“Democratic Housing” and Architecture

“Democratic Housing” and Architecture

Lawrence Gulotta: “Democratic Housing” and Architecture

In his letter in the Winter 2012 issue responding to Joan Ockman’s article “What is Democratic Architecture? The Public Life of Buildings,” Herbert J. Gans argues, “Architecture might be called democratic if it could encourage or aid the people living in or working in them to engage in democratic politics, but buildings cannot shape political behavior.” Strictly speaking, Gans is correct. Buildings alone, architecture alone, can’t encourage people to participate in democratic politics. What is interesting is that people known for their commitment to democratic politics created largely democratically governed, “egalitarian housing” developments for their moderate-income members.

There is a long tradition in New York City in support of “mutual cooperative housing,” pioneered by old-line social democratic trade unionists for their memberships. Numerous union-sponsored housing developments have proven to be an important solution to housing crises. This type of multi-family housing promotes democratic governance and social equality. It is “affordable housing.”

On a relatively large scale, there is Penn South, Co-op City, and East Harlem’s 1199 Plaza. Penn South was sponsored by a local of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union headed by Charles Zimmerman. The Amalgamated Clothing Workers also built many thousands of units in the Bronx. There have been inspiring, long-lasting successes, and some near failures. The successful projects are examples of “democratic housing” in the metropolis. The near failures have succumbed to bureaucratic governance, mediocre building quality, and uninspired Soviet-style architecture.

What makes “mutual cooperative housing” more democratic and egalitarian than other forms of multi-family housing?

Mutual cooperative apartment units require an initial, modest down payment; significantly, there is no direct mortgage loan or “end loan” to the homebuyer, thus eliminating the need for commercial banks, mortgage brokers, and so on. The homeowner assumes a “proportionate” or “pro-rata” share of the project’s total underlying mortgage obligation. Profit at resale is limited to fixtures installed by the owner. Apartment owners receive an income tax deduction for their proportionate share of real estate taxes and mortgage interest paid, thereby giving them the tax benefits of homeownership.

Risk of default by an apartment owner is minimized, again collectively, by spreading default risk equally to the other cooperative owners. The governance of the co-op is democratic by design, if not always in its execution. Democratic politics takes place within the co-op. A board of directors must be elected annually to administer the budget and maintain the project. Political parties, cliques, and factions develop and compete for seats on the board. It is not the architecture as much as the form of ownership and governance that is democratic. The limited equity mutual co-op is more egalitarian than any other form of multi-family housing in the country.

The democratic ownership and governance style of this kind of housing is striking when it is compared to so-called 80/20 rental housing programs, financed by the sale of tax-exempt housing revenue bonds. Under the 80/20 scheme, 20 percent of a building’s units are reserved for families of moderate economic means (50 percent or less of local area median income), and 80 percent of the units are rented at market rate. The privately owned 80/20 projects provide some badly needed “affordable housing,” in exchange for lucrative tax credits, among other benefits. Many of luxury high rise apartment buildings built under the 80/20 program feature public space or plazas, outdoor sculptures, and other significant amenities. It is impossible to maintain, however, that there is social equality within a luxury 80/20 rental when it is likely that the moderate-income renters earn substantially the same income as the domestic servants working for the other 80 percent living in the building. The concept behind the 80/20 development program is best described as a form of American noblesse oblige, rather than as democratic or egalitarian. It is claimed that many of Manhattan’s luxury 80/20 towers treat unequal occupants more equally than they are treated in most buildings. The class distinctions appear in where the “modest income units” are situated in the tower, and in the “affordable” units’ interior finishes.

In From a Cause to a Style, Nathan Glazer observed the new sensitivity that architects and planners displayed in the design of New York City’s early public housing, the Williamsburg Houses, during the Great Depression. They used advanced design concepts such as siting the low-rise (four-, five- and six-story) housing at an angle to the street grid; featured public art in the form of Kandinsky murals; and made space for community rooms, parkland, open space, trees, playgrounds, and other features.

The office building architecture of Park Avenue, some of it described by Ockman in her Dissent essay, is iconic, sophisticated, and utilitarian. The public amenities and open spaces there are the consequence of democratic government intervention in the design process, by means of the Zoning Resolution. Whether zoning-induced design makes the architecture more democratic is arguable. The great modernist and postmodernist architecture of Midtown Manhattan is designed to house capitalist behemoths. They are artistically sensitive and creative, no doubt. The pedestrian, quotidian architecture of limited equity cooperatives obscures the more democratic and egalitarian politics taking place behind their modest exteriors.

Photo: Co-op City in the Bronx, by Jules Antonio, 2009, Flickr creative commons