Learning from Tlatelolco & Co-Op City (Pt 1 of 2)

Resident organizing and the restoration of ‘failed’ welfare state housing in Mexico City and New York

By Eric Peterson

The current vogue toward social housing in the US poses Viennese tower blocks as the left’s remedy to the privatized deprivation and dispossession of US housing. The argument implies important and often real differences between the failure of American public housing and the comparative success of European welfare states in realizing decommodified, mixed-income housing. Such a binary, however, might pose as many problems as it solves given how politically irrelevant European social democracy often is to the machinations of North American politics. On the one hand, the deeply racialized context of US housing politics with the ongoing segregation of Black renters and homeowners. As a second of many differences, private property and the weakness of any electoral politics aligned with collectivist aims. Unlike red Vienna, the US labor movement has had little interest or ability to realize a comparable municipal social democracy (see also: working class homeownership). 

That said, the Americas do have examples of relevant social housing to draw from that speak to strategic concerns of the contemporary left. Historians of housing in NYC understand that mixed-income subsidy based projects have been perhaps the most successful of the city’s affordable housing and even weathered the trails of neoliberal politics.  In this two part article I note many of the similarities in experiences of North America’s two largest social housing complexes: Mexico City’s Tlaelolco and New York’s Co-Op City. Like the better-studied Co-Op City, Tlatelolco is a predominantly middle class project where residents have long term ownership of their units. Both projects have roots in their respective welfare states that, however deeply flawed, allowed residents to resist neoliberal defunding of important infrastructural elements of their projects. They remain affordable middle class projects in the middle of extremely expensive locales. I argue we should engage with projects such as these as our own hybrid housing types. They help us illustrate the different arrangements of public, private and social movement forces that exist on a spectrum and can inform new models. In particular, at both projects the bargaining power enabled by the massive scale of the projects have proved particularly strong platforms for the kind of resident organizing necessary to resist privatization and ensure stability. 

Hybrid models of affordable housing in the US and Mexico have been obscured by totalizing narratives of the failure of the welfare state associate. This article argues against the dominant narrative of state planning’s “failure.” The narrative obscures the degree to which the state models can work, as Susanne Shindler puts it, “within and beyond the market.” Focus on Tlatelolco and Co-op City can help shift the narrative of state failure and market success to one of successful social housing precedents in our own backyard, enabled by the wins of resident organizing in the face of disinvestment. 

North America’s Flawed Welfare States

First, I contextualize the history of two housing projects in two very different contexts, North America’s two largest cities: CDMX and NYC. Though different social contexts, US hegemony has overshadowed some key similarities between the two countries. Both spent a large part of the 19th century as young post-revolutionary countries working to reconcile their nationalist aspirations with the shadow of their former European colonial overseers. By the 20th century, both saw the advances of modernity as crucial for creating a strong middle class solidified around notions of the modern worker-consumer, fueling production and consumption through broader metropolitan development. Unlike European social democracies, in both the US and Mexico, a pro-corporate model of governance dovetailed the interests of capital and labor in the creation of privately-owned housing development to foster development of a burgeoning middle class. The reality of a weak welfare state led to many half hearted modernist projects, with the ideal of public housing in the US, flagrantly underfunded and frequently segregated in implementation, as one shining example.

Tlatelolco (completed 1965) and Co-Op City (completed 1973) represent in some ways the fulcrum of modernist urban redevelopment within their respective political-economic contexts. Co-Op City emerged from the contradictions of an aggressive state-sponsored approach to affordable housing development that few cities outside of NYC were able to achieve. Tlatelolco was part of the ‘Mexican miracle’ of statebuilding projects in the crown of the capital, which includes the university campus of UNAM as well as CDMX’s famed anthropology museum.  Both Co-Op City and Tlatelolco are invoked alongside the withering of the welfare state as part of the conditions of construction, moments before the 1970s crisis of liberalism. Despite this baggage, this discourse is quite separate from the actual experience of residents who have succeeded in enabling these projects to thrive over the past several decades. 

