New York is one of the most expensive cities in the world to live and work in. Housing prices keep going up while wages largely stay the same. This problem is nationwide. However, NYC has become the poster child for this epidemic, especially with new high rises like Billionaire’s row popping up every so often. That said, where there are high living costs, there are also folks seeking to level the playing field for the common man. Affordable housing projects are just as New York as The Yankees and one man, Lester Robbins, was a great agent of change for housing in the ’80s and ’90s.
Lester was a man of the industrial age. Born in 1906, his family brought him to New York at the age of 3, where he acquired many hobbies and skills. He was a talented lacrosse and football player at Cornell. Even more impressive considering he also earned a degree in chemical engineering from there. While being a smart athlete is by no means rare, it is impressive that this man could juggle so many rigorous activities while helping his father build a sand-lime brick factory. When he started his construction empire in 1936, building a 20-unit four-story walk-up in Queens, the factory was the only construction experience he had on his resume.
Robbins continued these small projects, learning from his experiences as time marched on. Not too long after he started his construction work, World War II began, and the game changed drastically. With the draft sending workers and materials overseas, regular building projects came to a sudden halt. Robbins saw the stagnant state of affairs and began to bid on government housing for workers involved in war production. This allowed workers an affordable housing option so they could plan for the end of the war.
Once the war had ended and our boys were brought home, there was a desperate need for new and renovated housing. Robbins saw this need and acted on it, diving into large-scale development for single-family homes and garden apartments, all to be made affordable to those seeking a return to normalcy after the war had ended. His compassion and talent led him to build homes for the elderly as well, addressing their specific needs with a wide variety of building options. Robbin’s homes were so popular that the entire country was clamoring for them. Robbin’s expanded his business to be nationwide, with the promise of accessibility and affordability the cornerstones of his plans.
Robbins was a philanthropist through and through, providing scholarships to young, passionate builders and a large chunk of money to build the Holocaust Museum and Memorial in DC. After his great successes nationwide, you’d think he’d want to retire. But not Lester Robbins. He had one last undertaking that would change the face of NYC, leading to affordable housing that would benefit the working class for decades to come.
After the war, NYC had tried to make other public housing projects work in the city. However, overcrowding, over-policing, and negligence left these projects in a bad state of affairs. Several religious leaders in East Brooklyn saw their constituents being abandoned and decided to do something about it. So, these men of different faiths but strong ideologies, banded together to start raising money for a new affordable housing project. One that could benefit the people of the community who had been forgotten by those in power. The project was named The Nehemiah Plan, after the biblical tale of Nehemiah who was sent to reconstruct Jerusalem by the king of Persia after the Babylonian occupancy. But who would be the Nehemiah of this project? You know who.
Lester Robbins was selected to be the lead builder of The Nehemiah Plan. Centered in Brownsville, the plan was to use the foundation of burned and destroyed houses and expand from there. Robbin’s decided that the best strategy for everyone involved was to build low-density row houses, which were very affordable and allowed for families to grow and settle down. By the time Robbins’ role in the project came to an end, he had built 1,200 homes for the struggling families of Brooklyn.
Lester Robbins died in 1996 at the age of 90 in his Upper East Side home. Interestingly, this home was placed back on the market in October and has a contract pending as of December 2021. Similar to his row houses in Brooklyn, this home has five floors and an innovative floor plan that makes getting around easy.
The rooms are sprawling and beautifully crafted, showing that Robbins really appreciated the attention to detail. There’s even an elevator for easy accessibility. Even with his massive wealth and influence, Robbins still wanted to remain in a humble New York home. Once a city boy, always a city boy.
The home of Lester Robbins is not the only legacy he left behind. The single families homes he built have been beneficial, not just because of space and affordability, but for allowing these families to lay roots. These homes gave people an opportunity during a time of turmoil in the city when economic assistance was slow if it ever came at all. Lester saw communities in need and acted in their best interest when no one else would. That kind of heart and spirit is hard to find these days.
Lester Robbins is a name you probably never heard of until now. He built over 7,000 homes nationwide for people seeking to better their lives. No matter what the circumstance, he believed housing should be made affordable and accessible. In a time when prices soar, but wages remain stagnant, it’s easy to lose sight of how people in the past overcame similar problems with compassion and hard work. Robbins never told people to work harder so they could keep up with the housing market. He changed the housing market. People like that are a rare find, but they do still exist. By looking at the example of Lester Robbins, who’s to say we can’t make this change happen again?
Russell is a writer and comic based in New York City. His plays have been featured at Penn State’s Cultural Conversation’s Festival, The NYC Thespis Festival, and Imaginarium’s Inaugural Theater Festival. Follow him on TikTok and Instagram @pooleparty528