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Affordable Manhattan: Co-Ops Keep The Dream Alive

Manhattan real estate goes for crazy prices: Condos and co-ops can cost millions. But the city also has a long history of affordable housing in the form of limited equity co-ops.

Today, many of these resident-owned buildings have become privatized by businesses that raise prices to open market rates. But a few of these co-ops are fighting to preserve a very different vision of living in New York City.

A Different Vision Of Urbanism

To address the urgent need for housing after World War II, unions teamed up with state and local officials to build new co-ops, though a vision of the good life after the war often meant moving to the suburbs, says Josh Freeman, a professor of history at the City University of New York.

"In New York and a few other cities, you had these alternative experiments and they were enormously popular. All these projects had huge waiting lists," Freeman says.

One example is the Mutual Redevelopment Houses, known as Penn South. Sponsored by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, the building complex was completed in 1962. Its 2,800 units were just a short walk to Manhattan's Garment District.

"They had lots of communal facilities. They had libraries, meeting halls, co-op buying schemes. So it was not just an economic program, but it was a vision of a different kind of urbanism that would take the form of co-op housing," Freeman says.

Since then, many of these co-ops have become private and are priced at market rates. But Penn South is holding on.

Fostering Social Traditions

Debra Hockman moved into Penn South after 17 years on the waiting list. In her old apartment, she says, she knew two neighbors. "But in six months of moving to Penn South," Hockman says, "I knew every single person on my floor."

More than half the residents are over 50, and there is an active senior center. In a drama class, a man recites lines from Shakespeare. Next door is a gardening class. Harriet Finklestein has brought two plants to repot.

"We call this session our quilting time, but with plants," she says.

When she moved here more than 15 years go, she says, a neighbor told her, "Oh, you're going to love it here, it's like a kibbutz."

Andrew Alpern says the co-op's new deal with the city could harm Penn South's long-term financial stability.
Margot Adler / NPR
Andrew Alpern says the co-op's new deal with the city could harm Penn South's long-term financial stability.

Several people in the class laugh. "It's not exactly a kibbutz," she says, "but there is a sense of community that is unique."

Is The Model Still Sustainable?

The average price for a one-bedroom apartment in Penn South is less than $40,000. Over the years, the co-op worked out deals with the city to remain affordable.

In the past year, the co-op has fought for a new deal for the city to finance some $80 million of needed repairs. A majority of the co-op voted for the plan, putting off any possibility of privatization to year 2030.

Only 13 percent opposed the new deal. One of them is Andrew Alpern, an architectural historian. "This is a small town," he says, "and it is a town with a multimillion-dollar budget."

Alpern says his apartment would now sell for about $75,000, which he describes as a discount of 90 percent over the open market price. An affordable price, he says, is about $150,000.

Alpern's main worry is that tax breaks will end, and even with loans and grants, rising costs in New York City may mean a future where the complex won't have enough money for maintenance and repairs. Most residents disagree.

Defending Their Community

Karen Smith, a retired State Supreme Court justice, is one of those who led Penn South's fight to remain a limited equity affordable co-op. She points out a nearby building that was privatized. It now costs about $4,000 a month for a two-bedroom apartment. That's not affordable, she says.

Some who opposed the deal wanted to leave the city and take as much money as they could get, Smith says.

"But you also had some seniors who said, 'I want to go private because I don't have a penny in my pocket, and this is all I can leave my grandchildren,' " she says.

Smith tells a story of meeting the former president of another Manhattan co-op, one that went private.

"We are no longer a community," the president told her. "They only care about having a doorman; they don't care about each other."

Smith says her community cares. "That is part of what we have built here, and that is part of what this is about," she says.

Freeman, the historian, says the 1962 opening of this co-op was a big event.

"President Kennedy came; Eleanor Roosevelt came. It was an amazing triumph of labor liberalism. It is a world that really doesn't have that kind of power anymore or that kind of ambition," he says.

But, Freeman says, more power to those who are still trying to keep those principles alive.

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