Co-Op city was erected in the context of a New York polity that scholars like Joshua Freeman argue was the closest to realizing a form of European social democracy. While in the US postwar growth is most frequently associated with the suburban context of home and interstate construction, it had an important corollary in New York in the urban middle class apartment. A project like Stuyvesant Town demonstrates that the midcentury middle-class housing impulse for a typology centered around the white, nuclear family was here incorporated into modernist apartment living. Racing against the threat of suburbanization, city elites worked to encourage middle-class apartment development through hybrid public-private development programs.

The public-private approach was often successful because it united diverse social and political interests across the city’s body politic. Many market-rate developers, such as Fred Trump, Donald Trump’s father, made use of the program, but so did labor groups. Abraham Kazan stood at the helm of a several decades-long initiative of labor unions to build demonstration projects, (such as the Amalgamated Houses on Manhattan’s Lower East Side) and later, projects of a substantial size such as Co-Op City. Kazan oversaw the entity, United Housing Foundation, set up by the garment workers represented by Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. Known for its support for progressive causes, the Amalgamated had many decades of experience backing subsidized housing development in the city. Robert Moses is today frequently invoked as a stand-in for the failure of top-down government planning, but even he, while critical of organized labor (and a devout anti-communist), worked with Kazan and understood the power of New York’s powerful labor coalition in galvanizing support for mixed-income housing. 

Co-op City was financed through a joint venture between United Housing Foundation and New York State through its highly successful Mitchell-Lama mortgage subsidy program. Under this deal, low-interest rates on loans were subsidized by voter-approved bond sales. A series of modifications to Mitchell-Lama in the late 1950s had allowed landlords to buy out of the program (removing rent control requirements) after fifteen years. The program launched hundreds of new projects throughout the 1960s, creating some 140,000 units in total. Co-op City is one of the most successful examples of New York’s hybrid development program, using market mechanisms (bond revenues to underwrite subsidized mortgages) with nonprofit management with strong ties to the leftwing labor movement. Unlike public housing, residents have had more direct access to and the political power, as discussed below, to retain a high level of funding. This was not by design, however, as discussed below the reforms to the Mitchell-Lama program favored developers’ ability to privatize projects (removing price controls on rents or co-op sale prices) posing an ongoing threat to long term affordability in New York.  

There are some political and temporal parallels between the fragmentary nature of the welfare state in the US and the context within which Mexico’s few social housing projects were created. The site of Tlatelolco’s proximity to the center of Mexico City saw it grow into a slum as workers housing crowded around one of the nation’s most central rail yards. By the mid twentieth century, the neighborhood’s increasingly congested state, and its prime location just outside of the historic core of the colonial Spanish city, made it a prime target of the Mexican state’s modernization campaigns. The complex itself was proposed in part as a response to a massive railway worker’s strike by one of the largest non-PRI aligned labor syndicates. The government aimed to reduce the union’s power, by dismantling the rail yard, while offering a project that worked, on paper, and in public perception, to fulfill the post-revolutionary constitution’s commitment to a right to housing as provided by employers.

The massive building program undertaken by the state in Mexico City reflected the potent symbolism of the “Mexican Miracle” narrative. But beneath the rhetoric of an ascendant state power enacting welfare programs, the “miracle” reflected a coalition between a fragile and increasingly corrupt one party government (led by the PRI) and pro-growth corporate interests such as the massive cement monopoly, CEMEX. Tlatelolco was only one of the sites developed through the state building program, which included a major school-building campaign and a number of state and cultural institutions including the Museum of Anthropology and the sprawling campus of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).

I am interested in the parallel histories of these projects because both were realized in the 1960s at the height of modernist housing planning undertaken with significant, but ultimately problematic and underinvested, resources from the US and Mexican states. In the Bronx, Co-Op City was realized at the apex of the city’s postwar housing program, but only a moment before the city’s 1975 bankruptcy and the federal neoliberal turn in public housing privatization. Tlatelolco has a similar relationship with the fractured Mexican state, as from the get-go residents experienced underfunding and warned about safety concerns in building construction. The onset of neoliberal debt crises is the broader structural backdrop in the case of both projects, and necessitated what came next: resident organizing to ensure adequate investment in the housing complexes. 

