Thursday, November 8, 2012

Matthew Gordon Lasner's "High Life"

Matthew Gordon Lasner is assistant professor of urban affairs and planning at Hunter College.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, High Life: Condo Living in the Suburban Century, and reported the following:
Providing safe, sanitary housing for workers in the capitalist city emerged as the housing question as early as the 1840s. In the decades that followed, architects and philanthropists puzzled through how to meet this goal. One solution was revolution and collective ownership of housing. Another was “philanthropy and five percent”: production of high-quality housing on a low-profit basis. Such projects, often models of good architecture and hygiene, went up by the dozens in London and New York.

In the 1910s, a new solution emerged: the profit-restricted for-sale apartment. The for-sale apartment had been around in Europe for centuries and the U.S. since the 1880s as a form of luxury housing. In the 1910s, however, Finnish immigrants began building small apartment houses in Brooklyn on a non-profit consumers’-cooperative basis. Drawing from the experience of non-profit co-op groceries and the like—businesses owned by customers in which profits were shared—they pooled resources to construct buildings at cost, with each family taking ownership of a unit.

As housing reformers learned of these experiments, in the 1920s, many became convinced they should replicate the model. Even more so than philanthropy and five percent, the plan appealed to both the left and the right. Progressive reformers supported anything that lowered rents and did away with the landlord and speculation while improving living conditions. Conservatives appreciated that this system relied on self-help. More importantly, they believed it could make public housing redundant.

On this page of my book, right not only meets left but, in a reversal of the usual, leads it. Abraham Kazan, a socialist, labor activist, and advocate for consumers’ cooperation, emerged in the late 1920s as the nation’s leading advocate for non-profit (or “limited-equity”) apartments. But he got the idea—by way of a progressive architect, Andrew J. Thomas—from John D. Rockefeller, Jr., a staunch enemy of virtually all that Kazan stood for. They disagreed, to be sure, on the role of government: Kazan argued tirelessly for state support of limited-equity housing, even after introduction of public housing in the 1930s. Rockefeller, by contrast, refused all help. Both, however, agreed that cooperative effort was crucial to answering the housing question.

Like other episodes in High Life (and the history of condo living), this one challenges any simple categorization of homeownership as inherently conservative.
Learn more about High Life at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue