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‘Fighting Forward’ with Cooperative Power in the Bronx

Steven Wishnia Oct 2

The Bronx Cooperative Development Initiative’s headquarters are on a side street off Fordham Road, the borough’s main shopping strip. It’s a low-rise, working-class area of clothing stores — Kids World, Danica, Urban Classic — cell-phone and eyeglass shops, and bank branches, prosperous enough so that there are no vacant storefronts, poor enough so that more than 50 people are waiting on the lunch-hour line at a church food pantry. Almost all the shoppers and workers are Latino or black, as are more than 80 percent of the Bronx’s 1.4 million people.

Just inside the entrance to the converted three-story house is a poster showing the domes of the Kingsbridge Armory — a 17,000-square-meter former military drill hall one subway stop to the north that’s been largely vacant since the 1980s — asking “what if… we owned it?”

BCDI, a network of various Bronx community groups, was formed in 2011, after then-mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration proposed turning the disused armory into a shopping mall or a big-box store. Community residents opposed that, insisting that the jobs created should pay a “living wage” and arguing that the building would be better used as a school or a community center.

Their campaign brought together community organizations, labor unions, elected officials, and “socially oriented developers,” says Yorman Nuñez, director of the Just Urban Economies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Community Innovators Lab, which works closely with BCDI. They won a “halfway victory”: The mall plan was stopped and they got what BCDI calls “a landmark community benefits agreement,” but the building remains empty.

“We realized that we needed a different strategy that would not just fight bad landlords and policies, but would build shared wealth and ownership as well as collective democratic governance over the assets in our community,” says Sandra Lobo, a BCDI board member who is executive director of the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition. The board also includes representatives from The Point Community Development Corporation in Hunts Point, Mothers on the Move in the South Bronx, and the Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights.

The Bronx has myriad community organizations, notes Nuñez, and many have been around since the 1970s when an epidemic of building abandonment and arson devastated much of the South Bronx. The challenge, he explains, was to bring these groups and others together to develop a borough-wide strategy, and create programs governed by community residents that would be financially sustainable without being purely for profit or dependent on “the whim of billionaire philanthropists.”

The model BCDI conceived has four main components underway. The Innovation Factory, to develop new production and innovation capacity with digital manufacturing technology. The BronXchange, to get major local institutions such as Fordham University and Montefiore Medical Center to purchase from locally-owned businesses. The Economic Democracy Learning Center, to educate community leaders about “how we develop an economy with shared wealth.” And the Policy and Planning Lab, to seek ways to create “development without displacement,” by both “fighting back” and “fighting forward,” and giving a voice to Bronx residents excluded from the city-planning process by government and real-estate interests.

The Innovation Factory occupies one room in the BCDI building, with a 3-D printer, laser cutter, and computer-numeric-controlled machine. Two teenagers load “Arduino circuits,” programmable circuit boards about 7 by 5 cm, into plastic cases. The youths have used them to build air-quality monitors and design prototype light sensors for aquaponic gardens, says program director Maggie Tishman. Last year, they helped an entrepreneur develop a prototype of a “smart pillbox” that tells people when they need to take medication.

They hope to expand the program to a separate building, she adds, but want to support local businesses developing products rather than sell them on their own.

The rationale for the BronXchange, says CEO Tim Gamory, is that the borough’s 22 largest institutions spend $9 billion a year on goods and services, but “the vast majority of that spending is going outside the Bronx.” He envisions it as an intermediary connecting those institutions with local businesses, as well as helping small businesses with the complexities of digital billing.

So far, Gamory says, its biggest success has been in pest control: In May, it arranged a $15,000-a-month contract for Kojo’s Pest Elimination to work at a nursing home in the upper-middle-class Riverdale neighborhood. That enabled Kojo’s to hire apprentices through Hostos Community College’s Certified Integrated Pest Management Training program. Integrated pest management is an approach that relies more on prevention — such as filling in holes in walls — and using “as few chemicals as possible,” rather than dousing the area with toxins. This is important in the Bronx, Gamory adds, because it has long had the highest rate of asthma in the city.

While BCDI is inspired by Mondragon, the network of worker-owned cooperatives in Spain, co-ops are “already present in the Bronx,” says grants coordinator Fanta Condé: They include Cooperative Home Care Associates, a worker-owned home health aides’ cooperative with more than 2,000 staff, and the giant Co-op City complex in the borough’s northeast corner, which has more than 15,000 apartments.