Resident Organizing Actualizes the Promise of Welfare State Housing 

At both Tlatelolco and Co-Op City, collective action in the face of underinvestment has proven a way to sustain and actually win increased financial commitment from the state. First to note, there is a dense body of scholarship on the factors that lead a housing project or particular model to success or failure, with Joseph Heathcott arguing it is a deeply contextual problem. One of the most crucial metrics, however, is not a distinction between public or private but rather the level or public subsidy on any given project. To make a generalization, public housing often failed because it lacked deep public investment. By comparison, mortgage-financed private housing benefits from a highly liquid finance system through a banking system created through government subsidy and deep institutional involvement. The experiences of both Tlatelolco and Co-op city provides a similar lesson: both were underfunded, vestiges of partial welfare states. But through resident organizing they demanded and received government investment they would not have otherwise enjoyed.

At Co-Op City’s completion, it became North America’s largest subsidized housing project. The project contains 15,382 apartments (today housing 43,000 residents) in towers ranging from 22 to 33 stories with some small scale rowhomes and community facilities interspersed amid the ample open space. From the outset, Co-Op City’s demographic makeup reflected the membership and often insular priorities of organized labor; efforts at greater diversity were hampered by the paternalistic bylaws UHF mandated of project residents. Of the initial residents, 70% were Jewish. UHF had gone to efforts to make sure the projects were not segregated, and there were some number of Black and latino residents among the initial resident cohorts. (Over the decades this disparity would reverse as minority residents would come to greater outnumber white residents to this day). 

The massive project was plagued in its early years by complications with budget overages. This was compounded, as nearly all contemporaneous projects were, by roaring inflation in the 1970s that threatened public debts and sent the city and state hurtling towards bankruptcy with nearly $5 billion in precarious housing debts. After years of frustration with UHF, in 1975 residents embarked on what is by all accounts a highly successful rent strike. An estimated 80% of residents withheld payments for 13 months, instead paying into an escrow account. In an epic success, the Co-oper’s succeeded in winning autonomous power over the project from the largely defunct United Housing Foundation and the near-bankrupt state. 

Despite years of procured struggles, the level of reinvestment Co-Op City residents have since been able to win came from this organized power. The success of the rent strike established a formula for subsequent success in resisting further privatization (a fate common to similar projects) in the ensuing decades. Mitchell Lama’s largest flaw is the expiring nature of subsidies, with many owners reaping windfalls by removing affordability restrictions. As planning scholar Adam Tanaka writes of one Lower Manhattan ML project: “shareholders who purchased apartments for as little as $5,000 in the early 1970s can now sell them on the open market for well over $1 million.” By comparison, a two-bedroom in Co-op City go for just  $20,000 down. The residents of Co-Op City’s organized power has allowed them to stem the tide of the flawed Mitchell Lama program: in 2012 the project’s mortgage was refinanced with HUD (under the section 223(f) program). The $621.5million mortgage allows 20 years of continued affordability with continued options for future renewal. In this way, Co-Op City’s residents have retained elements of the welfare state to weather the neoliberal era. Writing on the 50th anniversary of Co-Op City’s creation, marked by a political star studded gala, Tanaka writes “the development is something of a vertical voting bloc, and a regular pit stop on the campaign trail. “ 

Figure 3: Diagram of the current state of Tlatelolco, approximately 12 of the original buildings either collapsed or were demolished following the 1985 earthquake. English speaking sources have tended to inflate the number of demolished building as part of portraying Tlatelolco as a failed modernist project. By Ricardo Castenado, 2013.

To the south, Tlatelolco bears some passing resemblance to Co-Op City especially in terms of scale and later modernist ambitions. The first similarity is in terms of design and the programmatic ambitions of this sprawling project. The sprawling project, designed by European-trained architect Mario Pani, contained 102 buildings, both residential and public facilities. The project contains a diverse scale of buildings (featuring much more of a mix of mid- to high-rise projects than Co-Op City and many other modernist projects) and continuity of landscaping elements and public art between them. While the project’s population has fluctuated over the decades, today it is home to an estimated 28,000 residents. 

