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  • Writer's pictureFortunate Ekwuruke

Layers: Housing Equity and Urban U.S. Architecture

Updated: Feb 13, 2023

Photo by New York City Housing Authority

If you've ever lived in a large urban area in the United States, then you most likely have encountered really tall buildings. Everyone is reaching for the clouds. You can almost think of it like the new tower of Babel: the urban race to build to the sky. One such race is evident in the housing industry, particularly with apartment complexes. I’ll use my experience as a case study.

Growing up, my family experienced high levels of housing insecurity, so we moved frequently and lived in many neighborhoods in New York City. In 2011, when I was 15, we finally moved to an apartment complex funded in part through the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program (LIHTC), described by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) as “the most important resource for creating affordable housing in the United States today.” Under this program, private housing agencies are incentivized through federal tax credits to provide housing for low-income renters. And by incentivized—these agencies receive the equivalent of $8 billion in annual budget authority to either acquire, rehabilitate, or newly construct rental properties that would accommodate low-income households. More on this later, now back to the complex.

The complex is comprised of five buildings and 32 townhouses in proximity. There are also greenery areas and a playground in between. Each building has around 20 floors with roughly 15 apartments on each floor. After some quick calculations, that amounts to about 300 apartments in each building, and around 1500 apartments in the complex. Factoring in the average family size of 3.6 in this particular section of NYC, there are close to 5,400 people living in one complex situated within 633,530 square feet. This seems like a fun place to play with numbers, so let’s do some more.

As of 2021, the average size of a house in the U.S. is 2,480 square feet. So, let's just use our imagination here: within the size of the apartment complex, we could expect to fit 255 houses (unrealistic but just for the sake of playing with numbers and using our imagination). If there were 3.6 people in each house, that would still only amount to a little under 1,000 people within this area. Again, the apartment complex we are talking about has close to 5,400, more than five times that, which presents the need for building upwards (height) to maximize space. Alright, we’re finished with the numbers game (quant people, please take it easy). The moral of the story is that there are a lot of apartments and a lot of people stacked on top of each other. Layers.

Now here’s where the issue of architecture comes in.

With this number of people, you can reasonably expect there to be frequent need for maintenance, both in public areas and within private residences. I could write essays about numerous issues that have come up over the 12 years we have lived there, but I want to look into one that happened quite recently, you could say the catalyst for this post. For years, there have been issues with the bathroom ceiling in our family apartment. Because of how the apartments are built on top of one another, issues from a residence above trickles down. In our case, there was a small leak in one of the pipes in a residence two floors above us and initially the water build-up caused a discoloration in the ceiling right above our shower head. We called for maintenance, and they used plaster to cover the discoloration, but of course, given that the pipe-leak was never repaired, the problem persisted.

Around September of 2022, the ceiling above the shower collapsed. Each day, more and more pieces would shatter into the tub—on one occasion even while my sister was showering. Could she be eligible for compensation? Lawyers, help me out. Naturally, we contacted maintenance and after a few weeks they sent a contractor who arrived with plaster. I showed him the issue (I was at home from school during this time), and he responded by saying that he could not plaster the ceiling. “The issue with your ceiling would only continue,” he said. “You have to solve the problem.” He then proceeded to show me a video of the leak that they had identified and where it needed to be solved from. He told me that someone was coming the following week to fix the leak, and after it was fixed, he would repair the ceiling. I thanked him (for nothing sadly), and he left. Almost a month went by, and we did not hear from anyone.

Water continued to drip, and the ceiling continued to fall apart. By October of 2022 there was a gaping hole right above the shower. To compound matters, on one ordinary Wednesday (I remember the date, October 19th, because it was two days after my birthday), I went to use the bathroom and to my surprise, water was gushing out from the wall adjacent to the toilet. Shortly after that, the ceiling above the toilet collapsed, with pieces from the wall scattered all over the bathroom. It was a sight to behold. I felt like Chicken Little running around shouting “the sky is falling!” Naturally, I was irate. This was an issue that was supposed to be addressed weeks ago, or even years. I stormed into the management office with pictures and videos to present my case (see pictures at the end). After a few redirects (bureaucracy in effect), I found my way to the head of the maintenance department of the apartment complex. Now here’s where layers come in again. For them to solve an issue affecting my apartment, stemming from the apartment two floors above, they needed to access the apartment in the middle. Apparently, the pipe from the problem apartment is only accessible from below. The issue: the person in the apartment where the pipe is located did not respond when they knocked at the door, and they could not enter for the repairs without consent. From my understanding, after the initial attempt (in September 2022), they did not engage further, and the matter was forgotten.

I am writing this post in February of 2023, and as of today, the bathroom ceiling has not been repaired. I am currently in the Chicago area for school, so I cannot follow up with maintenance. At the height of it, I was at their office at least three times a day. My mom works full-time and is also a part-time student, my sister is also a full-time student and works part-time— there is no one in my household [including our family cats Roman and Latté] that has the time and energy required to stay on top of this.

Now let’s tie this back into housing equity.

A note about this section: unfortunately, I cannot post links to some of the sources because my family currently lives here, but this is verified information. Scouts honor.

In 2008, the apartment complex underwent a $50 million renovation that was preceded by a 93% increase in rent for current tenants the year before. Its shift into the low-income rental market was part of the LIHTC preservation agenda: creating low-income apartments from existing apartment infrastructure. Even after the renovations, tenants still complained about infrastructure, one claiming that renovations to the kitchen and bathroom replaced durable metals with cheaper materials. However, the renovation and refinancing of the complex now presented the opportunity for greater housing equity on the surface. Despite the 93% rent increase, low-income renters under the LIHTC program would only be expected to pay a maximum of 30% of the area median income. Three years later, my family comes along and benefits from this transition. All good right? But here is the distinction that needs to be made: just because a place is affordable does not mean it is equitable.

Equity should not consist of only access, but also of quality. Layers. Stacking people on top of each other is a housing design built from inequity. I will argue that these structures are designed with the purpose of maximizing space, not maximizing quality of life. Having these grand architectural schemes without proper policies and guidelines for maintenance is counterproductive to housing equity. Something as simple as having a way to access an apartment for repairs if the tenant is unresponsive can make the difference.

Oh, and I should add: the apartment in between that they could not access is actually VACANT, which is why no one responded -- something they could have discovered if there was proper paperwork and guidelines for these types of issues.

This apartment complex has been found in violation of building codes by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) more than 30 times since 2010, but what does that mean in effect? Rent prices continue to increase and infrastructure continues to deteriorate. There has been scaffolding present on the complex for about five straight years. At first glance you would think that there were significant repairs underway, however, it is still unclear after all these years what exactly is being repaired across such a large complex. One can only imagine if these repairs will ever extend to the residences. Until then, our bathroom ceiling remains open, and we wait.

Pictures taken on October 19, 2022

Written by Fortunate Kelechi Ekwuruke, February 13th, 2023

82 views2 comments


Aug 03, 2023

It makes no sense that the apartment is vacant and they could not find that out, but you - a resident- were able to find that out. This is ineffective at best, and dereliction of duty at worse. I hope it's been resolved by now.

Fortunate Ekwuruke
Fortunate Ekwuruke
Aug 30, 2023
Replying to

The management is understaffed and inefficient, a bad combination. Unfortunately, it has not been resolved.

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