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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > A Crisis Nearing Climax

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.