Lower rents: a history lesson

After tedious testimony at a City Council hearing on rezoning the gentrifying upper Manhattan neighborhood of Inwood, the audience cheered Tuesday when Councilman Francisco Moya asked a question: Why do we rely on the market and private developers to create affordable housing?

City housing commissioner Maria Torres-Springer, echoing conventional wisdom, responded that the city’s only tools are public-private partnerships and leveraged investments. But the almost-forgotten histories of labor and immigration in New York City offer other answers.

Earlier generations of New Yorkers organized unions to put rent money in workers’ pockets and created housing cooperatives to circumvent gouging landlords. The de Blasio administration — and the rest of us — need to remember these efforts if we are to break out of a market-based housing strategy that builds too many expensive apartments in exchange for too few affordable homes.

In the late 19th century, Irish tenant farmers in the Land League fiercely ostracized landlords who charged unfair rents and evicted tenants. In New York, Irish supporters of the Land League backed the mayoral candidacy of Henry George, a journalist and self-educated economist who opposed idle landowners who profited on rising land values. George’s solution was a single tax — a levy on landowners based on the increasing value of their land.

George ran for mayor in 1886 as the candidate of the United Labor Party. He came in second in a three-way race, outpolled the young Republican Theodore Roosevelt and inspired succeeding reformers who grappled with inequality.

Immigrants organized unions that increased workers’ pay so they could better afford rents. In the 1920s, union wages helped Irish and Jewish immigrants move to neighborhoods like Inwood and escape crowded housing downtown.

Immigrant and labor groups established cooperatives to provide affordable housing. Sunset Park was the home of the first nonprofit cooperative, the Alku, created by immigrant Finns in 1916.

In the 1920s, state legislation boosted nonprofit cooperatives. In the Bronx, Jewish workers close to the Communist Party established what became known as “The Coops,” while Jewish socialists opened the Sholom Aleichem Houses. The Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America built housing in the Bronx and Manhattan.

After World War II, cooperatives benefited from federal legislation, the Mitchell-Lama Act (a New York State law that used tax breaks and low-interest loans to encourage the creation of middle-income housing) and the formation of the United Housing Foundation, an offshoot of the Jewish labor movement.

The UHF used union support — usually pension funds — to build more than 33,000 units of limited-equity cooperative housing. Residents of UHF buildings paid to cover operating expenses and participated in management of the cooperative, but did not own their apartments and could not sell them for a profit.

UHF projects included Penn South, an island of affordable housing next to midtown Manhattan, and Rochdale Village in Queens, the largest cooperative in the world and the largest integrated development in New York City when it opened in 1963.

The world of affordable cooperative housing staggered during the urban crisis of the 1970s, when a rent strike at Co-op City in the Bronx, sent the organization into a fatal decline. In the same decade, the Mitchell-Lama law, which had supported the construction of more than 130,000 units, was terminated.

The political landscape has changed, but as rents rise and affordable housing vanishes, it makes sense to ask whether it is right to make something as basic as housing dependent on New York’s cutthroat real estate market. The path to a more livable future may be paved by inspirations from the past.

Snyder, professor of journalism and American studies at Rutgers University-Newark, is the author of “Crossing Broadway: Washington Heights and the Promise of New York.”

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