I arrived in New York yesterday. I’m staying in Harlem, an area I know a little and it’s great to be back. The reason for this trip is not just to bemoan the misery caused by trans-Atlantic neoliberal housing policy, but to point to some alternatives. I’m particularly interested in places that defy the conventional wisdom that everything in the USA is dominated by naked commercialism.
Today I visited the Amalgamated Housing Co-Op in the Bronx. It’s one of the oldest non-profit housing developments in the country, dating to the late 1920s and the cusp of the Great Depression. Its inspiration and finance came from the labour movement, in the form of a visionary named Abraham Kazan, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union (ACW) and its leader Sidney Hillman, a former member of the revolutionary Bund movement in his native Russia. Faced with the appalling living and working conditions of the Lower East Side, the ACW directly financed and built thousands of high-quality homes around New York, starting with the Amalgamated Co-Op.
I chatted with a woman whose lived here for 45 years (as did her grand-parents). She said:
‘I love it here. There’s a real community. Everyone knows everyone and the rents are much more affordable than other places.’
She was on her way to use the on-site laundry and casually mentioned the auditorium where tenants attend concerts. She was obviously proud of her home and her membership of the New York Communication Workers Union.
As with other examples of US housing policy, some caution is needed before painting too rosy a picture. Like many other places, the Amalgamated was exclusive and excluding, particularly of black people (I can’t say if this is still the case or not). But as with Tent City in Boston, this is an example of a lasting alternative to the private housing market arising from the struggle for decent homes.
UK trade unions have generally failed to respond adequately to the housing crisis enveloping many of their members. As we enter a period with a government that will only make things worse, the Amalgamated Co-Op suggests a possible use of union funds.