There is one huge exception to this problem: Co-op City.
Co-op City in New York’s northeast Bronx is the largest housing co-op in the United States, containing 15,372 apartments in 35 high-rise buildings and seven clusters of low-rise townhouses. Today, residents of the smallest three-room apartments pay a $22,500 security deposit to buy into the co-op and then $751 in monthly port charges, which include utilities. Even residents of the largest 6.5 rooms pay less than $1,700/month. Co-op City’s raison d’être has always been affordability. It can provide both a model and a cautionary tale for communities facing housing affordability crises across the country.
The current crisis in housing availability and affordability has historical precedent in the post-World War II era that ultimately led to the building of Co-op City. After World War II, returning servicemen increased the pressure on housing supply. Across most of the country, this has meant an increasing number of single-family homes, primarily in fast-growing suburbs.
In New York State, the Mitchell Lama program aimed to increase the supply of urban housing for the middle and working classes. The program, which began in 1955, offered low-cost loans, tax breaks and a fixed rate of return to developers in return for agreeing to charge residents an affordable monthly fee. Both for-profit rental housing and non-profit cooperative housing were eligible for the program. Between 1955 and the program’s suspension in 1974, more than 100,000 affordable apartments were built under the auspices of Mitchell Lama. The largest nonprofit developer was the United Housing Foundation (UHF), which built over 30,000 apartments. Co-op City was the largest and last development in UHF.
Like other UHF projects, Co-op City was designed as a “limited capital” cooperative. When residents moved in, they “purchased” the co-op as a whole, rather than owning their individual apartments. Under the co-op, residents (or co-operators) paid monthly finance charges, which included maintenance, utilities, operating expenses, and the mortgage on the property. They participated equally in the management of the cooperative through an elected resident council. When the residents left, they sold their share back to the cooperative and recovered their capital deposit.
At its groundbreaking ceremony in 1966, Co-op City was heralded as the future of affordable housing. President Lyndon B. Johnson sent a congratulatory telegram saying it represented “a significant development in efforts to improve the quality of our national life.” Meanwhile, tens of thousands of potential residents flocked to the Co-op City Nomination Office. They were not the poorest inhabitants of the city; in fact, they represented New York’s socioeconomic median broad band. Residents of Co-op City earned on average the median income of New York City as well as the nation as a whole; they were also about 75% white, which is similar to the racial demographics of the city at that time.
Despite apprehensions from critics who feared that Co-op City’s high-rise towers were depressing incubators of anomie, the development’s new residents were enthusiastic about their community. In her memoir, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor said that when she moved to Co-op City in 1970, “a much larger world opened up to me…The differences [in this multicultural development] were pretty clear, and yet I saw that they were nothing compared to what we had in common.
Yet neither the grants from the Mitchell Lama program, nor its cooperative model, nor the enthusiasm of its residents were enough to guarantee stability or affordability.
During the construction phase of Co-op City, costs rose from the $235 million mortgage projected in 1965 to over $390 million when construction was completed in 1972. This increase was due to a combination factors including inflation, rising interest rates and corruption. Ownership fees for Co-op City residents skyrocketed from the $22/room projected during the planning phase in the mid-1960s to the $53/room proposed in 1975.
Protests over rising finance charges culminated in the largest rent strike in American history, in 1975-76, in which about 80 percent of Co-op City’s more than 50,000 residents withheld their rents. financial charge payments to the state. Rent strike leader Charles Rosen said, “I would say the pinnacle of cooperation is how the vast majority of our residents are working together to save our home.” The rent strike destroyed the UHF, nearly bankrupted the New York State Housing Finance Agency, and ultimately gave residents direct control of the development. Impressive as this achievement was, it did not produce immediate financial stability.
The discovery of massive building defects – including the need to replace the entire plumbing system – and continued inflation, along with the state’s hostility to providing subsidies, have meant that residents of Co- op City faced cost increases in the mid-1980s. The rent strike and the continuing financial and infrastructure problems that Co-op City faced in the 1970s and 1980s led many critics to view development as an expensive waste.
However, in the late 1980s this began to change. As housing costs began to rise in the years following New York’s near bankruptcy, state and city officials began to recognize the importance of Co-op’s 15,000 affordable housing units. City. The state agreed to provide greater funds to repair the construction defects. State officials also worked with Co-op City resident leaders to combat an early 1990s vacancy crisis in the co-op.
Since 1991, residents’ owning costs have risen 80%, barely keeping pace with inflation – and well below the growth in housing costs elsewhere in New York City. Meanwhile, according to census data, Co-op City’s median household remains near the median for national and New York incomes, as it has since the development was first occupied there. 50 years ago. In the early 2000s, residents resolutely rejected a proposal to privatize the housing estate, which would have meant abandoning its cooperative structure so that residents would have the option of buying their individual apartments.
Today, Co-op City is often hailed as a success. In celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2018, then-Mayor Bill DeBlasio said the development was “a vital ally in my administration’s efforts to expand access to affordable housing,” and the president of the Borough of the Bronx, Rubén Diaz, Jr., called it “one of the city’s true gems.” Since then, housing costs have skyrocketed further into the stratosphere, making Co-op City an even more exemplary city, especially as politicians and activists across America call for a renewed government effort to build affordable housing.
In this context, it is worth paying attention to the lessons that Co-op City has to offer. First, large-scale affordable housing requires significant state investment. This type of development could only be built within the framework of a large state program like Mitchell Lama.
Additionally, Co-op City’s cooperative model has also played a significant role in its success. Because resident landlords cannot make a profit selling their individual apartments, turnover in Co-op City is low and has avoided gentrification, qualities that are valuable in today’s New York. The affordability and stability of the development is also due to the continued activism of residents. Cooperator advocacy was most dramatically demonstrated during the rent strike, but quieter militancy in the decades before and after helped pressure state officials to keep charges low.
When I spoke with Bill Eimicke, then Governor. Andrew M. Cuomo’s ‘housing czar’ in 2019, he said memories of the Co-op City rent strike and the near-bankruptcy of the National Housing Finance Agency continue to haunt officials state in their ongoing negotiations with the cooperative: “You didn’t have to be Albert Einstein to understand that it was important that [Co-op City] being manipulated in a way that did not lead to a great growing threat to the public.
Finally, it was only after the state agreed to work in tandem with Co-op City management and invest continued resources in its upkeep that financial charges finally stabilized.
The story of Co-op City suggests that co-operative housing represents a possible path to more equitable and affordable housing. This same story suggests that achieving this goal will require both sustained government investment and continued community vigilance.