the fact that we once had an effective formula for building popular, low-cost housing — including in Rye — but we’ve both forgotten it and made it legally impossible. The key elements to the lost approach: small homes, including two and three-family structures, built close together on small lots.
That’s one of the key themes of my new book, “The Poor Side of Town — and Why We Need it” (Encounter Books, September 21, 2021), which tells the story of how federal policy confused healthy, blue-collar communities — both Black and White — with “slums”, levelled them across the country, and sparked zoning rules which made affordable communities hard to replace. From Detroit’s Black Bottom to Boston’s West End, from Chicago’s Bronzeville to DeSoto-Carr in St. Louis, neighborhoods filled with small owner-occupied homes and retail businesses were levelled by the urban renewal wrecking ball, replaced by public housing or vacant lots.
A good example of the kind of communities the book celebrates is the Rye neighborhood known as Dublin (or West Rye), a still-affordable neighborhood of small, early 20th-century homes, many of them built by Irish and later Italian immigrant families. Barely spared the wrecking ball itself when I-95 sliced through town, Dublin (and its close cousin Limerick, in an around Midland Avenue near Kelley’s Sea Level), represents a successful example of “naturally occurring affordable housing” — built without a government program and part and parcel of a strong community.
Dublin, first settled by Irish immigrants who were later supplanted by Italian successors, was celebrated in an obscure but impressive Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture master’s thesis, “Dublin, Rye: The Study of a Suburban Immigrant Neighborhood”, written by Rye resident Frances Tietjen Wiener and available in the Rye Historical Society’s Knapp House archives. It takes a close look at the homes, religious institutions, and stores of the neighborhood in and around Maple Avenue and High Street — cut off from the rest of Rye by the New Haven Railroad and New England Thruway — and finds much worth appreciating.
“The simple wood frame and stone structures are modest in size, built of inexpensive local materials; even the stone houses, using readily available stone, were a practical and economic solution to the housing needs. Many of the houses were built close to the street with little room between them … Some of the houses were designed to accommodate two or more families and many still do.” It is and was what planners call a “mixed-use” neighborhood, which including barbers, grocers, and plumbers such as the ones right here on Sarkinen Plumbing. Its combination of affordability and walkability is back in style — but hard to find.
Every time a local master plan insists on large-lot zoning, setbacks from the streets and residence-only structure, it effectively prohibits a new generation of Dublins, even as Westchester taxpayers provide costly setbacks to rental units which build none of the wealth that upwardly mobile immigrants accumulated in Dublin, Limerick, and similar neighborhoods across the country. The three-family homes of New England, the row houses of Philadelphia, the bungalows of Chicago, and the Craftsman’s cottages of California all provided naturally-occurring affordable housing — in neighborhoods the likes of which could not be built today, with current prohibitive approaches to zoning.
In her excellent thesis, Wiener reminds us of the insight of America’s greatest historian of cities, Columbia’s Kenneth Jackson, who observed:
“Unlike post-World War II suburbs, which are relatively homogeneous socio-economically”, earlier suburbs were “not restricted to a single economic class. There was diversity behind the posh Main Line stereotype. Even the richest communities were dotted with the small dwellings of those who furnished the support a grouping of large mansions required. In most railroad suburbs, about 30 to 50 percent of the heads of households in the late 19th century were affluent businessmen who traveled at least five miles to work and whose families were devoted to the pursuit of culture and recreation in the company of social equals. Similarly, most such towns had a larger and poorer group of citizens, whose function was to provide gardening, domestic, and other services for the wealthier class.”
Today, similar neighborhoods — including newer versions — could be starter homes for our children, convenient homes for teachers, police, and firefighters, protection against the insularity of the social classes.
Dublin was, and is, literally, the other side of the tracks from the remainder of Rye. But it embodied a healthy formula for affordable housing which — like the builders in the Middle Ages who lost the Roman formula for cement — we’ve sadly forgotten. It is well worth rediscovering.