Florence Finch Kelly on Co-Operative Apartment Buildings (1908)

Florence Finch Kelly was an extremely prolific journalist, who, as the introduction to this piece remarked, had “written much on social questions.” She worked as a book reviewer for the New York Times, contributed to The Independent, wrote novels and poetry, and, as “F. F. K.,” was a contributor to Liberty. I’ve been “mining” The Independent a bit for radical material and ran across several essays by Kelly, along with a number of other things (a Milo Hastings piece on Edgar Chambless’ Roadtown, Upton Sinclair on the Home Colony, etc.), all of which are of interest. More soon. . .

Co-Operative Apartment Houses in New York


THE poverty-stricken East Siders are not the only residents of New York who grow restive under the burden of rent. It weighs heavily upon the shoulders of apartment house dwellers of every sort, and it grows heavier with every year. For rents, always high in New York in comparison with other cities, have steadily mounted higher. Under present economic and social conditions this rising movement is inevitable. With the enormous growth in urban population real estate values are bound to rise, and, in consequence, rents must increase. There is an old economic rule which sets down one-fifth of the sum set aside for living expenses as the highest amount which can, with prudence, be paid for house rent. And it is a sound, good rule, if people are to live thriftily and save a reasonable percentage of their incomes. But it is no longer possible in New York for the average salaried man if he wishes his family to enjoy the ordinary comforts of life and to live in a quiet, reputable quarter.

An apartment of average quality, without an elevator, but having steam heat and hot water supply, costs anywhere from $300 a year for a tiny, three or four room box to $800 for one having seven or eight so-called rooms.” The prices of elevator apartments, varying from five or six to a dozen or fifteen rooms, rise from about $800 to $3,000 or $4,000 per year, according to locality, size and the degree of luxury in appointments and ostentation in appearance. In all except the highest priced of these two classes of apartments the space is so restricted that there is almost no privacy, and, in the sense of room to move about in, little comfort. The furniture maker and the housewife are constantly busy contriving new space-saving stunts. But with their best efforts they cannot disguise the fact, and the resulting discomfort, that even a goodly sized apartment of from six to eight rooms encloses no more floor space than did two rooms in the old-time city dwelling. And if it is in one of the recently built houses not of the best grade—the houses put up by slap-dash methods for quick returns—its occupant must watch the floors sag until tile furniture threatens to topple over, and the baseboard is irrevocably divorced, while the walls break into yawning chasms, and must learn to be calmly philosophical when the ceiling falls. And whatever the amount he pays for the right to occupy this section of floor space, it is estimated that in five years’ time he discharges in rent its entire cost, and thereafter goes on paying its cost, over and over again, as long as he pays rent.

It was inevitable that somebody should revolt against this burden and endeavor at least, to make it lighter. And, in fact a little group of somebodies did revolt, a half dozen years ago, and evolved the idea of the co-operative studio apartment house. The first of these, three in number, in West Sixty-seventh street, in the first block west of Central Park, have now been in operation over five years and have proved so successful that their fame has spread to other cities, while in New York they have started a significant movement in urban architecture. There arc now completed and occupied a round-dozen of these co-operative apartment houses as many more are under way, and plans have been filed for a number of others upon which work will begin in the spring, while three large companies have been formed solely for the purpose of financing and building these structures.

The plan of co-operative building was tried in New York some twenty-five years ago when two such houses were erected. But there was inefficient business management and consequent failure. And after that every one was afraid to touch the co-operative idea until a few artists, with the courage born of desperation over the twin problems of rent and congenial housing, dared—and succeeded. The artists, by the way, are pluming themselves with much satisfaction over the fact that they, usually supposed to he the least practical of men, have been the ones to perceive that present conditions are ripe for the co-operative idea to give it sound financial basis, and to work it out so successfully that the co-operative apartment house has become the most important development of recent years in the city’s domestic architecture.

Briefly, this co-operative plan, as it is now being applied to the housing problem, provides for the building of an apartment house by a small group of men—ten, or a dozen or fifteen—who organize a company and hold all of the stock themselves. If each one takes one block of stock he is entitled to the ownership in perpetuity of one apartment and to a pro rata share in the rental of all the apartments that are not occupied by the co-operators in the scheme. Ordinarily the members of the company reserve for their own use half the apartments and rent the other half to outsiders under the usual conditions. If any member wishes he can buy the ownership of two or more apartments, according as he wishes to invest in two or more blocks of stock. These apartments then belong to him as absolutely as if they were so many private dwellings, except that if he wishes to sell them his buyers must be acceptable to the other members of the company, and if he wishes to rent them to outsiders his would-be tenants must meet the requirements imposed upon the other renters in the building. Each owner of an apartment has what amounts almost to a private dwelling, with no annoyance of tax bills, water bills or insurance. From being a tenant he has become a landlord and instead of paying rent himself collects it from others. The income from the rented apartments is applied first to the payment of interest, taxes and operating expenses. The remainder is either divided pro rata among the owners of the stock, or put into a sinking fund for the extinguishing of the mortgage, if the house was built upon borrowed capital. As the rental value of an apartment covers its cost in five years, after the end of that time the owner has his habitation free of all cost save that of interest upon his investment. And if the house is well managed, so that the rentable apartments are kept full, his share in them of the income from them will cover that interest as well as the fixed charges against the building and the cost of maintenance, and will yield him some surplus besides.

