Adam Tanaka is an urbanist and educator whose work focuses on affordable housing and civic innovation. He recently received his Ph.D. in urban planning from Harvard University and currently works at HR&A Advisors.
On a chilly Monday night in December, a crowd of partygoers descended on the Marina del Rey, a lavish waterfront event space in the eastern Bronx. At first glance, an outsider might have mistaken the gathering for a wedding, or perhaps a high-school reunion. But circulating through the crowd were some of New York’s biggest political heavyweights: city councilors and state legislators, a congressman, the city comptroller, the attorney general elect, and even at one point, Mayor Bill de Blasio.
The event, in fact, was a birthday party—not for a person, but for a place. Co-op City, the massive middle-income housing complex in the northern Bronx that remains the city’s (and the country’s) largest affordable-housing development, was celebrating its 50th anniversary.
I have spent the past three years studying Co-op City, first through my doctoral research on middle-income housing in New York City, and then as the director of City in a City, a documentary film that explores the community’s tumultuous life and complex legacy through the eyes of five of its 35,000 residents.
Highly visible to passersby on the I-95 expressway, yet unknown to most New Yorkers, Co-op City confounds many of the stereotypes associated with high-rise housing projects. The community is proof that with well-designed apartments, sufficient public investment, and an engaged, politically mobilized community, large-scale affordable housing can work.
As Linda Berk, president of Co-op City’s board of directors, said at the anniversary party, to enthusiastic applause: “We are a success story, not a failed experiment.”
Developed in the late 1960s by a coalition of labor unions, Co-op City was explicitly conceived as an antidote to the ills of city life, with bright, spacious apartments, oodles of open space, and, perhaps most remarkably, a racially integrated tenancy. It was the crowning achievement of the Mitchell-Lama program, a New York State affordable-housing initiative that financed more than 140,000 apartments in the city in the postwar decades.
Co-op City’s form of tenure was equally distinctive. As its name suggests, the project was organized as a limited-equity co-op: a form of resale-restricted homeownership long favored by the city’s labor unions. For a modest down payment and monthly maintenance charge, residents could become shareholders in the complex—on the condition that, when they moved out, they sold their unit back at the same price. For middle-income New Yorkers seeking an alternative to increasingly run-down and crime-ridden urban neighborhoods, the project proved a panacea.
Despite its idealistic origins, the project was not without controversy. Architects lambasted Co-op City’s cookie-cutter tower-in-the-park design as alienating and inhumane. Activists blamed the project for accelerating the decline of the South Bronx by pulling middle-class whites out of older neighborhoods like the Grand Concourse. Most dramatically, a rent strike in the mid-1970s, triggered by inflation and shoddy construction, threatened to send New York State’s Housing Finance Agency into bankruptcy.
After several decades of management challenges, and regular infusions of cash by the city and state, the project eventually regained a firm financial footing. Today, it stands as a veritable fortress of affordability. In a city whose median home price recently surpassed $800,000, two-bedroom apartments in Co-op City go for just $20,000 down to income-qualified applicants.
Just as remarkable is Co-op City’s longstanding commitment to racial and ethnic integration. When it opened in 1968, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, 20 percent of residents were African-American and Latino, in sharp contrast to the segregation that marked most new suburban communities. Although today the development is majority-minority—reflecting, in many ways, the changing demographics of the surrounding borough—the community never suffered the sorts of racial tensions that scarred so many other New York neighborhoods.
Accordingly, at the anniversary celebration, the crowd of current and former Co-op City residents was remarkably integrated (a “montage of humanity,” as neighborhood pastor Robert E. Smith put it). Elected officials paid tribute to Co-op City’s political might. With tens of thousands of residents and a long history of political activism, the development is something of a vertical voting bloc, and a regular pit stop on the campaign trail. “I know Co-op City votes,” Mayor de Blasio said with a smile as he surveyed the room.
That political will helps to explain why the complex is so well-maintained. While New York’s public-housing system faces a near-existential crisis, racking up tens of billions of dollars in capital needs, Co-op City is in the midst of an ambitious renovation program. The development is also slated to receive a new Metro North stop in 2022, providing residents with mass-transit access for the very first time.
Perhaps the biggest threat to Co-op City’s future is not deterioration, but gentrification. Many Mitchell-Lama developments have opted out of affordability restrictions in recent years. At Southbridge Towers, a Mitchell-Lama co-op in the Financial District, shareholders who purchased apartments for as little as $5,000 in the early 1970s can now sell them on the open market for well over $1 million. Despite Co-op City’s far-flung location and limited transit, its spacious units, plentiful open spaces, and low crime rate have made the development one of the Bronx’s most desirable neighborhoods.
Co-op City residents first broached the prospect of “buying out” in the early 2010s. This triggered political skirmishes, board infighting, and a flurry of op-eds on both sides of the issue. But after an epic, $621.5-million refinancing in 2012—the largest mortgage ever insured under the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 223(f) program—it is locked into affordability until at least 2022, and likely longer.
The development’s role in shoring up New York City’s small store of affordable housing is hard to underestimate. With 15,372 apartments, Co-op City alone contains almost twice as many units as were built under de Blasio’s affordable-housing plan in 2017. So why aren’t there more places like it?
The answer is both straightforward and elusive. Today, there simply isn’t enough land available to build Co-op City-style mega-projects, while urban renewal and land reclamation—two favored tactics of the postwar period—are politically out of the question. Financing options are also few and far between, with existing affordable housing programs tending to prioritize households with lower incomes.
Technicalities aside, there is also a deeper cultural aversion to state-led solutions that limit the profit motive. Co-op City was built on the premise that housing should provide shelter, not a speculative opportunity. But today, in the context of stagnant wages and growing income inequality, housing is increasingly seen as an asset—the only surefire way to build wealth and achieve the American dream.
After all, while Co-op City’s limited-equity structure is essential for preserving long-term affordability, it also poses significant challenges for residents hoping to move into the private housing market. Unable to realize the market value of their homes, many shareholders have chosen to stay put for decades, limiting turnover and, in some cases, occupying apartments much larger than they need. But in New York’s overheated market, they have few other options.
As one long-time resident told me of her short-lived plans to move elsewhere: “You’ve got the cardboard box, the homeless shelter, the park bench. Or there’s Co-op City.”