One Large Shift: A Culture of Cooperatives

housing under construction
Tuesday, March 7, 2023
Greg Jarrell

Editor’s Note: This article is a part of a series of guest contributors considering the question, “What small tweak or large shift would you make in 2023 that would catalyze sustainable growth and ensure equitable wellbeing in our region?” 

“A nation of homeowners, of people who won a real share in their own land, is unconquerable,” President Franklin D. Roosevelt told the US Savings and Loan League in 1942. Roosevelt had by that point spent a decade pushing policies that transformed homeownership across the country. As the economy slouched through the Depression, so did the finances of homeowners. In 1933, more than 50% of homeowners were at risk of defaulting on their mortgages. 

The Roosevelt Administration’s New Deal agencies may not have made the nation unconquerable – a strange bit of rhetorical excess – but they certainly changed the shape of American cities. The 1933 creation of the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation (HOLC)  began the publicly-financed insuring of mortgage refinancing deals. In 1934, the Federal Housing Administration began publicly-financed insurance on new home loans as a way of fixing a broken housing system. The “repairs” to the housing system were deeply infected by racism, as evidenced, for instance, by the redlining maps that local committees produced for implementation of the national policies, the specters of which still shape American cities nearly a century later. 

Entrenched segregation was not the only New Deal blow to American cities. A further issue was the decided anti-urban bias of the policies the HOLC, and especially the FHA, produced. Projects most likely to win subsidized funding consisted of detached, single-owner homes built in neighborhoods filled with huge numbers of other detached, single-owner homes. When policy made building the suburban subdivision cheaper than repairing existing cities, builders rushed to gobble up land on the edges of urban areas. The population who could afford it followed. Exemplifying the change, Lucy and Ricky moved from New York City to suburban Westport, Connecticut.

In Crabgrass Frontier, his important history of the suburbanization of the United States, Kenneth Jackson points out the costs to our country’s social architecture during this period of city building. Transportation options became more and more anemic, replaced by the personal vehicle for everyone who could afford a car. Entertainment relocated from stoops and squares to television sets inside detached houses. Recreation moved from the park to the yard. All those decisions had long-term social costs our cities are still paying today. Further, whatever benefits the suburban landscape offered were never equally available. Segregation of place and of opportunity gave White families expanding opportunity that other families and communities would have to pay for but would never see.

[Read: Homeownership and the Legacy of Redlining: Charlotte’s Racial Wealth Gap]

New Deal policy transformed the American landscape by transforming housing and neighborhood policy. But it is not clear to me how beneficial it is for a society to be built around a system of individualized wealth building through land-as-commodity, where every space is fenced off and every neighbor kept perpetually at bay. A recent flood of corporate landlords for whom people’s homes are just numbers on a spreadsheet is simply the natural end of that scheme. If I could, as the prompt for this essay suggested, wave a wand and solve some city issue, I would eliminate the cult of homeownership as a tool for building individual wealth. I would replace it with a culture of cooperative ownership for the purpose of building community prosperity. Co-ops. Co-ops everywhere.

Community activist Jessica Moreno described to me how one immigrant cooperative in Union County has been leading the way. Over the course of five years, neighbors there have invested in one another’s housing. It works like this: a dozen or so families pay monthly into a shared fund. When the fund has enough money, they buy a house or a lot, move a family in, and start working toward another house. Together they are building a common wealth for their small group of people who could never afford homeownership otherwise – laborers, construction workers, factory workers, and so on. They do collectively what they could not do individually. They assume responsibility for one another. They also collectively reap the benefits of their investments: stability, a system of belonging, a stake, a way of building a different kind of world. Imagine, for a moment, a culture where not only poor people participate in such arrangements, but also the middle class and the wealthy. Imagine: fearless abundance rather than panicked hoarding.

The Charlotte region has a rapidly rising cost of living. Especially in Mecklenburg County, it is becoming harder and harder for poor people to hold on to a stake in a place. We have terrific nonprofit groups attempting to make homeownership, and the long-term stability that comes with it, available. West Side Community Land Trust is one of my favorite groups with that mission. Likewise, some city and county programs attempt to assist low-income people into homeownership. But the entwined problems of geographic displacement and economic estrangement won’t be solved by a few programs. The way into a different future requires a different imagination and the willingness to risk a system that’s not working for most people in order to create something that might.

Cooperative ventures, unsurprisingly, require a high degree of cooperation. So does the PTA. Any kind of democratic organization does. You can make it work, if you want to. Rickey Hall, a life-long resident in the West Boulevard corridor, has been working in his neighborhood for cooperative culture and community wealth building for decades. You can see the fruits of his labor, and his community’s, in efforts like Three Sisters Market, the Community Benefits Coalition, the West Side Community Land Trust, and other projects. Hall says that the work is challenging and requires patience. It is worth it, he thinks, “when you see the goals being realized: democracy, equality, equity, and solidarity.” He and his neighbors, faced with the instability engendered by long-term disinvestment and rapid reinvestment, are “taking responsibility and control over our own outcomes.”

One large shift to catalyze sustainable growth and ensure equitable well-being in our region: a culture of cooperatives, for a Charlotte of economic democracy and solidarity.