Homelessness in New York City has reached the highest levels since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The city's shelter system is at capacity and struggles to offer spaces of safety, cleanliness, and comfort for the city's least fortunate.

While this project can do little to address the underlying systemic issues, it offers a considerate stop-gap measure to alleviate the current situation until we can finally address it on a policy level.

Client Academic project (Columbia, Cornell)
Location New York
Timeframe 2019
Status Research
Shelter with Dignity Scaffolding.

As the world is undergoing the largest wave of urban growth in history, cities are densifying at a tremendous rate. In metropolises like New York City the land is scarce and the rents are at a record high. As a direct-result of these soaring numbers, more and more people are unable to afford a place to live and find themselves homeless. Coalition for the Homeless estimates that over 61,000 people are sleeping in the city's homeless shelters every night, and that thousands more are sleeping on the streets, in the subway system, and in other public spaces.

The explanation for New York's high homeless population has its roots in the late 1970s. During these years the city turned against the single-room occupancy (SRO) units. These were a form of housing units that once dominated the New York housing market. They accommodated one or two people in individual rooms and were very modest in size. Because of their affordability they played a vital role in providing housing for the city's poorest. In 1955 changes in the housing code prohibited conversion or construction of new SRO units and at the end of the 1970s there were only a small number of them left. The estimated 175,000 SRO units that were eliminated from 1955 on were roughly equivalent in number to New York’s entire public housing system.

The homeless population has been growing steadily since then. But, at it’s tail end, a drastic increase occurs. Since 2012, the city has seen a 40% increase. Three factors in particular are responsible for this:

1. Widening housing affordability gap.

Between 2005 and 2013, the median rent increased by nearly 12 percent while the median income of renter households increased by only 2.3 percent.

2. Cutback on housing assistance.

There has been a steady decline in rental subsidy for low-income households in New York. On top of that, the allocated budget for investments in building and preserving affordable housing has been reduced.

3. Weakening of rent regulation laws.

The number of rent-regulated apartments has steadily gone down. Between 1991 and 2011, the city lost over 100,000 rent-regulated apartment. Meanwhile, the total number of rental units had increased by 200,000.

Shelter with Dignity Animation.
Basic Concept
Vertical Density and Modularity

Another consequence of the growth of NYC, is the increase in land prices and the reduction of available land to build on. Although almost every square foot of space in NYC has been claimed and utilized, there still manages to exist an abundant amount of “vertical lots” sitting idle. These are the blank sidewalls of buildings that emerges and disappears as new developments come and go. In aggregate they make up hundreds of acres of available "land".

Shelter with Dignity is a proposal that seeks to capitalize on this "vertical land". In conjunction with a flexible framework that already exists in the city - scaffolding - hexagon-shaped housing modules are designed to connect to the scaffolding structure, pack densely, and create a second, active layer on top of the empty wall. In aggregate, this forms clusters of suspended micro-neighborhoods of shelters for the city’s least fortunate.

Shelter with Dignity Inside View.
Shelter with Dignity Cutaway.
Privacy, Hygiene, Socializing

The unit is designed to provide a year-round space that can withstand harsh, cold weather and provide a cool space during summer. While the exterior construction of steel and oxidized aluminum deals with the wear and tear of the city, the interior offers a contrasting soft and friendly environment. The 3D printed modules allows furniture, storage, lighting and appliances to be integrated into the shape - resulting in a minimal space, tailored to the specific needs and desires of its resident - with a hexagonal view of the cityscape outside.

Through combining different modules from an extensive catalogue, a wide range of different spaces can be created. The 3D printing technology even allows for personal customization - allowing for unique units.

Shelter with Dignity City View.
Shelter with Dignity Day and Night.

On a parting note, it is important to stress that Shelter with Dignity is not proposed as a singular solution to the situation. Rather, it is intended to be an instrument that plays a part in the solution. The massive extent and complexity of the situation requires work on a broad regulatory and policy-making level. But, it is critical that the design community is part of the process.

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Team SDO New York
Services Research, Feasibility, Concept, Design
Renderings Himmelnord
External Partners Framlab