NYC Guidelines for High-Quality Affordable Housing

Michael Tobias
5 Minutes Read
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    Urban displacement is among the main challenges in New York City, and the high cost of housing is the main cause - this applies for both purchase prices and rental rates. Consider that a two-bedroom apartment rents for over $3,500 on average, which adds up to more than $42,000 per year. This is unaffordable for a family of four with a median income of $95,400.

    The Housing New York 2.0 plan was created as an effort against displacement, and its goal is delivering 300,000 affordable housing units by 2026. The NYC Public Design Commission partnered with the Fine Arts Federation of NY and the American Institute of Architects (AIA) to develop eight guiding principles for quality affordable housing.

    Affordable housing is often associated with negative concepts such as low quality of life and poor building appearance. However, this is not necessarily true, especially if smart decisions are taken during the building design phase.

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    1) Site Planning

    Site planning has a significant impact on the outcome of an affordable housing project, since the decisions taken during planning influence the entire design and construction process. An affordable housing project should complement its neighborhood and improve quality of life; when a building is designed without considering its surroundings, it can clash with them visually and cause inconvenience for both tenants and neighbors.

    The following are some of the most important aspects to consider when planning an affordable housing project:

    • Local circulation: pedestrians, bicycles and cars.
    • Surrounding views and how the project affects them.
    • Distribution of commercial and residential activities.
    • Mitigation of noise, traffic and unpleasant views.

    2) Massing

    The size and form of a building should be cohesive with the street where it is located. When affordable housing projects are designed as plain rectangular buildings, they are often considered unappealing even if their interior has a high-quality design. The following are some effective massing strategies to improve the perception of a building by tenants and neighbors:

    • Using height variations and setbacks to give the illusion of multiple buildings instead of a single bulky construction.
    • To improve the building visually, concentrate low-rise areas next to open spaces and pedestrian routes.
    • Building portions with more height and bulk should be located at the center of properties, or next to adjacent buildings that are also tall.

    3) Materials

    Construction materials can be used to enhance the appearance of individual facades, as well as the overall massing strategy. Materials should be specified considering the expertise of local contractors; uncommon materials are more expensive to handle and may also lead to construction errors.

    The NYC Public Design Commission guide also recommends the selection of materials with a low environmental impact and high durability, which contributes to sustainability while reducing maintenance expenses. Adequate material selection also improves insulation and air-tightness, which leads to a long-term reduction in energy expenses.

    4) Facade

    Facades are influenced by the massing strategy and material selection, and they strongly influence how a building is perceived by residents and neighbors. Facades should have an inviting appearance, making residents feel at home.

    To avoid the plain rectangular facades that are often associated with affordable housing, designers can use variations in color, materials and depth. This improves building image without causing a drastic increase in construction costs.

    Keep in mind that a building has facades in multiple directions, and each one should be designed separately considering its surroundings. For example, a rear-facing facade adjacent to a green area can include features that may not be suitable in the frontal facade.

    5) Windows and Doors

    Fenestration should maximize natural lighting while mitigating solar heating, which saves on both artificial lighting and HVAC. Of course, windows and doors are also decorative elements that can be used to improve building appearance. Privacy is also an important consideration when designing fenestration, especially for areas like bedrooms and bathrooms.

    The layout of doors and windows has a significant effect on how indoor spaces are perceived, since they create a visual connection between the interior and exterior. Just like properly placed windows can create a sense of security while making indoor spaces more appealing, their misuse can cause glare or a lack of privacy.

    6) Ground Floor Design

    The ground floor plays a critical role in how a building is perceived, since it connects the street with the interior.

    • Regardless of the type of building, the ground floor must be designed to cause a welcoming impression.
    • The ground floor is ideal for shared spaces. However, trash disposal and service areas should be hidden from direct sight upon arrival.
    • In terms of outward appearance, the ground floor must be designed to be cohesive with the neighborhood, and ample window area is recommended.

    In 2012, Hurricane Sandy demonstrated how damaging floods can be in New York City. If a building is located in a flood-prone area, the ground floor should be designed with flood-resilient features and materials.

    7) Circulation

    Building design also provides an opportunity to promote healthy living, by having a layout that makes walking easier or more pleasant. The routes around the property should also be designed according to existing circulation, since this creates a connection with the neighborhood. In some cases, it may even be possible to integrate the property with an existing public route.

    • Consider all types of circulation: pedestrians, bicycles and vehicles.
    • Emphasize physical and visual connections with shared spaces and the exterior.

    8) Open Space Design

    Open spaces can improve living quality in general. They are preferred gathering zones when located behind a building, and they can be used to achieve cohesiveness with the neighborhood when located on the front.

    • Consider the use of plants, which can be used not only for decorative purposes, but also to provide shading or increased privacy.
    • Open spaces should be designed according to the needs of all age ranges, from children to seniors.
    • Flexible use is also an important design consideration, especially for properties with large open spaces.


    Affordable housing represents a unique challenge with the high construction costs of NYC. However, the NYC Public Design Commission has recommended many design strategies that allow living quality without driving up construction costs.

    The perception of a building is determined in great part by its shape, size, fenestration, circulation and use of open spaces. Depending on how these aspects are handled during planning and design, an affordable housing project can be inviting and visually pleasant without becoming expensive.


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    Tags : Design Sustainability new york affordable housing

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