Affordable Manhattan: Co-Ops Keep The Dream Alive Housing experiments flourished in New York City in the 1960s. But amid the city's sky-high real estate market, many have since been privatized. Born of a deal between labor and government leaders, South Penn, in the Garment District, is among those co-ops fighting to retain its sense of community.
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Affordable Manhattan: Co-Ops Keep The Dream Alive

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Affordable Manhattan: Co-Ops Keep The Dream Alive

Affordable Manhattan: Co-Ops Keep The Dream Alive

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

There is no shortage of expensive real estate in Manhattan - condos and co-ops that cost millions. But the city also has a long history of affordable housing, not only housing projects but a different kind of co-op created by unions for their workers.

Today, many of these buildings have become privatized, with prices soaring to open market rates. But a few of them are fighting to remain what they've always been, as NPR's Margot Adler reports.

MARGOT ADLER: After World War II, there was an urgent need for housing, and unions teamed up with state and local officials to build new cooperatives. So says Josh Freeman, a professor of history at the City University of New York, and the author of "Working Class New York: Life and Labor Since World War II." While the vision of the good life after the war often meant moving to the suburbs, he said...

JOSH FREEMAN: 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.

ADLER: For example, take the Mutual Redevelopment Houses, known as Penn South. Sponsored by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, the building complex was completed in 1962. It had 2,800 units. It was an easy walk to the Garment District, and like many of these co-ops...

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

ADLER: So, flash forward to now. While many of these co-ops have become private, going for market rates, Penn South is holding on.

Unidentified Woman: You're going to tip over the top of the crest of the wave with your fingertips.

ADLER: I meet Debra Hockman during a Tai Chi class in the complex. She spent 17 years on the waiting list. In her old apartment, she says she knew two neighbors.

DEBRA HOCKMAN: In six months of moving here to Penn South, I knew every single person on my floor.

ADLER: At the senior center - and more than half the residents are over 50 - I peek into a drama class.

Unidentified Man: Yet, does beauty like a dial hand...

ADLER: Next door is a gardening class where people are repotting plants. Harriet Finklestein has brought in two little plants.

HARRIET FINKLESTEIN: We call this session our quilting time but with plants.

ADLER: When she moved here more than 15 years go, a neighbor told her...

FINKLESTEIN: Oh, you're going to love it here, it's like a kibbutz.


FINKLESTEIN: Not exactly a kibbutz, but there is a sense of community that's unique.

ADLER: The waiting list is so long now, it's closed. Why? The average price of a one bedroom apartment is less than $40,000. Over the years, the co-op worked out deals with the city to remain affordable. In the last year, there's been a fight over whether to make a new deal with the city to help finance some $80 million of needed repairs. A big majority voted for the plan, moving up any possibility of privatization to the year 2030.

Only 13 percent opposed the new deal; among them, Andrew Alpern, an architectural historian.

ANDREW ALPERN: That's a small town, and it's a town with a multi-million dollar budget.

ADLER: 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.

When I ask him, what do you see as an affordable price?

ALPERN: Probably double that, $150,000.

ADLER: Alpern's main worry is 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 don't agree with him.

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. Now, it's $4,000 a month for a two bedroom.

KAREN SMITH: That's not affordable.

ADLER: Smith says some people who opposed the deal wanted to leave the city and take as much money as they could get.

SMITH: You had some seniors who said: I want to go private because I have not a penny in my pocket; this is all I can leave my grandchildren.

ADLER: Karen Smith tells a story of meeting the former president of another Manhattan co-op, one that went private. What's life like there, she asked.

SMITH: He said, we're no longer a community. They only care about having a doorman. They don't care about each other. We have a community that we care about each other. And that's part of what we've built here and that's what this is about.

ADLER: But this is not an economic time that's friendly to such cooperative efforts. Historian Josh Freeman says this co-op was built in 1962.

FREEMAN: President Kennedy came and Eleanor Roosevelt came. This was an amazing triumph of labor liberalism. And it's a world that really doesn't have that kind of power anymore or that kind of ambition.

ADLER: But Freeman says more power to those folks that are still trying to keep those principles alive.

Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.

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