In a co-op apartment, each tenant owns his or her own unit and has shares in a corporation that owns the apartment. Joining together collectively as a mini-government or a semi-socialist enterprise, the corporation (or a management company it hires) employs a superintendent and a number of doormen and porters. These people are kept busy—they open the doors, sort the mail, accept the delivery of packages, help carry groceries, clean the shared areas of the building, keep the boiler and washer-dryers operational, do minor repairs, enforce building rules (of which there are always many), hail taxis and keep track of the various workers hired by tenants to work in their individual apartments. To get these services, the apartment owners all pay a monthly fee—more for larger apartments or those on higher floors (which require more time for the building personnel to serve). Most owners also give the staff seasonal bonuses at the end of the calendar year.
The other day I was thinking about how convenient it would be to apply the co-op/doorman model to blocks of single-family dwellings. Someone to keep the street safe, accept packages, clean snow and ice off the sidewalks, help carry the groceries in and maybe even serve as the block handyperson for simple faucet leaks and picture-hanging. Having the block equivalent of a doorman would certainly make life easier for everyone who owns a single family home in a city and many suburban neighborhoods.
But then I started thinking about the major impediment to such a plan working—the selfishness of Americans. After three decades of the politics of selfishness, wouldn’t many if not most homeowners worry that someone else on the block was using too many of the services offered by the staff? Wouldn’t some people try to “get the most” out of their monthly fees and try to use the staff all the time? Wouldn’t most Americans reject the block staff concept outright because of the same shortsighted, I’ve-got-mine selfishness that makes people vote to cut support of public schools and mass transit?
While selfishness and other human foibles can muck up the management of a co-op apartment building, the owners are united in one way that forces them to become part of the social compact that generates all the benefits provided by the building’s staff: They all live together in the same building with the same roof, the same elevator and stairs, the same lobby and most important, the same source of hot water, heat and electricity. The only choice anyone has is to be a responsible co-op citizen interested in the overall welfare of the apartment.
And then the big idea hit me: Doesn’t the co-op model have a place in solving our energy crisis? Specifically, we already have the technology to build small solar-powered electrical generating plants that can provide the electricity for a few city blocks. Many theorists of solar power have often conceived of a situation in which instead of one central power plant that serves large metropolitan areas, there are many smaller plants throughout a region, each of which produces electricity for its neighborhood and all of which are connected to the national grid. Utilities and politicians don’t like the individual solar plant model, because they lose control of the power source and the ability to make money from it. But for the public, why should it matter if the power comes from a behemoth plant miles away or from a modest unit tucked out of the way around the corner? If I may speak for most—what we want is a steady source of electricity that doesn’t pollute the planet and is not threatened by energy scarcity.
The co-op model can make the neighborhood solar plant work. Every house on the block must own a share of the power plant, just as every owner of an apartment must have shares in the building. The building hires the staff to take care of the plant. The natural extension would be for the staff to provide many of the services that make co-op living so pleasant.
I’ve pretty much described a utopian dream which combines some of the best elements of socialism and capitalism to give people more control over their lives in some ways in return for certain restrictions, all of which are for the common good.
Of course, as long as world governments are more interest in solutions that require large organizations, it is nothing more than a dream.