Dreaming Big by Thinking Small: NYC’s Plan for Small Lots

New York has a housing affordability problem. The city wants to solve it—one vacant lot at a time.


The “Big Ideas for Small Lots NYC” competition asks the public to develop affordable housing that can be built on smaller lots, like this one. (Image courtesy of the New York Department of Housing Preservation and Development.)

New York City is a hard place to find affordable housing. In January 2019, the average two-bedroom apartment went for $3,656 a month. The city’s latest solution to the problem? Oddly shaped lots.

The “Big Ideas for Small Lots NYC” competition asks the public to submit plans for building affordable housing on small, oddly shaped pieces of city land. Cocreated by New York Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) and the city’s chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), the competition will give contenders until March 25 to submit their designs. Five lucky finalists will move on to the second stage of the competition, and receive a $3,000 stipend to continue developing their ideas. At the end of the whole process, the HPD may choose one or more designs to develop further.

It may be an unusual solution, but it’s not an unworkable one. The city owns almost 900 of NYC’s

1,200 vacant lots, as a result of a scheme to revitalize “distressed land” in the 1970s and 1980s. Most of the usable pieces of land have already been developed, leaving the city with lots in the shapes of trapezoids, triangles and narrow rectangles.

The sample piece of land that contestants are being asked to design for (see above) is a 1,665-square-foot property with a depth of 100 feet and a width of only 17 feet. Located on Manhattan’s West 136th Street, the land is an interior lot, meaning that it faces the street on only one (incredibly narrow) side. That’s a limitation that the would-be designers will have to work around.

And it’s not the only limitation: one of the criteria for success is that the applicants’ plan should be adaptable for use on other lots. The other criteria for the design touch on sustainability, constructability, livability and aesthetics. “Aesthetics is part of everything,” AIANY President Hayes Slade said to Smart Cities Dive. “The first thing that shapes how we perceive something is the way it looks.… Public housing should be part of the neighborhood fabric.”

The competition is only part of a larger NYC affordable housing strategy. Between 2014 and 2018, the city’s Housing New York (HNY) plan financed 121,919 affordable homes (either by creating them or maintaining the low price of current units). The HNY 2.0 plan, announced in 2017, calls on the city to finance 300,000 affordable homes by 2026.

“As we work to make this a fairer and better city, we want to help New York’s working families own a piece of their own city,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said, after the program’s announcement. “Affordable homeownership empowers families and neighborhoods and opens pathways to the middle class.”