New York City’s Famed Cooperative Housing Is Under Threat

The Bronx’s Amalgamated Housing Cooperative opened in 1927 and has provided thousands of families with affordable housing since then. Now it’s facing an existential threat.

The Amalgamated Housing Cooperative in the Bronx, New York, New York. (CEANYC / Twitter)

The North Bronx’s Amalgamated Housing Cooperative opened in 1927, developed and funded by the trade union movement. Today, it is the oldest limited equity housing co-op in the United States, providing thousands of New Yorkers with affordable homes.

Yet how long it’ll survive is now under question. Underinvestment and the current economic climate mean 1,482 households at the Amalgamated face an uncertain future — eight hundred of them could have their cooking gas shut off on June 30.

Addressing New York State politicians on March 1, the Amalgamated’s treasurer and lifelong resident, Ed Yaker, said the co-op is being driven toward bankruptcy by a perfect storm of rising costs, interest rates, and repair backlogs caused by historic underfunding. But he insisted the “cause of death” would be administrative negligence.

Yaker is referring to both the short and long-term reasons for this crisis. Although the Amalgamated recently undertook a $43.5-million improvement program, maintaining buildings approaching one hundred years old is a constant — and expensive — challenge. Some of its services don’t comply with current regulations. Bringing gas supply up to date will cost $9.8 million, a bill that has escalated since the hikes in interest rates and the Yaker says could have been avoided with quicker support from New York State. One of the knock-on effects is to the co-op’s insurance cover, which needs an additional $400,000 by June 1. The Amalgamated owes other creditors $1.5 million. But the organization’s capacity to pay the bills is limited by the fact that its residents are on a limited income. Raising rates isn’t an option at a place built explicitly for people of moderate means.

A Storied History

The Amalgamated was the product of collective organization, but the brainchild of one remarkable man. Abraham E. Kazan was born near Kyiv in 1888. He was raised in a shtetl, a Jewish community under the yoke of Imperial Russia. Like millions of others, Kazan was compelled to leave his home by the twin threats of poverty and discrimination. He arrived in the United States in 1904, found work in the Manhattan garment trade, and quickly got involved in the industry’s labor movement, working for the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA), the organization that gave the Bronx housing co-op its name.

Kazan absorbed an eclectic blend of radical politics, embracing anarchism and various strands of left-wing thought, at a time when socialist ideas were both growing in popularity and facing vicious repression. But it was cooperativism, based on the principles of the 1844 Rochdale Pioneers, that gave Kazan his lifelong method and motivation to end slum housing and build a more equitable society.

In a sentiment that rings down the ages and across continents, two years after the Amalgamated opened, Kazan wrote:

Housing for the wage earner and low paid worker is today as much of a problem as it was five or ten years ago. In the commercial field, there is no one who would undertake the building of low-priced apartments. There is not enough profit in that line of business. Philanthropic, socially minded, and charitable people have been talking about housing for a long time; as have city officials and candidates for public office, but very little has actually been done in a practical way to solve the problems.

His answer was for working-class people to “enter the field and try and help themselves” on the principle that “through cooperative efforts, we can better the lot of our co-workers (and) show that, where all personal gain and benefit is eliminated, greater good can be accomplished for the benefit of all.”

At a time when the Bronx was still semirural and with the support of ACWA leader Sidney Hillman, Kazan was able to buy land for the first six buildings of the Amalgamated, comprising 303 apartments. The principles of limited equity required prospective residents to make a down payment to be admitted to the development, followed by a monthly “carrying charge,” but on an understanding that the value of the initial equity payment would not increase, regardless of the state of the housing market.

This founding principle has endured. I recently spoke to a current Amalgamated resident who explained that, in 2008, he paid $33,000 “down,” followed by monthly payments of $1,240 for a two-bedroom apartment. True to Kazan’s ideals, he feels no sense of deprivation that he won’t be able to sell his apartment for a profit, but instead, calculates the money he is saving compared with the extortionate private rented sector. Although there is a legitimate question — that was also there in 1927 — about whether the Amalgamated excludes people from the lowest income bracket, the working-class demand for housing there is reflected in a ten-year waiting list.

As Kazan makes clear in his memoirs, funding for the Amalgamated was precarious from the outset. It was only a loan from the Yiddish Daily Forward and its manager, the Bundist Baruch Charney Vladeck, that enabled the project to be completed. The community hall at the Amalgamated is named in Vladeck’s honor, typical of a legacy at the co-op that celebrates its radical origins.

An Uncertain Future

However, the key to the success of the Amalgamated and Kazan’s subsequent projects, was mainstream political support, starting with New York City mayor Al Smith in the 1920s and continuing after World War II with Governor Nelson Rockefeller and an unlikely alliance with Robert Moses, the controversial shaper of New York’s postwar urban policy. Kazan and his allies were able to persuade the establishment that cooperative housing was not a threat to their commercial interests and was a preferable alternative to more “socialistic” public housing. By the 1950s, Kazan had created the United Housing Foundation (UHF) as a development agency able to take on bigger and bolder projects, including Penn South in Central Manhattan and Rochdale Village in Queens.

UHF growth culminated in Co-Op City, a 15,372-home development in the East Bronx, the biggest housing cooperative in the world, completed in 1973. But, in a prefiguring of the current situation at the Amalgamated, Co-Op City hit a serious financial crisis. Residents were faced with rising charges as the UHF struggled with soaring costs and maintaining services. In response, in June 1975, Co-Op City residents called a rent strike, which continued for thirteen months, the longest in US history. It compelled politicians to bail out Co-Op City, but it also spelled the end of the UHF which, as historian Peter Eisenstein put it, “died of a broken heart.” No limited equity housing co-ops have been built in New York ever since.

Cooperative housing raises some fundamental questions for socialists, posed by Upton Sinclair in his 1935 novel Co-op: “It is a question of whether any co-operative can exist alongside a capitalist economy.” Even when they are able to survive, there are important issues of democracy, transparency, participation, and equity to consider. However, it will be a tragedy if the Amalgamated is allowed to fail, not least because the almost inevitable consequence will be privatization.

Abraham Kazan once said, “Housing should not be subject to politics,” but he was wrong. Housing is inherently political. The issues facing the Amalgamated are a version of those faced by all forms of nonmarket housing in an economy dominated by private landlordism and property speculation. Just as with council housing in the UK and public housing in the United States, political choices and arcane bureaucracy deliberately undermine any challenge to corporate real estate interests.

Good-quality homes for working-class people have never been won — and don’t survive — without a fight and constant vigilance to defend them. The relentless advance of the neoliberal city must be halted. Losing the Amalgamated will only deepen New York City’s housing inequality and erase a vital chapter in working-class and labor movement history.