Five Things You Should Know About Student Housing Cooperatives
For many college students, housing options can seem extremely limited: Dorm rooms or off-campus apartments, which are typically run by exploitative landlords and—not coincidentally—overpriced.
But since 1968, there has been a go-to nonprofit umbrella for students seeking alternatives: the North American Students of Cooperation, which links together cooperatives primarily in the housing sector to offer training, resources, and start-up information.
(Despite the name, many NASCO member cooperatives are not student-only; others, like Berkeley Student Cooperatives, offer a semester-long grace period once a student graduates.)
Among the other services the organization offers, NASCO holds a yearly institute in Ann Arbor, Mich., which draws coopers from around the country for a weekend of education, procedural matters, and creative cross-pollination.
This year’s conference featured a keynote speech by Adrienne Maree Brown, an advocate with the intentional-community-building organization Common Fire; a tour of Detroit’s burgeoning cooperative scene; and a screen-printing workshop offered by the Beehive Collective, a well-known group of artists whose designs target biotechnology, the G8 and G20 summits, and more.
So what can non-coopers take away from this year’s institute? After attending it with other representatives of my cooperative in Iowa City, I’ll lay it out for you:
1. Student cooperatives are everywhere.
The NASCO web site lists 77 housing cooperatives in 22 states, the majority of them in the Northeast, Midwest, California, and the Pacific Northwest–but there are many housing collectives, including ones that cater to students, that aren’t listed on the NASCO site.
The largest cooperative networks are located in Berkeley, Oberlin, Ann Arbor, and Austin—not coincidentally, sites of some of the largest liberal student identification.
2. Student cooperatives come in a wide variety of forms, structures, and sizes.
Any cooperative aspires to the Rochdale Principles: voluntary and open membership; democratic member control; member economic participation; autonomy and independence; education, training, and information; cooperation among cooperatives; and concern for community.
These principles are notoriously broad, leaving room for interpretation by different group with different needs and locales—and creation of cooperatives with certain set identities that differ from others.
There are vegetarian, vegan, and omnivorous coops, religious coops like the Unitarian Universalist Lucy Stone, and substance-free coops. There are large cooperative networks and small cooperative networks, with anywhere from one to 20 houses.
Berkeley Student Cooperatives boasts 1,300 members across 20 houses, its own food distribution network, and full-time work positions that cover a member’s rent. In contrast, River City Housing Collective’s three houses (where I live, located in Iowa City) hold a maximum of 39 people, with little division of labor and a solitary paid position.
Houses in larger cooperatives can resemble dorms more than casual arrangements; houses in smaller cooperatives can take on the character of a family home. And every cooperative comes with its own unique organizational structure, with varying levels of bureaucracy and federalization.
Bloomington graduate student Seth Frey’s workshop, “Coop Living as Collective Action: Research and Practice,” discussed some of the social sciences behind cooperatives, including how they scale up. One independent dormitory in Japan that Frey visited holds more than 400 people who govern themselves hallway by hallway and who live packed into rooms like sardines for under $100 per month. (Needless to say, that’s not a common pattern across the United States.)
3. Student cooperatives encourage alternative ways of living—but not how you might think.
Sure, a quick perusal of cooperative blogs—like Berkeley Casa Zimbabwe’s “CZ Sleaze”—might give the initial impression of student debauchery and 60s-era free love, complete with a stripper pole on the dining room table. My collective’s annual Halloween party filled its cross-dressing quota, and ended in a frenzied sing-along to “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” But the meat (or tofu, depending on house) of cooperative living comes in its emphasis on intentional community, collective decision-making, and inclusivity.
Classes at the institute included “Albany Free School: A Working Model of Radical Community-Based Education,” “Disrupting Narratives: Building White Anti-Racist Praxis,” “Fighting Ableism and Creating Collective Access,” and “Creative Cooperatives: Digital Media and Subversion.”
There were caucuses for trans- and queer-identified people, people of color, people with disabilities, and religious people, which focused on the specific needs and issues of marginalized groups.
Over and over, attendees and facilitators recited an unofficial slogan: “cooperation, not competition.” The anti-capitalist elements of the institute didn’t advocate violent revolution or drug-fueled escape, but the slow, hard work of building alternative communities where they could meet their own needs, collectively.
That also means greater individual responsibility, mutual aid, and empathy—qualities often said to be lacking in modern individuals.
4. There’s a natural synthesis with the Occupy movement.
It’s not just in the hand signals (most Institute-goers used the common “spirit fingers” or “twinkles” to express approval, although some snapped their fingers)—almost every speaker at the institute mentioned the Occupy movement.
Keynote speaker Brown said she felt particularly excited by the 99 Percent movement around the country.
“Things could look a lot of ways right now: chaos in the street, blowing up big banks, armed struggle against the 1 percent … we would be justified in all of it, given the disparities and injustices that are happening every second in this society,” she said. “But instead what we are lifting up—in Tahrir Square, and at Occupy Wall Street in New York and Oakland and Detroit and Ann Arbor—we are lifting up consensus!”
Housing collectives have been using consensus, with alterations depending on location and size, for decades.
The occupations and the housing collectives share similar philosophies: People over profits, solidarity over competition, and greater democracy in every sphere of life. It even makes sense to think of the occupations as fledgling experiments in collective living, or—to use the hip terminology—intentional communities, using trial and error to solve logistical problems and work through interpersonal issues.
5. Cooperatives in general—including student cooperatives—may be the way of the future.
In February 2010, the United Nations adopted a resolution declaring 2012 the International Year of Cooperatives, recognizing their role in “poverty reduction, employment generation and social integration.”
While the UN declaration emphasizes worker cooperatives, it covers housing cooperatives as well: Not only does living without a landlord save money, but it also improves social situations. Disillusioned Americans, tired of climbing the same pointless ladders in a game that is less and less winnable, may well try something new—and soon.
“We—you and I, and all who are thinking about how we grow a new society in the shell of our capitalist global economy—we are living in the future,” Brown said in her keynote address.
Regardless of how inimical one feels toward capitalism, the growing frustration with the status quo may well drive people to more democratic (and more affordable) options.
That sort of plurality isn’t just good for individuals; it’s good for communities, too, as cooperatives’ commitment to the Rochdale Principles requires civic engagement and encouragement.
Shay O'Reilly is a reporter with Campus Progress. Follow him on Twitter @shaygabriel.