Dave Smith, 90, Penn South leader, co-op housing advocate


By Albert Amateau

David L. Smith, a leader in the nation’s co-operative housing movement and locally in the Penn South co-op, where he lived for 46 years and served as president and chairman for more than two decades, died Sat., March 14, at age 90.

He underwent intestinal surgery more than a year ago and was living with his daughter Karen Smith and her husband, Maartin de Kadt, in Penn South when he died.

A champion of affordable housing and active in civil liberties and the labor union movement over the years, Dave Smith was also a member of Community Board 4, which covers Chelsea and Clinton, in the 1980s. He was president of the District 2 School Board in 1968, when he supported community control of local schools.

But he often said his proudest achievement was his successful effort in 1986 to convince a majority of residents of the 2,820 apartments of Penn South to vote by a large margin to keep the complex a nonprofit co-op and reject the idea of allowing co-op shares to be sold at market rate.

“It wasn’t a forgone conclusion,” his daughter Karen, a Manhattan Civil Court judge, told The Villager at an informal reception in her father’s memory in the Penn South community room on March 17. “Some board of directors members wanted to go to market rate, but my dad went from door to door and asked people if the middle-income co-op, built with union and public funds and dedicated to working people, should become a place where only the well-to-do could live,” she said.

The co-op again voted to reject the option of converting to market rate in 1991.

Before World War II, Dave Smith was an organizer for the United Electrical Workers in Cleveland. When the war began, he worked for a while in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where he organized for the United Auto Workers. He served in the Navy during the war.

He met his wife, Esther Frank, in 1939.

“We were both working in Camp Kinderland, a left-wing camp,” he told The Villager in 2002 in an interview on the occasion of her death at age 77.

“My mother lied about her age, and they became engaged when she was 15,” said Karen. “They got married in City Hall in May 1945 after my father got out of the Navy. That’s when he found out she was only 18; he thought she was in her 20s,” Karen said.

The Smiths lived in Stuyvesant Town, built as affordable housing for returning veterans by Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., from 1947 to 1962. They were leaders in the committee to integrate the segregated housing complex on the East Side between 14th and 23rd Sts., and they helped the first black family to move into Stuyvesant Town in 1949.

“Their lawyer was Paul O’Dwyer,” said Karen, referring to the late civil rights lawyer who was Mayor William O’Dwyer’s brother and later was elected City Council president in the 1960s.

Dave Smith later led a rent strike at Stuyvesant Town, which resulted in Met Life’s refusing the Smiths a lease, and prompted the family’s move in 1962 to the newly built Mutual Redevelopment Houses, Inc. — known familiarly as Penn South and financed by the government and the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.

“He insisted that the co-operators should be on the board of directors — not just the union leaders,” said Karen Smith. In 1972 when residents controlled the Penn South board, Dave became board president, holding that post until 1992 when he was elected chairperson.

A major disappointment came in 1996 when co-operators voted down his proposal for an assisted-living residence on the site of the Penn South parking lot on 26th St. Two years later at the age of 80 he lost re-election as chairperson of Penn South’s board of directors.

When he lost the election as chairperson, he told The Villager that he was disappointed, but pledged to serve co-operators whenever they needed him.

“When co-operators need someone to represent them before city and state agencies, I’ll be there for them,” he said.

Under his leadership, Penn South built a co-generation power plant in 1986 providing electric power, heating and cooling for the complex. In 1991, when three-quarters of the 6,200 residents were over age 60 and the co-op was evolving into a naturally occurring retirement community, or NORC, Dave Smith was instrumental in generating public funding to provide services for seniors.

He was a member of the National Cooperative Business Association and was honored by the group in 1989. Inducted into the Co-op Hall of Fame in 1995, he had also earned the Co-operative Spirit Award in 1994. Last November, he earned the National Association of Housing Cooperatives’ Jerry Voorhis Award for lifelong contributions to co-operative housing.

He made a living most of his life as a salesman, first for Electrolux vacuum cleaners and then as an associate of a group that made and marketed molded shoes. Later he worked as a pension consultant.

“But the family business was really politics,” said Karen, noting that Esther Smith was a member of the New York State Democratic Committee for 17 years and organized the Medical Committee for Human Rights, which provided medical care for civil rights demonstrators in the South during the 1960s.

Another daughter, Abbey Smith, also a Penn South resident, survives in addition to Karen. A grandson, Jesse Campoamori, and a granddaughter, Sonja de Kadt, also survive.

A memorial service is planned for Sat., May 9, at Haft Auditorium in Building C, Fashion Institute of Technology on W. 27th St. just east of Eighth Ave.