|The 1960s were marked by social and political turmoil, the impacts of which were felt in cities and towns throughout the United States. The decade began with the hope of eliminating poverty and addressing racial, social and human rights injustices, but reality set in with the entrenchment of the Vietnam War, and as President John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr. and New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated in a span of less than five years.
New York State had a severe shortage of housing: a gap between housing production and demand of at least 500,000 units. While the housing crisis was severely felt by low- and moderate-income families, middle-income people were not immune to its effects. Cities were adversely affected by the often-discriminatory pattern of development in the suburbs, and the resulting disinvestment in Black and Latino neighborhoods of the inner city. Many rural upstate communities also had high rates of deterioration due to disinvestment.
In 1968, Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller asked Edward J. Logue to assist the State of New York to “design and build” affordable housing statewide. To accomplish this, innovative State legislation was written and eventually passed, in the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination, to create a new entity, the Urban Development Corporation (UDC), which was dedicated to the principles of the slain civil rights leader.
Under the direction of Chief Executive Officer Edward J. Logue, the UDC developed projects representing the highest ambitions of twentieth century public development: non-disruptive urban renewal; fair share suburban housing for the poor; model housing for the elderly; low-rise high-density urban housing prototypes; and magnetic New-Towns-in-Town integrating rich and poor, prototype schools and innovative infrastructure. The UDC made a commitment to learn about the everyday life and social bonds among eventual residents. Criteria were developed to guide architects toward improving overall livability in the housing built by the public sector.
The UDC exists now in name alone, doing business as the Empire State Development Corporation. Because the UDC attempted to do what many in government could not implement – mixed-income integrated residential communities throughout the State – its powers were curtailed and its mission to house all New Yorkers stripped from its functions. In the period from 1968 to 1975 the UDC accomplished much to be proud of and contributed significantly to our domestic policy agenda.
Despite the differences in today’s political and social environments, much can be learned and adapted from the experiences of the UDC. The issues we face now are as large as any faced by the UDC. How should we be expressing and enforcing the housing and urban development aspects of the public interest? How should we be acting for the less fortunate if we want to continue to claim to be a just society?
What can this American “experiment in social housing” teach about the social, economic and political consequences of its efforts? Let us begin a new dialogue on our present pressing housing and community development needs and let us develop new programs for housing people irrespective of their income. As Ed Logue demanded at the founding of the Urban Development Corporation, so we now declare: Let there be commitment!