No longer an experiment: Friends Housing Cooperative and community transformation

Nearly 10 years after its doors opened in 1952, owners of the Friends Housing Cooperative on 703 North 8th Street in Philadelphia could state with confidence that cooperative, interracial living was possible. “The Friends Housing Cooperative is no longer an experiment—it’s a nice place to live,” a poster from 1962 reads. This housing “experiment” had been first of its kind, part of the American Friends Service Committees domestic efforts to improve the living conditions for Philadelphia residents through a model of self-help. 

Self-help is a term with dramatically more self-centered, economic implications today. But self-help began as a radical method for creating social change by empowering men and women to develop practical skills for improving their own communities. It was not simply a way to better the “self”—it was a means of developing an individual’s capacity to work with others to create peaceful, equitable economic structures.

The Friends Housing Co-op aimed to do just that: Rather than making 10 percent down payments on their homes, future residents worked for that down payment by providing manual labor to rehabilitate the 88 apartments that would make up their block. Those same residents then became co-owners, controlling the governance and decision-making of the Cooperative.

Article in the Philadelphia Inquirer announcing its opening in 1952.

AFSC was inspired to take on the project after its success with the Penn Craft program in rural Pennsylvania, which had worked with 100 unemployed miners to build their own homes. By providing these miners with an opportunity to participate in the making of their future, the program had developed community while helping to stabilize an economy that had been devastated by the Great Depression. 

Could this experiment be adapted for an urban environment, where the politics of development were significantly more complex? Activists put their heads together and developed a vision of an interracial, cooperative housing project that would rejuvenate one of the city’s “slums,” as they were known. In order to make that vision a reality, AFSC partnered with other Quaker organizations (including the Friends Neighborhood Guild), and applied for legal and financial assistance from the federal government under Harry S. Truman’s “Fair Deal,” which aimed to dramatically expand affordable housing and fair employment. 

The project’s leaders battled numerous state and federal restrictions and faced unexpected costs that forced the participants to reevaluate how quickly progress could be made. But through persistence and with a vision of a world in which people were working together toward the good, those leaders developed a model that has survived to this day.

Sixty years later, alternative models for local economic development are no longer an experiment—in fact, cooperatives continue to flourish all over the country and the world. Democratic models of ownership of services that address the needs of their local communities continue to grow despite an increasingly corporately run economy.

First families move into the Cooperative.

Yet without the multi-million dollar marketing budgets of big business, these organizations can seem to exist only on the fringes, too radical to really make a difference, and divorced from any “real” solution for larger social change. Rarely do Americans—activists and non-activists alike—feel empowered to use these models in order to live lives based on our deepest ideals of equality, a life in which our political values are not simply reflected in the things that we buy, but in the communities that we build around us. 

But what if our families and our friends were working together to create democratic structures of ownership that could empower individuals to participate in all of the political systems that affect our lives? What if each one of us invested in our communities? How could that strengthen our ability to effect change on a state or national level?

The Friends Housing Cooperative experimented with alternative models of ownership with a genuine faith in a federal government created to support the common good.  In doing so, the Cooperative paved the way for similar models to become more mainstream. 

Let’s use models like this one, that have been tested and tried, and transform our own communities. When we learn to work together peacefully in our homes and in our communities, we build the strength and the structures to co-create a world transformed.

Take a look at more on the Friends Housing Cooperative from our archives:

"A Self-Help Housing Experiment"

Brochure, 1956