Housing is a critical issue. The Bronx has recovered from the abandonment of the 1970s and 1980s, but it is difficult to find an apartment on the rental market for less than $1,500 a month. Gentrification is beginning to cast a shadow, but its bad landlords are more often old-school slumlords: Paying $1,500 rent doesn’t guarantee adequate heat and hot water.

Bronx community organizations have decades of experience fighting back against bad landlords. More recently, they’ve opposed Mayor Bill de Blasio’s rezoning schemes, which attempt to create affordable housing by letting developers construct tall luxury buildings in working-class neighborhoods in exchange for renting at least a quarter of the apartments at below market rate. The problem is that, without city rent subsidies, the cheapest of these “affordable” apartments are aimed at households making roughly $38,000 a year. The Bronx median income is about $37,000.

Creating a viable alternative is what BCDI calls “fighting forward.” “We are not going to directly develop housing,” says MIT CoLab learning manager Nick Shatan, but BCDI wants to work with “mission-aligned developers” and community groups willing to construct “really deeply affordable” housing for people with lower incomes. That will require planning outside the real-estate profit model, says Nuñez.

“What is a land-acquisition strategy in a hot real-estate market?” he asks.

The answer BCDI is looking at is community land trusts. The land is owned by the trust, Shatan explains, and is leased to the building owner for 99 years. Because the land can’t be sold, that “protects the long-term affordability,” along with limits on how much buildings or apartments can be sold for.

“The fact that people are talking about land as being fundamental to housing is a real advance. Land costs drive housing costs and displacement and gentrification,” says Tom Angotti, a board member at the Cooper Square Committee on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the city’s largest functioning land trust. But the problem, he adds, “is that you have to have the land.”

Sandra Lobo says the coalition is looking at potential sites that are vacant, abandoned, or owned by the city or state. Other possibilities include financially troubled properties, both small owner-occupied buildings and Housing Development Fund Corporation(HDFC) co-ops, small buildings the city seized in the 1970s and 1980s after their landlords failed to pay taxes, and then turned over to tenants to prevent them from being abandoned. A significant fraction of HDFCs are now facing foreclosure or sale, troubled by mismanagement or lack of funds to make major repairs.

“What if instead of selling off HDFCs at ridiculously deflated prices, they were all put into a community land trust?” asks Shatan. That would be an opportunity to preserve ownership by either the community or the occupant, says Lobo. It would also create economies of scale, says Shatan, as it’s more cost-effective to maintain 400 apartments than an eight-unit HDFC.

Having the land doesn’t ensure that it will remain affordable to lower-income people, cautions Angotti. Cooper Square succeeded, he says, because it got property-tax abatements and the city paid to install new roofs and boilers in the buildings. Without that, debt and taxes would have been a crushing burden.

BCDI is also looking at having labor unions finance low-cost housing. The 400,000-member health-care workers union 1199 SEIU has a $40 billion pension fund, says Nuñez, and “a huge amount” of them are likely to be displaced by gentrification.

That model has a precedent. In the 1950s and 1960s, New York’s labor unions financed and built several permanently affordable housing developments, including Co-op City, which was backed by a foundation established by the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America and opened in 1968. That model, however, largely disappeared by 1980, partly because U.S. politics had turned against such social-democratic projects, partly because a 1974 federal law, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, tightened regulations on union pension funds’ investments.

Nevertheless, it’s still possible for unions to finance such projects, says Thalia Lankin, chief operating officer of the AFL-CIO Housing Investment Trust, a fund run by the U.S.’s largest labor federation. The law, she explains, just requires investments to make competitive returns before other benefits such as jobs and affordability can be considered.

In “fighting forward,” says Lobo, it’s important that strategies “do not remove organizing from their center”: Keeping the people most affected at the core of decision-making, rather than turning it over to organizations more concerned with administration and fund-raising.

The Bronx is full of “hopeful contradictions,” says Nuñez. It’s the poorest urban county in the U.S., and has the highest rates of asthma, incarceration, and childhood mortality in New YorkCity. But it also has plenty of viable resources: the largest food distribution center in the world, the Hunts Point Terminal Market producer co-op; the city’s third-largest business district, on Fordham Road; and the country’s largest housing co-op and worker-owned co-op, in Co-op City and Cooperative Home Care Associates.

“If we can develop the model clearly and sustainably here, it could apply to communities of color anywhere,” he says. “Making it work here means we could adopt the same lessons everywhere.”

The Bronx Cooperative Development Initiative is one of twelve inspiring stories of local transformation shortlisted for the 2019 Transformative Cities People’s Choice Award. Transformative Cities is a global search for transformative practices and responses that are tackling global crises at a municipal level. You can still vote for the story that inspires you the most until the 9th of October at: transformativecities.org/2019award