Tlatlolco’s relationship to Mexican modernist projects of statebuilding and design has given it a bit of mythology, wrapped up in the turbulence of late 1960s cultural and social politics. It is most commonly associated with a sprawling public space at its center, La Plaza de Tres Culturas. The site was created around a massive pre-colonial ruin, which was discovered in part during construction, as well as a Spanish mission-era church. The plaza was the site of an infamous massive government crackdown (killing dozens) of students amid the 1968 Olympics. As a modernist housing project, however, the complex has an almost separately unique history in contesting the twin challenges of neoliberalism and environmental precarity in the face of the 1985 earthquake, a topic which will be addressed in a subsequent dispatch of market failure. For our purposes, the relationship of the residents to the same failed welfare state invoked by the commonly referenced massacre poses challenges to understanding the contemporary success of Tlatelolco. 

Tlatelolco’s completion, while signalling the ascendance of the modern welfare state, in fact coincided with early efforts by the state to liberalize real estate markets to stimulate investment, often to the detriment of working class housing investment. Originally, the new housing was slated as low- and moderate-income rental units, subsidized under laws that mandated employers finance worker housing and which imposed a city-wide rent freeze. This “rent system” was reformed in the early 60s, and replaced with a co-ownership contract called a “certificate of real estate participation.” The reforms to the “rent system” foreshadowed the broader economic instability that further impacted tenancy of the project in the early 1970s. In 1971 Mexican law was amended to preclude employers from the responsibility of housing their employees, in effect removing much of the regulation behind “rent system.” This encouraged a huge shift in real estate development in Mexico City toward condominium ownership, leading to a huge influx of inflation that was also driven by a global uptick in inflation in the mid-1970s. 

In this sense, Tlatelolcas faced similar challenges to those in US subsidized housing projects who faced disinvestment basically from the moment they moved into their units. Organizing against precarity led residents to be wary of the fact that many buildings were poorly constructed. The 1985 earthquake devastated Mexico City and Tlatelolco, located on the porous infill (on the former ancient lake around the indigenous complex Tlatelolco takes its name from) was hit particularly hard. The Nuevo Leon building collapsed, trapping and killing dozens inside. 

In the ensuing years, residents at Tlatelolco, led by longtime resident-leaders like Cuauhtémoc Abarca Chávez, organized against the second wrecking ball which followed the earthquake: state-proposed demolition and privatization. From the 1970s and into the 1980s, Mexico became what has been described by some scholars as an early “experiment” in neoliberalism (though less well known than other Latin American projects like Chile) when the country's foreign debt led to prolonged micromanagement by the IMF and foreign creditors. For many residents of Mexico City, the total horror of the 85 earthquake was inseparable from the PRI-led government’s total failure to adequately respond and manage the crisis. In the ensuing years of the disaster, residents, joining together with the broader Damnificados movement, forced the Mexican government to abandon a plan to demolish several faulty buildings. While many apartments in Tlatelolco have since been converted to full private ownership (not co-ownership with the state), the fact that most buildings were maintained for occupation is a testament to the self-organization of residents.   

As at Co-Op City, at Tlatelolco resident organizing has allowed occupants to make real the promises of a flawed and underfunded welfare state. Protests from the pre earthquake era were then supercharged by the threat of demolition of several additional housing blocks at Tlatelolco. To be sure, the middle class constituency has enabled broad and enduring affordability in a high quality project.

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The experiences of both Tlatelolco and Co-Op city demonstrate that large scale projects create political constituencies with the bargaining power to wrest concessions from the state. Discussions of different housing models, such as social housing, frequently leave out the issue of political power as a necessity for their creation. In the context of the Americas, the absence of organized left or labor parties has virtually guaranteed the irrelevance of non market housing as a political project. That being said, governments have felt the need to create subsidy programs or build housing to respond to the needs of low- and middle-income residents. Notably, residents at Co-Op City have resisted privatization while also benefiting from a level of public-private investment far greater than those in public housing. The welfare state-inspired projects found in both North American cities are limited, but at scale and under certain conditions they can enable political power for their residents. At both Co-Op City and Tlatelolco, residents have recognized this potential and created for themselves some of the most successful and affordable housing projects in their respective cities.