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New Worker Co-op Could Shift Queens Gentrification Story

August 6, 2015

A community benefits arrangement connected to the Astoria Cove real estate project (rendering above) sets aside quality jobs for locals. (Credit: Studio V Architects)

Excerpted from The Equity Factor in Next City online.

At the northern tip of Queens lies a peninsula called Halletts Point.  To some it’s an “eyesore” of poverty, but to developers, it’s “one of the most magical, outstanding sites in New York City.”

For many nearby public housing residents, the proposed transformation had all the makings of a familiar script: development and upheaval, followed by wealth and higher-paying jobs open predominantly to newcomers and increased inequality.

However, a pioneering community benefits arrangement— one that sets aside quality jobs for local residents both during and after construction — could see “gentrification” play out differently in Hallets Point.

Astoria Cove has had its run-ins with controversy, but prior to city council’s sign-off on the real estate project last November, essential concessions were leveraged from the developer, Alma Realty. Among them: Alma had to refurbish a local park and use union labor during construction, and upon completion, employ a cooperatively owned security company.

“That was very interesting and novel,” says Christopher Michael, executive director of the New York City Network of Worker Cooperatives. “A part of the criteria for having a real-estate development project approved was to agree to give preference to a worker cooperative and only do certain business with a worker cooperative.”

Details released to the public in July highlight just how novel: The security company that was selected, On Point Security, will be the city’s first-ever worker co-op controlled by public housing residents.

To start, community development nonprofit Urban Upbound “owns” On Point Security, which launched this summer. But true to the work-to-own model, control will transition to the workers in short order. “The pathways to ownership will consist of taking classes in business management, what it takes to run a cooperative, managerial classes. All while working, while receiving pay,” says On Point Security general manager Fritz Vincent. Through this coursework, they’ll obtain credits that will lead to becoming shareholders.

“This is a model that we believe can build a pathway out of poverty, a new approach to wealth creation for neighborhoods undergoing economic development,” says Urban Upbound’s Amir Bassiri.

Popularized in Europe during the 1970s and ’80s, there are more than 300 co-ops in the United States. They’ve received recent attention for supporting equitable wages and business practices, thanks to successful examples like Cleveland’s Evergreen Cooperatives. Though other cities have tried to replicate the Cleveland model with varying degrees of success, Rochester, New York’s mayor recently eyed Evergreen as a poverty-fighting solution. Last year, New York’s city council allocated $1.2 million to encourage more co-ops — a first for a U.S. city.

Urban Upbound expects On Point Security to be the first of many co-ops it launches (the group is also researching grocery stores, green construction and daycare), and the Astoria Cove agreement sets a notable precedent. If it’s replicated amid New York’s growing real estate boom, there could be major benefits for workers, says Christopher Michael: “In the future, every new development that the city approves could have to contract with On Point Security or an as-yet-to-be-named worker co-op security company.”

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