The Fall of the American Condominium — it’s not just the millennials. We Need a Better Co-Housing Model. My Story and More.

Condominiums have been around a lot longer than you’d think, at least since the 1880s in the USA and the 1920s in Europe, and there is evidence that the Romans developed the concept in ancient times.

In the USA, condominium ownership took off in the 1960s and 1970s as working, middle class, unmarried people and young married couples sought a piece of the home-ownership pie without the costs and labor required to purchase and maintain single family homes, and for the urban social life that often goes with co-housing. While New York led the way in cooperative living (residents owning shares of the land owning corporation), Puerto Rico was the first place within the USA, and Utah was the first state, to initiate condominium law, the law necessary to take airspace, historically legally assigned to the underlying land owner, and allow it to be chopped up into legally identifiable units and sold to others.

Landlords contributed to the boom as well. The 1960s and 1970s saw a lot of lawsuits decided against slumlords: the courts stopped landlords from hiding behind secret land trusts and withholding heat or reasonable maintenance. Landlords, hoping to finally cash out and lose the increasing maintenance burden of building ownership, were happy to covert their buildings and let them become someone else’s problem.

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City skyline from Lake Michigan. Photo by Ellen Beth Gill

At my title company jobs, I saw years of condominium developments and conversions and it looked like there would be no end to it as old buildings were rehabbed or torn down to create new condominiums. Eventually, buildings were built where no urbanites had ventured before, next to noisy commercial developments, highways and railroad lines, smelly factories, and operational farms. Suddenly, in the late 2000s and into the 2010s, condominium de-conversion became the rage followed by scads of articles about the millennials who just preferred yurts and glorified trailers repackaged and marketed as “tiny homes.”

While there are some young people who like the idea of small, independent housing, I’m convinced by my own experience as a long-time condominium owner and real estate lawyer that there’s more to the story, that the condominium as a co-housing movement became unsustainable under the weight of its own problems.

I’m not a millennial by a long shot, and I am not a gardener or handy person. I like the idea of sharing those costs and having others do or schedule the work. Sometimes it’s hard to find professionals willing to do a small job in a single family home. However, I never want to live in a high rise condo again. Now, I live in a townhouse condo, still a condo and not by choice, and I’m not excited about our shared wall and sleeping next to a neighbor’s garage. I don’t like the current state of condo living.

After decades of living in condominium units, and representing condo sellers and buyers, the problem with condominiums (at least in my humble opinion) is not the rise of the millennials. It’s the rise in maintenance costs and the increased difficulties of condo governance in a society that does not value community or compromise. These condominiums are usually ruled by the same small minority of residents, for years or decades, and it’s not their fault because no one wants to attend meetings, vote or run for the board much less board president. When a new regime comes in, they’re hot to make long-needed improvements and don’t carefully consider the impact on all the residents.

You may conclude this rant to be firmly against the idea of co-housing or advocating that everyone go out an buy a country home. That can’t be further from the truth. I believe that co-housing is increasingly important with population growth, lack of housing inventory, broken families and communities, and an aging population. I think we haven’t prioritized co-housing to the extent the issue deserves. We don’t have great co-housing models. A potential solution might be the old-fashioned, New York style co-op, where people own shares in the land owning corporation, choose their co-housing mates and take action as one. The downside is racism and classism that exclude many who need co-housing. I’m reminded of “The Coops” in 1950s-1960s New York City that were run a little bit like a kibbutz or commune, living there wasn’t participation free, and it worked well before developers seeking fortunes in New York land values gentrified some neighborhoods while shoving the displaced into fewer and poorer neighborhoods. No matter what solutions are chosen, people should be more mindful of their behavior toward their neighbors in their co-housing community.

Written by

Lawyer, Teacher, Mediator. Worked on many political campaigns and learned nothing will help until we enforce our laws, particularly laws against corruption.

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