Over 45 years of working for resident-controlled affordable housing.

UHAB was founded in the midst of New York City’s fiscal crisis in 1973, when racist housing policies and disinvestment led to landlord abandonment and poor living conditions for the communities of color that called redlined neighborhoods home. UHAB sought to give residents the tools to rehabilitate and maintain their own cooperative affordable housing to seek solutions from the ground up. Our work is guided by the principle of democratic community control: that people can collectively steward their own affordable housing to strengthen their neighborhoods.

Through the past half decade of democratic community control, we’ve expanded and adapted to meet the needs of a changing city. We give small loans to first-time homebuyers; we develop affordable co-ops; and we work with rent-stabilized tenants to combat landlord harassment and build tenant power.

To learn more about the history of cooperative housing in New York City, visit our archive.

UHAB staff at our first office, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, in the early 1970s

Our Founders

UHAB’s five founders combined their knowledge of self-help housing and cooperative economics to address New York City’s housing crisis through self-help housing, or the novel idea that ordinary people could be their own best solution to housing abandonment. UHAB first found a home at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, which acted as a sponsor.

Don Terner, a Harvard and MIT professor, studied self-help housing around the world before founding UHAB. His contributions to the 1972 book Freedom to Build explored the principles of self help and democratic control that would guide UHAB’s work for decades to come.

While pursuing his Bachelor’s of Science degree in Architectural Design from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Charles “Chuck” Laven met Don Terner. Inspired to work alongside his mentor to address the housing crisis in New York, Chuck worked closely with Don to help form UHAB.

UHAB’s first director Philip St. Georges was working as an Urban Fellow with the City’s housing department when he began meeting with Dean Morton and the other founders to envision homesteading in New York City.

Self-help housing was a relatively new idea in New York City, but UHAB’s founders were inspired by research on community-controlled housing across the world, often emerging from Indigenous practices in the Global South.

The Very Reverend James Parks Morton had just been appointed Dean of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in 1972 when he became interested in self-help housing. Alongside Episcopal Bishop Reverend Paul Moore Jr., he sought to inject the church’s social justice work with new purpose.

Meyer Parodneck was the founder of the Consumer-Farmer Milk Cooperative, which used cooperative economics to bring fresh, low-cost food to the city. By UHAB’s founding the Consumer-Farmer Milk Cooperative had transformed into the Consumer-Farmer Foundation, which would go on to give grants, low- and no-cost loans, and guidance to groups of homesteaders.

A Citywide Crisis

By the 1970s, white flight, racist housing policies, and public disinvestment had caused plummeting property values in communities of color like the South Bronx, Upper Manhattan, Central Brooklyn, and Loisaida (the Lower East Side). Landlords used abandonment and arson to squeeze profits from buildings in disinvested areas. The City foreclosed on thousands of occupied buildings in abysmal condition without the capacity to rehabilitate them. As housing conditions worsened, UHAB sought new solutions outside both the government and private sectors.

Graphic Presentation of Actual and Projected Increases in City Owned Residential Buildings, 1980. In the 1970s the City became the reluctant owner of thousands of abandoned buildings.
Staff and homesteaders in UHAB t-shirts, early 1970s

Tenants Taking Over

Homesteaders in a squat on the Lower East Side

With tools and support from UHAB, tenants across the city set about taking over their housing in new and innovative ways. These “urban homesteaders” stepped up to fix their buildings when landlords and the government would not. These early examples of community control demonstrated a resilient spirit that persists from the 1970s to today. Tenants gradually gained legal ownership of their buildings and became shareholders in HDFC co-ops, a type of collectively owned, permanently affordable housing.

UHAB annual report, 1974
Homesteaders at work, late 1970s

Resident-Controlled Housing Takes Off

Pamphlet, 5 Years of TIL, 1980

As homesteading took off as a viable, community-driven solution to the city’s housing crisis, UHAB trained tenants to restore and maintain cooperative housing through the Tenant Interim Lease (TIL) Program. In 1978, TIL’s first year, UHAB enrolled 240 tenant associations in the program.

TIL brochure, 1980
Homesteaders Day celebration, 1980

Supporting and Educating Homesteaders

UHAB worked with tenants to create new HDFC co-ops while offering ongoing education, technical assistance, and cost-saving programs to HDFC co-ops to keep them stable and affordable for the long haul.

Training has always been a cornerstone of UHAB’s work. Throughout the 1980s UHAB created training manuals that covered all facets of a building’s creation and upkeep, from demolition and construction, to physical maintenance, to legal and financial training.

UHAB training manual, 1989
FLIP insurance program brochure. We began FLIP, an early cost-saving program for HDFC co-ops, in 1984.

By the 1990s the city was no longer facing a crisis of abandonment. As rents began to rise, HDFCs provided a safe haven to live, raise families, and age in place. More and more HDFC co-ops formed throughout the city as shareholders gained control of their buildings, sometimes after decades of preparation. Throughout this era, residents created and shared strategies for lasting affordable self-management.

Community training, 1990s

Creating Affordable Housing

UHAB took on a new role as an affordable developer at the turn of the century to bring cooperative possibilities to a shifting housing landscape. Under the Third Party Transfer program, tenants needed a nonprofit developer as a sponsor before they could take direct control of their buildings. After petitions from several tenant organizations, UHAB became a qualified developer in 2001.

UHAB staffer checking on the rehabilitation of a squat converting to an HDFC co-op
537 West 149th St, an affordable co-op developed by UHAB

Tenant Organizing and Policy

UHAB began organizing in the early 2000s after noticing the housing stock of affordable rent-stabilized and government subsidized units dwindle in gentrifying neighborhoods.

Crown Heights Tenant Union rally, 2014. UHAB worked with CHTU from 2013 to 2019. They are now an independent tenant union.

As UHAB formulated theories of predatory equity and speculation-driven displacement, our mission of supporting resident choice expanded to include tenants organizing their neighbors to stand up to landlords and demand better living conditions.

Anti-predatory equity rally, 2012
Protest placard, 2012. One of UHAB’s earliest campaigns focused on the Texas-based private equity firm, Lone Star Funds.

UHAB continues to evolve alongside our changing city. Our founding principles of self-help and democratic community control have steered our work towards tenant’s rights, climate justice, and financial empowerment to steward New York City’s affordable housing into the future. We aim to develop and support resident leaders that are savvy, organized, and deeply involved in their housing. We see great things happening when people hold the power and New York City’s neighborhoods are run by their communities.