Gotham Gazette

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Solving Problems by Bridging Community and Higher Education

Pratt Institute

Frances Bronet, one co-author, during an event of Pratt’s "Blue Week" (photo: Pratt)

Across the country, the shortage of affordable housing and rising homelessness threaten the vitality of our cities as areas of opportunity and centers for commerce, creativity, learning, and a foundation for our sense of identity. Educational institutions should be active partners addressing these issues in their cities and communities.

When Chhaya CDC, Cypress Hills LDC, and other community groups in Queens and Brooklyn identified informal basement apartments as both a challenge to the health and safety of their residents and also a chance to create safe affordable housing, we saw an opportunity to serve, by leveraging the expertise of Pratt Institute faculty and students through our Pratt Center for Community Development to examine and help the community groups realize their vision.

A new pilot project announced earlier this year with the support of City Council Members Inez Barron, Rafael Espinal, and Brad Lander in partnership with Mayor Bill de Blasio will make East New York the first neighborhood in New York City to test specific new measures designed to ensure the safety of tenants and legalize many basement apartments.

By legalizing apartments, residents will be empowered to finally demand leases and can be confident that their unit is safe for themselves and their families.

For lower- and moderate-income homeowners who rent out part of their homes to bring in extra money to help cover their bills, the city will provide assistance to enable them to properly outfit their basement units to meet new fire and safety code standards.

This was a major achievement for the community and an important step toward addressing their housing needs as well as protecting the residents of as many as 110,000 basement units in New York City.

As a 130-year-old New York institution, we constantly ask ourselves what can we do to ensure more New Yorkers have a safe place to sleep at night, and how can we support our city’s continued vitality and provide better models for other cities?

Over the past 50 years, Pratt Center, which grew out of the School of Architecture, has worked with dozens of community groups providing research and planning expertise to support their efforts to rebuild thousands of units of affordable housing, retrofit homes for energy efficiency, improve mass transit, and build sustainable communities.

There’s no shortage of urban issues that require new ways of thinking and much greater collaboration. With New York City’s population nearing nine million residents, failing to address current challenges on critical issues like transit, homelessness, and environmental justice today will cause even greater inequities over the long term if left unchecked.

Another critical piece to creating thriving communities is, of course, jobs. As educators, one of our most essential responsibilities is to prepare our students for the future workforce, including those positions and trajectories that we can’t even yet imagine.

Beyond empowering our students to be outspoken advocates against injustice and to be true thinkers, we want them to feel confident in their ability to succeed when they leave campus—in whichever direction life takes them.

One of the best ways of teaching and instilling confidence is by real world problem-solving. Through the Made in NYC initiative, we’re pairing Pratt students in photography, videography, and design with local manufacturers to create “communications assets” to help these businesses tell their stories, expand their markets, and create jobs.

This initiative has been so successful that the City Council stepped in with additional funding to grow the program, which is now serving 1,250 local businesses. We must continue to expand efforts like these, which are being piloted and led by private institutions citywide.

Educational institutions have a unique opportunity to drive partnership because of the expertise of their faculty and students, and their mission to employ critical research and fact-based decision-making.  

With a new administration here at Pratt, we renew this commitment. We look forward to building on our past successes and collaboratively solving today’s challenges (and those that don’t yet exist). To our neighbors across New York, from Midtown Manhattan to the outermost parts of the boroughs, we are here for you—and want to collectively create a better New York.

Stay tuned as we step up for New York in big ways. It is how we teach, how we learn, and how we drive positive change together.

Frances Bronet is the 12th President of Pratt Institute. Adam Friedman is the Director of the Pratt Center for Community Development. On Twitter @PrattInstitute.

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