It has been the largest and longest rent strike in U.S. history. Since June 1975, about 12,000 families in the massive Bronx apartment complex called Co-op City have been withholding their monthly payments from the management and giving them instead to their own strike steering committee.
There presently is some 526 million hidden somewhere by the committee, which represents 80 percent of the resident in Co-op City (it is not a cooperative) who are defying the state of New York in a crisis nearing climax. On May 10 the state’s housing finance agency, which originally provided the mortgage money, won a court case giving it the right to foreclose. Foreclosing Co-op City and evicting the organized residents, who in rebellion against large rent increases (or maintenance charges, as they are called) threw down the gauntlet last year, would have traunatic results in many directions.
It’s like evicting most of a city of 60,000 people living in 35 high-rise buildings and six townhouse clusters with several shopping centers and schools.
Politically, Co-op City has the largest density of registered voters in the state and they are superbly organized in their rent strike.
Why the intensity? The background is instructive. In the late 1960s, the well-intentioned, non-profit United Housing Foundation was attracting families to fill Co-op City apartments by painting an excessively rosy picture of monthly payments.
On the other hand; management was not exerting strict cost controls over construction and mortgage finances. Combined with selection of tenants by a moderate income means test, these managerial deficiencies, while pleasing to construction firms and bankers, laid the basis for the confrontation.
Rents increased by 100 percent in five years. On June 18, 1975, management notified the residents —largely blue-collar and office workers and retired people on fixed incomes — that rents were to rise 25 percent, retroactive to the first of April.
Even before the June notice, about 40 percent of Co-op City residents were paying 25 percent or more of their income on rent, according to the best estimates of the New School for Social Research. Afterward, a third of the tenants would be paying 35 percent or more to the corporate landlord.
But more than money was at stake. What coalesced was a gripping feeling of injustice, of being deceived and ignored, of not being consulted, of having to pay for the mistakes or guarantees of other, more powerful groups.
As one of the strike leaders said: “We’re staying and fighting; this time we’re not leaving.” He was alluding to the migration of many residents from their former homes in deteriorating neighborhoods of New York City.
When the strike began, the corporate management resigned and New York state stepped in to protect the bondholders’ investment under the Mitchell-Lama housing program.
With the elections coming up, candidates will be coming to Co-op City looking for votes. The response may be bitterly cynical. For residents remember another candidate named Hugh Carey whom they supported for governor in 1974.
Carey had told them: “I believe in this year of deceptions and cover-ups at the highest levels of government, that we have had enough of politicians who break commitments to the people. At a time when we subsidize grain deals and luxury housing, airlines and railroads, it is unconscionable to deny average people decent housing n the basis they should not get the help they were promised.”
Carey promised a five-part program to help such housing programs. After he was elected, Carey did not carry through. Co-op City sent 135 busloads of residents to Albany to remind him of his promises.
Did he overpromise like the others? Should the residents be additionally subsidized? Should the residents be evicted? These are all questions which never needed to be raised at all.
Co-op City started too large. It was a gigantic swallow by non-accountable management which did not permit the disciplining influence of those who would have to bear the costs.
Had the project started out in stages of successive construction through a framework of genuine and smaller cooperative groups, informed self-reliance would have avoided the present impasse where rights conflict with laws which the mighty write and the consumers pay for.
Readers interested in the plans of Co-op City residents to achieve self-.determination in energy and management can write to Steering Committee Leader, Charles Rosen, 100-7 Coop City Blvd., Bronx, N.Y. 10475.