In America, we have an escalating crisis of affordability in housing — yet we are overlooking one of the best and most basic solutions.
In recent years the appeal of suburbia has declined and cities are once again booming. But while new residential towers are rising in Manhattan and San Francisco, it’s increasingly difficult for anyone not working on Wall Street or in Silicon Valley to find a place to live.
The developed world’s cities are facing housing crises so acute that not only low-income workers, but also the middle and creative classes, find them increasingly difficult places to afford.
Dewan points out that the problem is made thornier still because some of the usual solutions — subsidizing rents, constructing new buildings, improving public parks, schools, and transit — can actually intensify affordability; they can make the city even more desirable and ultimately push out the very people they are trying to help. All of which raises a telling question: Why aren’t policy makers in the United States embracing housing models that avoid this cycle — models outside the private market. Why aren’t American policy makers pursuing diverse forms of housing ownership and financing, from new lending and tax policies to housing trust funds to community land trusts. More specifically, why aren’t they encouraging non-profit, limited-equity cooperative housing. Some of the priciest cities in Europe, including Zürich, Vienna, and Munich, have successfully embraced the non-profit cooperative, and as a result these cities benefit from housing that is not only more affordable but more innovative as well. The failure of U.S. policy makers to respond more creatively to the growing crisis is yet more puzzling when we recall the vital legacy of alternative housing that played such a strong role in the urban revival of recent decades.
What follows of reflections on cooperative housing — and on what American cities might learn from other parts of the world and more from the rich of non-profit cooperative housing right here at home.
Berlin, Montevideo, New York: an education in cooperative housing
Full disclosure: I have never lived in or been a member of a cooperative; at least not yet. My first exposure to non-market housing was at architecture school in Berlin, in the mid, where we studied the famous central European reform housing, or Siedlungen, of the early 20th century. From the distance of decades, it seemed practically an inevitability that no matter the style — from the traditional garden cities of Paul Schmitthenner to Mies van der Rohe’s variations on the international style — many of the settlement houses were developed as Genossenschaften, or cooperatives. As such they were common interest and non-profit: each resident purchased participated in decision-making on the basis of one vote per household and paid monthly fees to support both regular maintenance and periodic capital investments. The resale value of a share was determined by the cooperative’s statutes and adjusted for inflation; but it was not subject to market speculation — the whole point of the cooperative model was to keep costs reasonable and housing affordable. Which it did and at the turn of 21st century in post-Wall Berlin. I discovered that non-profit cooperatives continued to flourish. As they still do some are municipally supported housing corporations which often take the form of high-rise versions of the early modernist housing estates and others are smaller upstart projects some organised by architecture students who claimed formerly state-owned tenements in order to secure their affordability and have a say in their redesign. Thus did my education form my vision of a cooperative: a non-profit housing venture with below-average costs and above-average architecture.