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Chronicling how U.S. condo ownership went through the roof

A New York college professor's book describes how a complicated stew of social, economic and political factors led to the embrace of condominiums in the U.S.

March 01, 2013|By Mary Umberger
  • Mid-20th century retirees and creative financing and marketing combined to fuel condos’ popularity in the U.S. Above, a Bakersfield development.
Mid-20th century retirees and creative financing and marketing combined… (Anne Cusack, Los Angeles…)

Matthew Gordon Lasner is the official biographer of the condominium. (Well, as official as these things get, anyway.)

Several years ago, the assistant professor of urban affairs and planning at Hunter College in New York became curious about how condo ownership of apartments, town houses and their legal cousins, co-ops, became ubiquitous in this country in so short a time.

"Like everybody else, I just presumed they began in the 1960s and grew from there," Lasner said. But he started digging through legal documents, news reports and historical records, tracing the birth of the "owner-occupied apartment" to a building (alas, long since demolished) constructed in Manhattan in 1881.

How we got from those eight units at 152 W. 57th St. to about 10 million co-ops and condo apartments (and about 7 million privately owned town houses) across the country is the basis for his new book, "High Life: Condo Living in the Suburban Century," published by Yale University Press.

Lasner found a complicated stew of social, economic and political factors that led to the embrace of these multifamily dwellings, although it's the single-family suburban house that's the archetype of the American home.

He was surprised that it was an untold story.

"The history hadn't been done," he said, though apparently there are a number of places that have staked their claim to being the place where condo-mania began.

"I wish I had a nickel for every 'first' condo I heard of," he said. "I encountered them all the time. I'd find somebody who claimed, 'I developed the first condo,' or 'My grandparents lived in the first condo.'"

The practice seems to have emerged in the United States in 1881 when a journalist named Junius Henri Browne (who, despite having written essays on reasons to avoid such multifamily living arrangements as boarding houses and hotels) was among the first to buy an apartment in New York's original owner-occupied building — a concept then known as a home club.

Browne had written in the late 1860s that a hotel (at that time, a popular urban housing alternative) was "a terrible place to live because your wife wouldn't do any housework," Lasner said. "He wrote that she wouldn't do any housework because the hotel staff would be doing [the work], and she would be in the lobby, chit-chatting, the whole time.

"A private building, rather than a hotel or rental apartment, would make a multifamily format acceptable to Browne," Lasner said.

Home clubs morphed into cooperatives, in which the building is legally structured as a corporation, with the residents owning shares based on the size of their apartments. They became somewhat popular in New York and elsewhere, though their appeal was limited because financing and reselling the units was legally complex.

Owning a flat was an old idea: Europeans, pressed for space in walled cities, had begun as early as the 12th century to embrace the idea of what today would be thought of, legally, as condominiums — with their "units" owned outright, Lasner said.

Though the American co-ops had their fans in the decades after Browne's purchase, it took a wave of mid-20th century retirees, some creative financing and marketing campaigns that promised carefree living to make condos take off in the U.S., he said.

It was one of those perfect storms that the real estate business loves: Members of the so-called Greatest Generation had become empty nesters who were entering retirement in droves in the 1960s and '70s.

Florida began to beckon them, aided by developers who had seen the condo concept flourish in Puerto Rico, and began to offer multiunit buildings whose units could be owned outright.

Such ownership, they realized, would appeal to Americans' fondness for the clear-cut property deed that wasn't possible with co-ops. Besides, Lasner said, Florida bankers embraced the idea of mortgages for the units, which simplified the financing; and condos' legal structure made it easier for owners to resell units.

Washington amended Federal Housing Administration rules to allow condo financing, and the concept of "owning an apartment" went mainstream.

Lasner's book tracks the twists, turns and variations of multifamily unit ownership through the decades, profiling individual developments (and their quaint, almost-humorous marketing campaigns) that contributed to the rise of the concept.

Today, he wrote, 1 in 5 U.S. homeowners lives in a multifamily dwelling.

He believes, despite the agonies of some condo boards and homeowner associations whose clashes over property rights have generated headlines, that condos are here to stay and probably will grow as an aging population eschews the maintenance of single-family homes.

He wonders if the shift to the single-family suburban house in the mid-20th century is not the norm it was presumed to be, but an aberration — and whether the sheer ownership of a home matters more to people than its physical form.

"In metro New York and Miami … nearly one in three owner-occupied homes is multifamily, and in Washington and Chicago, one in four. Now, more than ever, we are living in the age of the condo," Lasner wrote. "Many problems with co-ownership persist. But history all but assures it will continue to adapt and improve."

business@latimes.com

Umberger writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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