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
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 .
New York City Population Growth Rate 
Homeless Population, New York City 
The turn against the SRO unit in NYC had drastic consequences for tenancy in the city.
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 .
As the graph above illustrates, 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 .
The East Village in Manhattan has one of the highest population densities in New York. Its 62,000  inhabitants equal that of NYC's current homeless population.
"a true human crisis that is a litmus test for society’s compassion and government’s competence"
Gov. Andrew Cuomo 
This massive and acute problem is not only a tragedy for the affected people, but it is also a large economical burden for the city. For perspective, the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) has an annual operating budget of $955,300,000 .
Although the situation is incredibly complex, the steps towards reducing the homeless population can be boiled down to two clear actions:
1. Provide more low-income housing
2. Bolster the housing assistance programs to reduce the eviction rate.
Step one seems plain and simple: Create less high-end housing for the high-income households and more affordable housing for the low-income households. But, this involves a steep uphill battle - against the city's powerful real-estate sector. For reference, while low-income households made up 63% of the city's renters in 2011, only 26% of rental units in the city were designated low-income affordable .
As an intermediate step to reduce the shelter population, the city needs a lot of temporary housing that can enable an effective and sequential reduction of the shelter population. A key challenge in achieving this, is competing against the city's real-estate moguls for the required land to build.
By taking advantage of pre-fabrication technologies, a community of SwD units can be erected in a matter of days.
(Mural artwork by Viktor Miller-Gausa )
As cities densify, traditional (horizontal) vacant lots disappear and vertical ones emerge.
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.
The structural framework for the SwD community is made up of modified scaffolding - an economical, flexible system system that quickly can be erected and disassembled.
The unit is designed to provide a year-round home for its resident. While the exterior construction of steel and oxidized aluminum deals with the wear and tear of the city, the interior is made up of organic shapes of 3D-printed plastic that - clad with wood laminate - create a warm and friendly environment. As the interior modules are 3D printed, an endless amount of spatial and functional needs can be met, and the space can be reconfigured and expanded upon when needed. This allows the unit to provide its resident with an ideal place to escape the hustle and bustle of the city - while keeping a hexagonal view of it.
The SwD system allows cities to utilize land that otherwise is difficult and expensive to develop.
The system components of a typical SwD community
The quick deployment of the system, allow SwD communities to relocate and expand in tandem with changes in the built environment - as hosting structures emerge and disappear
The SwD system can be erected on to "idle facades" without ground-street access by utilizing existing roof-access egress paths or establishing access corridors through the host building
PMMA Smart Glass
HSS 1x1x1/4 Frame
3D-Printed Recycled PC
PMMA Smart Glass
The components of a typical SwD unit.
The front face of the pod is made up of a smart-glass assembly with a layer of thin film diodes. This allows the face to be clear (aligned particles/light transmitted) and open to the city outside, translucent (particles in random positions/light absorbed), and provide privacy for the resident, or transmit digital content. This can be artwork curated/created by the resident, public information, or commercial content - effectively enabling revenue opportunities.
The front face of a SwD cluster creates a cellular urban mosaic.
At nighttime the cluster can showcase digital artwork, public information and/or commercial advertisements.
The smart glass of the unit's front face allows for transparency, translucency and transmittance of digital content.
Shelter communities with phenomenal views and valuable exposure can be erected in prime locations on sites that otherwise are too small to develop.
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.
the 3D-printed modules allow furniture, cabinets and equipment to be integrated into the structure, allowing for a minimal space that does not need additional furnishing and accessories
On a parting note, it is important to stress that SwD 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.
1: Basic Facts About Homelessness: New York City, Coalition for the Homeless,
2: Homeless shelter population. New York City Department of Homeless Services, NYU Furman Center
3: New York City Population 1970 - 2025, Urbanomics for the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council (NYMTC), September 2004
4: The New York City Housing Authority estimates that there are 178,914 public housing units as of March 1, 2013. About NYCHA Fact Sheet, N.Y.C. HOUS. AUTH., http:/ / (last visited Jan. 24, 2014).
5: "Why New York City’s Homeless Family Policies Keep Failing", The Huffington Post, February 24, 2016, by Ralph da Costa Nunez, PhD
6: East Village, Manhattan" Wikipedia,
7: Transcript of Cuomo’s 2016 State of the State Address, January 13, 2016,
8: Portrait artwork by Viktor Miller-Gausa
9: "Innovations in NYC Health and Human Services Policy: Homelessness Prevention, Intake, and Shelter for Single Adults and Families", February, 2014, by Christin Durham and Martha Johnson Homelessness-Prevention-Intake-and-Shelter-for-Single-Adults-and-Families.PDF
10: "Rent Stabilization in New York City" , NYU Furman Center
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3D-printed SwD prototype unit fabricated with recycled plastic