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  • The American Dream Rebranded
  • Richard Harris (bio)
Matthew Gordon Lasner. High Life: Condo Living in the Suburban Century. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2012. xii + 324 pp. Illustrations, notes, and index. $40.00.

Stereotypes have a bad name, but some are unavoidable and often helpful. Even so, they eventually outlive their usefulness, and this is now happening to the visual caricature of homeownership that Americans hold so dear. Hallowed and hackneyed, this image, descended from frontier farmhouse through 1950s ranch to modern McMansion, is of the free-standing, owner-occupied dwelling as the birthright and symbol of the unshackled individual. In urban areas, the home-as-castle stereotype has always been a gross simplification: no one has ever been allowed to do just as they wished with their property. This concept is now approaching its best-if-used-by date. Every year, more and more Americans are buying in to residential developments where many facilities—hallways and foyers, roads and play areas, game rooms, pools, and gates—are held in common. These households mostly occupy townhomes, walk-ups, duplexes, or apartments rather than single detached homes. Sharing responsibilities as well as ownership, they want to be shackled—if necessary by fifty shadings of fine print.

Or sixty-five, which is what developer Joe Duckworth required of buyers in New Daleville, Pennsylvania. In Witold Rybczynski’s Last Harvest (2008), arguably the best and beyond doubt the most readable account of the making of a modern American subdivision, Rybczynski reported Joe Duckworth’s thoughts about fine print: “There are some buyers who don’t want any restrictions but most people accept reasonable limits on . . . objectionable behavior.” Duckworth continues: “They don’t necessarily read the fine print when they buy the house, but believe me, they do when their neighbor does something obnoxious.” As songwriter Tom Waits puts it, “the large print giveth and the small print taketh away”: there can be unpleasant surprises. But those who opt for co-ownership know very well that they are giving up some rights and freedoms, thereby abandoning the home as a plausible symbol of untrammeled freedom. By 2012, these comprised an estimated 63 million Americans in 26 million households who shared the responsibilities of neighborhood governance [End Page 717] through involuntary membership in 323,000 community associations.1

As Matthew Lasner shows in High Life, the desire for co-ownership has a long, specifically urban, history. Legally, it has found expression in three major forms that have evolved, regionally and historically, in overlapping steps. First the co-op, nurtured in New York from the 1870s onwards; then the condominium, imported from Puerto Rico into Florida and generalized from the 1960s; and then the modern wave of common-interest developments (CIDs), flourishing early in California before riding a national wave by the 1980s. In the co-op, ownership of everything is held in common, with individuals receiving (and in time, selling) shares. There is an important distinction between the market-rate co-ops, in which shares appreciate with real estate values and where owners may sub-rent at current market rates, and the mutual aid or nonprofit co-op, where they may not. The market-rate co-op bears some similarity with the condo, which differs in providing individuals with legal title only to the airspace their unit occupies. Units in CIDs, too, come with title; but because these rest on the ground, they include a parcel of land. All entail ownership of common facilities, governance being delegated to some sort of elected board, which often subcontracts management (as well as physical maintenance) to professionally run companies. In each case, owners surrender some control over their own home, and in return they gain similarly limited control over their neighbors’ homes.

Tracing “how and why” these three forms of co-ownership emerged, Lasner constructs a largely historical narrative in which he gives roughly equal weight to each decade (p. 5). In one form or another, co-ops dominate the first half of the book. Lasner argues that the idea of the owner-occupied apartment arose, in New York City, at about the same time as did the idea of the apartment itself, in the late 1850s...


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