Photo of several row houses in DC.
Photo courtesy of Max Pixel

On Aug. 13, a large crowd gathered at the Empower D.C. “Action Hub” in Southeast D.C. to hear from three affordable housing experts about the benefits of co-operative housing. The experts said that residents collectively owning their housing is a viable alternative to drastically underfunded public housing. 

We are in a very desperate moment right now. We have to try something new,” expert Amanda Huron, a Ph.D. professor at UDC, who spoke to the assembled about housing co-ops, said. “Gentrification is creating enormous problems; this is a moment when we should press some creative stuff.” 

According to Huron, co-ops offer low to moderate-income citizens more control over their housing communities. In a co-op housing arrangement, a housing property is jointly owned and controlled by a group of individuals. In respect to the size of the share, each owner is granted occupancy rights to a unit or portion of the property. Much like a nonprofit, each co-op has a board of members that provide governance for the community. However, the entire community of shareowners would be able to influence all management aspects of the space, including membership requirements, rent prices, and community rules, through a democratic voting process.  

Huron noted that, though most citizens do not know about them, there are around 130-200 housing co-operatives in the city right now. For example, Barry Farm had a food co-op staring around 1986, according to Johanna Bockman, an expert on business co-operatives and a Ph.D. from George Mason University.    

Huron said, “I think co-ops are one of the solutions for public housing.”  She said “Co-ops are great for people who want to own them.”  

A co-op, all experts agreed, is democratically-controlled housing owned by, and run for the benefit of those housing members.  It is “one member/one vote.”  

Huron added that housing laws in D.C. favor this, but a lot of potential tenants do not know they have housing rights, so do not protest the currently squalid conditions in their neighborhoods. D.C.’s laws include more advantageous housing rules than most other cities in this country.  As most residents do not know about these laws and allow , landlords often end up with more control.  

After the District approved Home Rule in 1973, the new law gave groups autonomy and control. At that time, there was no other place in D.C. where Black Americans could vote.  

Such a system would make for “an ecosystem” that would be very productive. As an at-large councilmember, Marion Barry moved forward quickly with creating these in 1974, and with the support of Home Rule. There were 11 in total. One result food co-ops at public housing projects, like the one at Barry Farm.  

When Barry was mayor of D.C. in the 1980s, he had a vision of a co-op environment, Huron said. By that time, a large section of the population was  neglected.  Barry thought co-ops were a good chance for economic opportunity.  

Also in the 1980s, Cornelius “Cornbread” Givens, a D.C. civil rights leader, advocated for co-ops for job opportunities for African-American people in the District.  He wanted every neighborhood in the city to have a “set” of co-ops:  producers, consumers, credit unions, low-income co-ops, and those for local charities. They would all be, his idea was, community-wide coordinated co-ops.  

In 1995, a Financial Control Board was formed to balance the District’s budget. The board stopped these democratically-run co-ops.   

Huron noted another type of cooperative from the District’s past. U.S. Senator Arthur Capper, a Congressman who represented D.C. in the 1930s, was interested in agricultural co-operatives during his time in office; there was a big return on these co-ops to the District, which created jobs for D.C. residents, especially during the Civil Rights Movement. 

Now there is a resurgence of the ecosystem that was created by the co-ops, the experts said.  

Linda Leaks, a black justice organizer, began demonstrating in the 1970s. At that time she asked builders to repair and replace housing repairs that needed fixing, starting in her house.  

Leaks began to learn her rights and share that knowledge with others. You have to organize to influence house repairs. Many tenants do not know that you can purchase property if the owners want to sell.  

Leaks organized tenants’ associations, which received government funding to purchase the property and make it into a co-op, she said. It takes years and years to make this happen, Leaks added.   

She is also a member of WISH; Washington Inner-City Self-Help; she started getting paid to do her organizing, she noted. 

Leaks has done most of her organizing in gentrifying neighborhoods of Columbia Heights and Shaw, and at Southern Avenue. At the latter, there are about 90 units of public housing, each with five or six bedrooms, built for families.  

Owners were trying to force them out so they could put in more profitable housing; they make more money when the apartment is only built with one bedroom, Leaks recalled. She demonstrated before HUD (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) and the City Council. D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton was a factor helping her, she said.  

You have got to “teach people so they are able to speak up and speak out,” she told the crowd assembled at the Action Hub.  

There was a lot of interest in the audience; several people asked questions. One woman said, “There are a lot of tenants exercising rights to purchase. The city makes it expensive to own; co-ops make sense.” She added that there are other alternatives, but co-ops are gaining momentum.