The Amalgamated: a socialist-inspired housing co-op in the Bronx

It was offered to us to demonstrate that through cooperative efforts we can better the lot of our co-workers. We have also been given the privilege to show that where all personal gain and benefit is eliminated, greater good can be accomplished for the benefit of all. It remains too for the members of our Cooperative Community to exert their efforts to run this cooperative and make it more useful, and more interesting, for all who live in these apartments.

Abraham E. Kazan,
Founder, The Amalgamated Houses

A friend of mine, whose parents were progressive and whose grandparents were self-defined anarchists, grew up in the Amalgamated co-op in the Bronx. She has fond memories of growing up in a warm, close knit community where, in the summers, women played mahjong on card tables set up in the park across the street. She even remembers Abraham Kazan, whom everyone simply called “Kazan.” Her parents have passed away, but each year she goes back for a reunion with her childhood friends.

The Amalgamated Houses, the oldest non-profit housing cooperative in the country, has served four generations and is still going strong. A densely populated co-oopertive housing complex in the Bronx is the direct opposite of the single-family suburban home of the American Dream. So why does the Amalgamated have a 2 to 7 year waiting list? The answer is affordability, collective ownership and management, supportive community life, and protection from the precarious boom and bust of traditional real estate investment. For lower and middle income working families, it offers much more than just a place to live.

Cooperative housing emerged from the needs of immigrant garment workers

The following draws heavily from an excellent article on the Amalgamated by Alexandra Vozick Hans.

In the early 1900s, large numbers of immigrants moved into the Lower East Side of New York City, where they lived in squalid, overcrowded, walk up tenements, with no sunlight or ventilation. The majority were Jews who worked in clothing sweatshops under deplorable work conditions. During and after World War I housing was in short supply, so slumlords took advantage of their tenants and raised rents. In reaction to the abuses of landlords and bosses, they began to organize rent strikes and join unions, such as the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union.

Sidney Hillman (1887-1948), the visionary president of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union, believed that workers not only needed better working conditions, but better living conditions. To that end, he appointed the director of the Amalgamated Credit Union, Abraham Kazan (1889-1971) to come up with a plan to solve the housing shortage for these middle and low-income workers. Kazan, a Russian socialist and a progressive thinker, was committed to helping working families.

The birth of the non-profit housing co-operative

Kazan came up with the idea of a non-profit, co-operative, affordable housing. His concept was as follows:

• People would buy shares in the non-profit corporation that owned the housing, but not their individual apartments. They could not sell their shares on the open market; but members their shares would be repurchased by the co-op when they moved out for their original investment. The number of rooms of the apartment determined the share price. The initial per room outlay, plus a moderate monthly rent, known as a carrying charge, would finance the co-operative, and help to secure a mortgage.

• The co-op would be a non-discriminatory, democratically run organization, open to all people, not just union members. Each apartment had one vote. (Kazan’s original idea was to have an outside volunteer Board of Directors elected by the residents who would oversee the manager, but today the Board of Directors is made up entirely of in-house residents, or “co-operators.”)

• Continuing education would be key to making the experiment work. Kazan reasoned that, in order to be effective participants in the management of their co-operative housing, share holders had to be knowledgeable about economic and social issues to better assess the needs facing their tenant-owned and tenant run community.

Kazan’s vision, Amalgamated Houses, becomes a reality.

The Governor of New York State, Alfred E. Smith, who himself grew up on the Lower East Side, understood that something had to be done to ease the apartment shortage. He helped pass the Limited Dividend Housing Act of 1926, which encouraged the development of moderately priced, limited profit housing to be built by private developers who would receive, in turn, a 20-year real estate tax exemption. Kazan seized on this opportunity and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers acquired a mortgage and a tract of land in the Bronx. It was in a beautiful setting with trees and grass, far away from the squalor of the Lower East Side. The development was to become the Amalgamated Houses, which is now the oldest limited equity housing development in the United States. To help people buy their shares, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union and The Jewish Daily Forward set up a credit fund with the Amalgamated Bank allowing them to borrow up to 50% of their down payments, which they could pay off over ten year’s time.

Co-operators, as residents were called, began moving into the first building of 300 apartments in November 1927. The building was designed in the Tudor style with courtyards that had gardens, fountains, trees and benches. The first building was a 4-floor walk-up divided up into approximately 26 entrances with 9-11 apartments per entrance. Each unit had 2 or 3 apartments per floor. The apartments had hardwood floors, ceramic tile bathrooms, an eat-in kitchen, a foyer, a living room and 1, 2 or 3 bedrooms. They all had cross ventilation and sunlight. A typical 2-bedroom apartment cost $2000 down and $44 per month rent, which included utilities.

Soon after the first building opened, the co-op created a grocery store for fruits and vegetables, a milk and ice delivery system, a pharmacy, a kosher butcher, a tailor, a barbershop, a shoe repair shop, and a tearoom. And, of course, there was a community library. The visionary founder Abraham Kazan encouraged residents to expand their horizons through reading and other forms of continuing education. Eventually, a branch of the Public Library was located in the Amalgamated. In 1933, the residents successfully petitioned the city for a local K-12 school, and the co-op’s Circle Pines Day Camp was established to keep children occupied in the summer months.

The education Kazan encouraged included exposure to the arts. So, the co-op had space for every kind of creative expressive activity: dance, music, art, pottery, theatre in Yiddish and English, woodworking, and photography. There were Sunday discussions and political debates. Eventually, another building was built with an auditorium for lectures, concerts, meetings, and other cultural events. The co-op began its own in-house newspaper, The Community News.

Political awareness was always part of the Amalgamated’s identity. In the beginning, the Amalgamated was predominantly white and Jewish and maintained a strong identification with Judaism. There was an Orthodox synagogue and the Workmen’s Circle, a fraternal, socialist organization dedicated to the preservation of Yiddish life and progressive idealism. The Amalgamated always was, and continues to be, a progressive community.

By the 1960s, taller buildings were built with air-conditioning and elevators, and the original four-floor walkup was torn down. At that time, the Amalgamated reached its present size of 1500 families in 11 buildings on 15 acres about a half-mile by a half mile, between Van Cortlandt Park and the Jerome Park Reservoir. Today, depending on the number of bedrooms, it costs approximately $22,000 to $44,000 to buy into the Amalgamated, and an additional $575 to $1427 per month in rent or carrying charges per month, depending on the size of the apartment and number of bedrooms. There is a 2 to 7 year waiting list (less for one bedroom, more for two and three bedrooms) and applicants are required to have a home visit before being accepted. The Amalgamated offers financing through its credit union.

The Amalgamated today is more diverse racially, religiously, and ethnically than it was in 1927. The educational and cultural activities continue, with classes and studios for ceramics, photography, painting, woodworking, visual arts, and a writers’ workshop meets regularly. The quarterly Community News and weekly Co-Op Bulletin are still printed and distributed. Today, there is a membership-based fitness facility, a playgroup, a licensed nursery, and the Circle Pines summer day camp for kids is still going strong. The Amalgamated is a designated NORC—a Naturally Occurring Retirement Community—funded by New York City, New York State, and various foundations. The large variety of social services and programs provided allow the elderly to continue living independently at the Amalgamated.