Happy 50th Birthday, Co-op City, NYC: Proving Project Housing Can Survive And Prosper

image of high rise buildings, which are part of co-op city in the Bronx
Co-op City, The Bronx photo by Axel Drainville is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0
With over 15,000 units, Co-op City is the largest co-operative housing project in the U.S.

With dense living apparently the way of the future for modern cities, it’s important to understand why it has in some cases proved itself unworthy.

Communities of gentry in luxury high rise condos are successful. Middle class high rise apartments? The same. Some folks seem able to go along to get along.

But it didn’t work in America’s public housing projects. Why?

The post-Thatcherite1 neo-conservative answer? You need a better class of people to make a community successful.

That brings us to a contemporary solution to an affordable housing crisis: the mixed income project. In this modern stye community, a small number of households with low-incomes may in theory be successfully injected into an project dominated by better classes of people who will ‘make it all work.’

This model of community success just happens to fit well with developer ideas of a profitable project. If not a luxury high rise — the developer ideal — then how about an almost-luxury high rise with a handful of government subsidized ‘poor’ suites?

The model also suits governments that view housing support for low-income people as an ‘entitlement.’ If the entitlement can’t be eliminated for political reasons, it can at least be restricted to the fewest number of units possible.

Needless to say, this attitude does nothing to address the affordable housing crisis facing the enormous and growing number of low-income citizens.

Can we find a solution to this crisis by calling into question the widely held assumption that low-income people, thanks to some supposed genetic defect, cannot successfully ‘commune?’

One place to look is Co-op City, a huge multi-tower project in New York City and celebrating its 50th anniversary. Are there features of this project that were never implemented in American public housing? Robust tenant involvement in project management is one example.2

Read more about the ingredients of project towers that work in CITYLAB: Co-op City: How New York Made Large-Scale Affordable Housing Work

Footnotes

  1. Margaret Thatcher a.k.a ‘Attila the Hen’, was British Prime Minister 1979-1990. Her tough, uncompromising politics were much admired in America
  2. For a taste of how indifference to public housing tenants can lead to disastrous results, try: ‘Nobody Listened to Us!’ Grenville Tower Fire Survivors Demand A Legal Voice For All Social Housing Tenants