DC has a rich history of housing cooperatives, in which each resident owns a share of the entire property, not just their unit. While relatively unknown, there are at least 120 co-ops in DC, many of which are a great source of stable, affordable housing.
In a cooperative, each resident owns a share in the corporation that owns their property, entitling them to reside in a specific unit. The corporation has a board of directors and a management company, which maintains the property, screens new residents, and determines monthly fees or carrying charges.
Nationally, cooperative housing began in the late 1800’s, but contemporary co-ops first appeared here in 1920. Banks would not finance the purchase of co-op units and condominiums did not yet exist, so early co-ops were a way for wealthy urban dwellers to own their homes and have control of their buildings. DC’s earliest cooperatives were built along Connecticut Avenue, and the most famous example may be Watergate East, built in the 1960s.
Today, the creation of a co-op in DC usually takes a different path. Empowered by theTenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, many residents of low and moderate incomes consider cooperative ownership when their apartment building goes up for sale.
The DC government supports some tenants who choose this route by committing public funds for the purchase and rehabilitation of these buildings to make them affordable to the current tenants. Previously, federal Community Development Block Grants were a major source of funding for co-op development; now, the most likely source is DC’s locally-funded Housing Production Trust Fund.
The cooperatives created with public funds are limited equity co-ops, meaning that there are restrictions on the price and resale value of a membership share. This ensures that cooperative units remain affordable in the long term.
Public investment in co-ops makes ownership available to low-income residents and helped maintain a much more diverse group of co-op residents. Today, there are co-ops in every ward of the city, with 3,000 residents living in 86 limited equity cooperative buildings.
Co-ops are tucked into neighborhoods around the city: garden apartments like Brightwood Gardens in Ward 7, an eight-story building in Logan Circle, a cluster of apartments in Columbia Heights named after civil rights worker Ella Jo Baker. These housing co-ops were created to preserve affordable housing and provide opportunity for residents of low and moderate income around the city.
Although many are skeptical that these tenants can own and maintain their own properties,61% of DC’s limited equity co-ops have been around since before 2000. This proves that co-op residents can own, maintain, and revitalize homes and communities.
On Saturday, organizations that support DC’s co-ops will hold a DC Co-op Clinic to help strengthen the internal functions of DC’s housing co-ops. Workshops will focus on how to be strong stewards of a collective property for this unique form of home ownership. For more information, check out this flyer.
Many DC renters can’t access the tax benefits, stability and capital that a limited equity co-op provides, and traditional homeownership may not be possible either. Cooperative housing started as an option only for the wealthy, but today it’s a gateway to homeownership and financial stability for those who need it most.
This article is also available on Greater Greater Washington