The Quiet Rise of the Much-Maligned Condo

You may be living in one yourself in the near future.

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Junius Henri Browne bought one of the original flats in the Rembrandt, an eight-unit apartment building on West 57th Street in Manhattan that opened, in 1881, marking what we’d think of today as the country’s very first condo. The apartments cost about $16,250 (or some $2.4 million now). Browne, a well-known Civil War correspondent at the time, was pragmatic in his motivation.

"He said an apartment would never be a true substitute for a house with an attic, a basement, or a yard," says Matthew Lasner, an assistant professor in the Hunter College Department of Urban Affairs and Planning. "But he couldn’t bare the idea of going out to the suburbs."

Browne lived with his family in the Rembrandt for the next 20 years. In fact, he died there in 1902, as a 19th century condo pioneer with a mindset right out of our new millennium. "It’s fantastic stuff," says Lasner, who traces the story of American co-owned housing back to Browne in his new book High Life: Condo Living in the Suburban Century. "That’s one of the things that so struck me going back and looking at co-ops and other types of multi-family housing from the 1880s, the 1920s. So many of the concerns seem so contemporary to today."

Browne was an example of a species rarely acknowledged, at least not until now, in the serious literature on housing: the American who willingly chooses to own an apartment. This is not, we tend to think, a rational housing decision. People live in apartments because they have to (and they pay rent only as long as they must). Then, when we’re older and flush at the bank, we buy homes in the suburbs.

"The literature from history, sociology, geography, architecture – all of these allied fields that study the city – almost always take as a given the fact that suburban housing was single-family, that it was owner-occupied, and that city housing was for the most part rented, high-rise and poor," Lasner says. "That’s what we’ve been able to explain as scholars: those two poles."

He calls this gray area, where the architecture of multi-family living cross-pollinates with the financial model of ownership, the "third pole in living." He began thinking about its absence in how we talk and think about housing while working on his Ph.D. dissertation at Harvard. At the time, he was frequently traveling back and forth to visit grandparents who lived in a South Florida high-rise condo retirement community. Theirs was a home, he realized, that fit into no neat urban/suburban, single-family/high-rise, renter/owner divide (actually, Aventura, Florida does resemble one well-articulated model: Le Corbusier’s Towers in the Park).

Today the U.S. is full of households like Lasner’s grandparents. One in five homeowners in American cities and suburbs now lives in a multifamily property. In the New York metropolitan area, that number is one in three, taking townhouses into account. In 1920, about one in 25 apartments nationally was owned; now it’s about one in four. Co-ops, condos and townhouse complexes account for virtually all of America's growth in homeownership over the last half-century (the share of American households in owner-occupied single-family houses has remained flat over all that time, at 49 percent; the national homeownership rate, meanwhile, increased from 62 to 68 percent).

Ever since Browne’s day, we have been steadily moving in this direction, even as our popular narrative about where and how people live elides that fact. Condo owners, in spite of this trend, have long been treated as outliers, as people living curiously outside the norm. "There’s a general, cultural hostility we see going back as early as the 1920s," Lasner says. "I have dozens of New Yorker cartoons questioning the very premise of multi-family homeownership."

We’ve even had congressional hearings, he says, dating back to the 1920s questioning whether co-ownership was a legitimate practice or a real estate scheme devised to defraud innocent tenants.

And yet this is the reality: "Almost every co-owner for the last 150 years," Lasner says, "is somebody who could have afforded a single-family house.” That all these people opted not to buy one suggests that, for many of them, the act of ownership mattered more than the form of the building itself. There are also the Junius Henri Brownes, the people for whom location mattered most, or the retirees like Lasner’s grandparents, who, similar to young professionals, would prefer not to mow their own lawn. Then there are simply homeowners who find greater community in a condo than on a leafy street.

Further confounding our stereotypes, these people have never exclusively been city-dwellers. Since World War II, the majority of new apartments built in America (for renters and owners) have been built in the suburbs.

So why doesn’t history recognize these co-owners for what they really are: a steadily expanding demographic whose trend lines predated the suburban single-family housing boom and will likely outlast it as well? Part of the problem, Lasner suggests, is that the trend is invisible. “You can’t talk about an architecture of co-ownership,” he says. You can’t tell walking by a building if the people living inside own or rent it.

Projected into the future, Lasner’s history implies that more and more of us will soon be living in condos. And other trends in urbanization support that prediction. “I don’t think we’re all headed toward it,” Lasner says, “but I think certainly over the next 20 to 30 years, we’re heading to a lot more of it.”

Perhaps by then we’ll have learned to think of co-ownership as something pretty close to the norm.

Top image: alexmisu/Shutterstock

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.