It’s cheaper for two families to pool resources and share a house than for the same two families to buy two houses. This underlying concept has been around since people starting building houses. As a report by the National Cooperative Law Center points out, “Records of shared-ownership housing have been recorded throughout history since the days of Babylon, where documents describe two owners sharing separate floors of a house,” and from there to the Byzantine Empire, where the Digest of the Emperor Justinian “refers to separate ownership of a house but shared ownership of a common roof.”
In 1769, seven years before the American and 20 years before the French Revolution, a group of weavers in Scotland banded together to share expenses related to their trade. By 1844, the concepts were formalized in the so-called Rochdale Principles, which call for open membership, democratic rule, and political and religious neutrality, among other tenets. In time, the cooperative model was applied to multifamily housing. Because of the Industrial Revolution, more and more people were living in cities, and the only two available options for housing were either owning, or renting. Owning was far beyond the means of most newcomers to the urban landscape; paying extortionate rent for a tiny apartment in a squalid tenement also lacked appeal. Cooperative housing provided a middle ground—a way for people who were not fabulously wealthy to sidestep landlords and have a say in how their homes were managed and maintained.
“Cooperatives not only in housing, but across the sector, are very much a British phenomenon,” says Sorcha Edwards, Secretary General of Housing Europe, The European Federation for Public, Cooperative and Social Housing, in Brussels, Belgium. “And from then, the Austrian experience is really when you start to have a growth of middle class, in the mid 1800’s. People who didn’t want to have a landlord, but also didn’t want the responsibility of having their own property.” She adds, “Also, in high-density situations, having your own property is less practical.”
This radical housing concept came to New York with the enormous influx of immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th century. In 1918, the Finnish Home Building Association was established in Brooklyn by Finnish artisans—the city’s first true co-op. The rest of the century saw thousands of co-ops set up in New York.
“It’s a model that we are very much trying to promote” in Europe, says Edwards. “We have a lot of social rental housing within our membership, but what we really promote is a diverse housing system….You need the right regulatory framework to have lots of different types of housing.” The benefits go beyond money. “You have a lot more feeling of ownership,” she says. In running the building, the residents are given a voice, and the cooperatives usually have been not for profit, so again it adds to the diversity.”