In some of the buildings now being erected a bond and realty company has guaranteed, for a payment of per cent. upon the par value of the stock, that the rentable portion of the houses shall be fully occupied. In non-guaranteed enterprises the stock is made assessable at 40 per cent. of its value, in case the income from rentable apartments should fall below the schedule. In only one instance, and that early in the history of the scheme, has an assessment been necessary in any of the houses. The management of the completed building is usually delegated by the owning company of co-operators to a committee of their number.

In those buildings in which the plan has been tested by operation of from two to five years it has proved economically sound and socially desirable. Their rentable space has been fully occupied almost all the time, while the value of their stock has increased so much that it has proved a remarkably good investment. Nearly all of the original investors in the West Sixty-seventh street buildings—the only ones that have been in operation long enough to give the plan thoro trial —still hold their stock. Every sale that has been made has been at a decided and steady advance. In one instance a block of stock which had cost its owner $15,000 was sold for $21,500, an advance of more than 40 per cent.

The original house plans of these cooperative apartments were evolved by artists for the use of artists, and, therefore, in every apartment was provided a large and lofty studio. This feature proved so popular as a drawing room among renters who were not artists that it has been retained in many of the houses, and they are all popularly known as “co-operative studio apartment houses,” whether or not they are built with studios. In most of them the apartments are duplexed—that is, arranged with the rooms on two floors, with private stairway connection, instead of all on one floor. Occasionally, when the apartment contains a good many rooms, they are triplexed—divided upon three floors. But each co-operator has the liberty of designing his own apartment exactly as he wants it. And that is one of the reasons that have won such quick popularity for the co-operative plan.

Those who developed this co-operative scheme and built the first houses—all of them artists—were moved solely by the desire of evolving some plan of living which would afford comfortable and congenial homes and would not entail upon their purses a constant and heavy drain for rent. But the houses have paid so well from the start that many have taken stock in more than one building as an investment. Robert Vonnoh, well known as a successful painter of portraits, who was one of the original group, has been so successful in organizing owning companies and carrying the buildings thru to completion that he is now a prominent member of one of the large co-operative building companies and gives up to that work a great deal of his time. From Boston Philadelphia, Chicago, Washington, and even from Paris, he has had urgent calls to come and help get the co-operative movement started. Walter Russell, also well known for his portraits, especially of children, is at the head of another large co-operative building company, and is so much absorbed by its business that he has practically given up painting, at least for the present. Henry W. Ranger, Childe Hassam, Frank Dumond, Kari Bitter, Francis and Bolton Tones, Charles C. Curran, Kenyon Cox Albert L. Groll, Irving Wiles, are a few of the prominent artists who own apartments in co-operative houses. William Dean Howells has taken stock in one house for an apartment for himself and i`1 another for his son. Mr. Buel, of the Century Company; Pitts Duffield, of the publishing house of Duffield & Co.; Homer St. Gaudens and A. Blair Thaw are stockholders in a co-operative building at Lexington avenue and East Sixty-seventh street.

All of the co-operative apartments that have been erected so far are expensive buildings. They are well and carefully built, have elevators and rooms of goodly size, and are equipped with all the laborsaving and comfort-providing devices known to apartment house builders. In addition, some are luxurious and artistic in the decoration of their entrance halls. Therefore, only the man with a few thousand dollars to invest has been able to make use of this particular solution of the urban housing problem.

The scheme has met with such instant success and seems to be so well adapted to present needs and desires that it may well be the beginning of a revolution in urban economics. For it offers a steady and growing opposition to the tendency toward the concentration of property, and should the movement continue, as now seems not the least doubtful, it is bound to result in a much wider division of the ownership of land and buildings in large cities. The idea does not do away of course, with the evil of rent exploitation, but it is a step in that direction.

If there must be landlord exploitation, is it not better that twelve men should share in the results than that they should be concentrated in the hands of one man? Indeed, the success of these apartment houses is as striking an object lesson in the economic value of the co-operative idea as one could find in the whole country.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2585 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.

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