Since the early 1970s, the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board (UHAB) has played an important role in creating and preserving permanently affordable housing in New York City. In the wake of widespread property abandonment by landlords in low-income neighborhoods, a self-help housing movement organized residents to take control of buildings that had passed into city ownership. Local homesteaders reinvented undervalued spaces — from brownstones and former tenements to large apartment buildings — as cooperatively owned homes. While determined residents used their own labor, or “sweat equity,” to take housing into their own hands, UHAB (along with other homesteading groups) helped provide tools and training for everything ranging from replacing old pipes, to navigating the city’s multiple programs and legal mechanisms for establishing co-ops. Today, the legacy of this work is writ large in the nearly 1,300 resident-controlled co-ops across New York City.
But UHAB’s mark can be measured in smaller ways as well. Since its beginnings, the organization has accrued a sizable collection of artifacts from the homesteading movement: training manuals and annual reports, photographs and flyers, cookbooks and comic strips created by co-op residents. “For years, we had these boxes, in no particular order, carrying what we thought was just old junk,” notes Rania Dalloul of UHAB. “And then eventually we sorted through it and thought this would make a really great archive project.” Sensing an opportunity to tell the larger story of self-help housing through these unique objects, Dalloul and Clara Weinstein, along with other UHAB staff, reached out to Interference Archive, an organization in Brooklyn dedicated to exploring the relationship between cultural production and movements. Archivist and public historian Maggie Schreiner, graphic designers Greg Mihalko and Lulu Johnson from Partner & Partners, and a team of other Interference Archive volunteers, activist architects, and students from Schreiner’s Community Archives course at New York University, collaborated with UHAB to develop what would become the exhibition “Building for Us: Stories of Homesteading and Cooperative Housing,” on view at Interference Archive through February 2, 2020.
We sat down with a handful of the project’s large curatorial team to take a closer look at UHAB’s collection of co-op curios. Beyond their historical significance, Mihalko notes that these artifacts help illustrate “the ways that people organized, and what they made as a result of that organizing, and how we can learn from that in our own organizing or lives now.”
A lot of people who work at UHAB have been there for 30 years on average, and have been directly involved in homesteading. They were there during the earliest stages of what felt like a “how long is this going to last?” project. No one really could have anticipated that UHAB was going to last 46 years — it felt like an immediate response to what was then a crisis. People were aware that the organization was something special, and saved things. For those directly involved in this movement, there was such an emotional relationship to it. People cut out newspaper articles and saved clippings. They saved their first lease, or paper documents that felt really special to them. A lot of the people on staff in the ‘70s and ‘80s were photographers, artists, and graphic designers. People who were involved in the movement had those skills and inclinations, and really cared about the way things looked.
When we were first digging through the archive, it seemed like the bulk of materials were training manuals. Aesthetically, they look different over time. Early manuals were assembled in the ‘70s and ‘80s using photocopy machines and hand-drawing techniques, while in the ‘90s, they start to become digitally created. It’s interesting to see the evolution of the material itself.
Homesteading was referred to as “self-help housing.” These materials are meant to be accessible to people. The trainings that UHAB offers are free, so these manuals had to be mass-produced. And bilingual. We see a lot of really interesting ways in which they designed manuals so that, if you flip a book over and turn it backwards, suddenly it’s in Spanish. UHAB was coming up with many different ways to make these documents as accessible, as educational, as possible.
The Demolition Manual, created by Jorge Palombo from UHAB, is one of the earliest manuals that we have in our archive. People were using their own hands, means, and accessible materials to deconstruct and then reconstruct homes. That stopped happening very quickly after the 1990s. 1990 was probably one of the last years that somebody could physically use sweat equity. The city really started to catch up with this process and say, “There is going to be a lot more red tape and regulation about how this works.”
Managing Your Lawyer is from the 1980s, but its content will always be relevant. I think a lot of people, especially when dealing with housing, feel disempowered. It’s a difficult world to navigate. If you’re becoming a homeowner, you need everything at your disposal to understand whether or not you’re being treated fairly, or if you are going down the right path. It’s a very daunting process for a lot of people. A lot of training materials, in the beginning, focused on how to just run a co-op. What does a board look like? What does democratic participation look like in your building? For a lot of people, the pull wasn’t necessarily that they wanted to live in cooperative housing. I think the pull was, “We need housing. And we are all either an existing community, or we’re a community coming together based on the circumstance that we all share.” That’s an interesting distinction that I’m constantly reminded of when I look at the history of this movement. It wasn’t always a proactive move towards cooperation because that seemed like an attractive alternative to their other situations. People needed housing.
The Cooking & Building booklet was produced for the 20th anniversary of the Tenant Interim Lease (TIL) program, one of the programs through which Housing Development Fund Corporation (HDFC) housing co-ops can be created in New York City. It includes recipes that were contributed by residents of HDFCs across the city. It’s a really nice example of how this political movement was also reflected in people’s lived experiences. We can see who’s living in the buildings, what they’re eating, and the recipes that are really meaningful to them. There are also joke recipes, like for a grizzly bear stew.
