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A History of Housing Cooperatives

In 1863, twenty years after the Rochdale Pioneers opened their cooperative, the North of England Cooperative Society was launched by 300 individual co-ops across Northern England. By 1872, it had become known as the Cooperative Wholesale Society (CWS). Through the twentieth century, smaller societies merged with CWS. CWS is the oldest and largest consumer cooperative, with over 6 million members, and will celebrate its 150th birthday in 2013.

In 1895, the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA) was established. Today over 200 national cooperative organizations representing 92 nations belong to ICA, the most recognized organization of all national cooperative movements. The aim of this prestigious organization is to promote cooperative development and trade worldwide and boasts an individual membership of more than 750 million people.

The Cooperative Movement: Early Years

In 1909, the first known cooperative housing community was built outside New York City on East Cedar Street at Lake Shore Drive in Chicago. It took another fifteen years for cooperative housing to take hold in Chicago. The first true cooperative development was started in 1918 by a group of Finnish artisans – the Finnish Home Building Association in Brooklyn, New York.

The first recorded cooperative type housing community appeared in New York in 1876 with construction of the Randolph on West Eighteenth Street. Interestingly enough, this community was not formed as affordable housing units but were luxury “home clubs” for upper class society. These Housing Clubs were unique to New York City for the rest of the century.

The early cooperative dwellings were marketed towards citizens in high income brackets who wanted the advantages and economies of individual home ownership without all of the responsibilities. They were generally duplexes, reproducing as closely as possible the atmosphere of a private house. The apartments offered freedom from servants and maintenance workers, the ability to go away and return to apartments ready for occupation, to redecorate at will, move more easily, and save money in household expenses. In an era where spacious, individually owned brownstones maintained by a landlord were considered undesirable and even scandalous, these advantages were considerable.

By 1925, housing cooperatives had been constructed in sixteen cities in the United States. Most of these cooperatives were high-income cooperatives. About half of the cooperatives in the United States were found in New York City, but they were also prevalent in such cities as Chicago, Detroit, Buffalo, San Francisco, and Philadelphia.

Housing cooperatives enjoyed high occupancy and little turnover during the post-war period. Most cooperatives were still luxury cooperatives between 1920 and 1930. Prior to the days of “fair housing laws” it was not uncommon for cooperatives to reject membership to persons who were perceived not of the right racial, ethnic, or religious background.

The first relatively large scale affordable housing cooperatives were made possible by the New York State Limited Dividend Housing Companies Act of 1927. This act provided corporations with significant property tax exemptions for 50 years, and authorized use of the right of eminent domain. This allowed companies to acquire appropriate sites for investors building apartments for middle-income families. The results were impressive, as thirteen housing cooperatives were built under this Act in New York City.

One of the first housing cooperatives was developed by Abraham Kazan and sponsored by the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union. It was financed by a combination of capital from the Union pension fund and conventional loans. Originally the co-op started with 300 units, and grew to 1,400 units. This and a second co-op developed by Kazan in 1930 were primarily for union members, but they were also open to the general public. While these co-ops had restrictions on the income of initial occupants, there were no formal restrictions to sustain affordability. However, because of their neighborhood location, unit sizes, and the effects of a union sponsored history, these co-ops remain as moderate income dwellings.

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