Our cooperatives are more than our basements and roofs. Our cooperatives are about building a community, one apartment, one family, and one meal at a time. The recipes that follow are about the same thing. The recipes capture our duty to our families, our willingness to work, our cultural heritage, and our gifts to the community around our kitchen table.
– Excerpt from Cooking & Building
This is the last surviving blade of a wind turbine from the roof of Heartstone HDFC. It was installed by residents at some point in the late ‘70s. They all signed the turbine blade.
Heartstone also had a solar hot water heater, which residents had rigged up to their meter (and watched the meter run backwards). Heartstone residents were, I think, the first people in New York City to do that, and Con Edison immediately sued them. But something called “net metering” came out of that court case, which is a mechanism by which people can produce their own electricity and sell it back to the utilities companies. This is still how a lot of buildings today, including HDFC co-ops, are able to have solar and wind turbines in the city. It’s had a really lasting impact.
We have about 25 co-ops in the city that are now adopting solar energy. It’s the same mentality that drives people to take control of their physical buildings. The city has its own goals, in terms of energy and sustainability, that don’t always work in the best way for people in the neighborhoods where HDFCs and other cooperative housing tend to be located. But people are making their own energy and making their own path.
Heartstone is located in the Lower East Side, which was a heavily disinvested area in the 1970s. There are a lot of layers to how you can look at why energy justice and housing justice go hand in hand for the people in this building, and for this neighborhood in particular. The moment people realized they could generate their own power and didn’t need a company like Con Edison or a city agency — I think that terrified the powers that be. It’s funny that something so seemingly small really rattled an enormous corporation. Everyone should know this about New York City’s history.
We had a long list of buildings that we thought would be a good fit for featuring in the exhibition. We were trying to get a wider representation of buildings in terms of locations throughout the five boroughs, as well as the different paths that they took to become cooperatives, whether sweat equity or TIL. A lot of buildings that we talked to at first told us, “We don’t have any archival materials,” because they weren’t thinking of things documenting the history of their cooperatives as archival materials. “That’s old junk.” A big part of putting together the building profiles was telling people they have materials that are worthwhile and that their stories are important.
Nina Dunn HDFC in the Bronx is a really special building with a really unique history, and their residents are just as involved and active in their neighborhood today as they were 40 years ago. It’s amazing to hear them talk about their building: They were surrounded by vacant lots and they refused to give up on their one building.
In 1979, the building was owned by a slumlord, who did no repairs to fix the deteriorating building. At the time, the building was horrible. After a while, he dismantled and took the boiler before abandoning the building, leaving it without heat or hot water. All the tenants would join together in the hallway around an oil-fired space heater to keep warm. There were no doors, and lots of violent scenes took place within the building . . . As a result many of the tenants quickly moved out. Only 12 tenants stayed! They became known as the “Tenacious Twelve.” We stuck together and made the best that we could out of the situation . . . We went from abandoned properties to having a wonderful shopping mall, a rock garden, a children’s playground and even a beautiful water fall that everyone enjoys looking at.
– Excerpt from a 2006 UHAB interview with Vera Robinson, a resident of Nina Dunn HDFC
We got some images of individual buildings from UHAB and went on Google Maps and tried to draw them by hand as detailed and true to their character, to make them recognizable. It felt good to document them like that.
There were quite a few residents from the co-ops we profiled in the exhibition that came on opening night. They were really excited, just walking through the room, pointing out their own photographs. This is an exhibition about a movement in the city. There isn’t enough recognition of the scale of community input and human effort it took to do this work. It wasn’t like the city knocked on everyone’s doors and asked them to become co-ops. People went through so much, and survived so many years of hardship and disinvestment, to reclaim their own housing.
I feel like it’s important to reflect all that work back to the people that did it — to tell their story in a cohesive way, and treat their objects and photographs as something precious and valuable.
This archive and others like it are important. Unless you have an active way to reflect on the homesteading and cooperative housing movement, you run the risk in New York City of erasing that past and saying, “Well, actually, this is how it is and how it always will be. Gentrification’s natural. The city just changes.” It’s really dangerous to think like that. It’s important, to me, to do this kind of work to make sure that that doesn’t happen.
I think that also speaks to another piece of the story that we’re trying to tell, which is that people organized to remove their housing from the speculative market. And that is incredible, an enormous accomplishment. In our present day, it feels inevitable to be caught in these crises of unaffordable housing and homelessness. But here we have an example of people organizing to create permanently affordable housing in their neighborhoods.
I think it’s really unusual to see narratives of people having agency over their housing in New York, and it’s refreshing to see that that’s even possible.
All images, unless otherwise noted, are courtesy of UHAB.