A home, not a house: Ann Arbor's historic co-ops

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Alexis Rankin/Daily
Tuesday, November 21, 2017 - 5:12pm

Hot air wafts from the oven in the kitchen of Linder Cooperative House, which looks semi-industrial with steel gray appliances. A hooded stove and two picnic benches tucked under a wooden table back into the far right corner of a chipping, bright orange wall. My Chemical Romance’s “Teenagers” has been playing at full volume, on loop. It’s almost 7 p.m. and the Linder House co-chefs prepare dinner for the co-op’s 20 residents. Recent alum Shannon Stone takes a pair of Speedo goggles dangling from a nail in the wall above us and pulls them over her eyes before continuing with the onions. Her movements are methodical and efficient. She knows where everything is because each cabinet, each drawer and each refrigerator shelf is clearly labeled with masking tape and a black Sharpie: utensils, plates, bulk foods, bulk vegetarian foods. She cooks dinner for the same 20 people every week.

For Stone, living in a co-op wasn’t as much of a choice as it was a necessity.

“I couldn’t afford to live anywhere else,” she said, explaining her $600 monthly rent couldn’t be matched by any housing on or off the University of Michigan’s campus.

To be clear, that $600 covers not only her room but also her food and, in some cases, even her toiletries. GUFF, short for Generally Unrestricted Free Food, is a term used throughout the Inter-Cooperative Council for communal items. At Linder, there is a box of GUFF clothing filled with used T-shirts, coats and pants, a GUFF pantry and refrigerator stocked with both weekly groceries and bulk-stored meats, nonperishables and frozen vegetables. The house’s four bathrooms hold crates full of GUFF shampoos, conditioners and soaps. If she doesn’t go out to eat for the month, $600 is Shannon’s cost of living.

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Inter-Cooperative Council

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Linder House was officially incorporated and bought by the ICC in 1989, though the house itself was built in 1894 and previously housed several other communities, including Phi Chi fraternity and the Keystone Club — a teen division of the Boys & Girls Clubs.

The house is named after Benjamin Linder, an engineer from Seattle who traveled in 1987 to rural northern Nicaragua to build hydroelectric dams for a public works organization to bring electricity to underprivileged communities. While working in Nicaragua, he was assassinated by an anti-Communist rebel group known as the Contras, which at the time received significant funding from the United States government. A mural painted over a bright orange wall in the house’s living room shows Linder himself working on a dam as rebel forces dressed in black litter the jungle around him.

It’s clear Linder’s legacy of social justice and activism lives on in the house today. Flyers display everything from LGBT rights activism to support of the Black Lives Matter movement. In late 2016, several Linder residents traveled to Standing Rock, N.D., to participate in the protest of the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

A strong tradition of socialist values also permeates Linder.

Once or twice a month, residents convene to vote on house policy and other matters. Each resident holds one vote and, together, they determine the month’s food budget, how many vegetarian meals they will eat, when to plan the next party and even which newspapers to buy subscriptions for. The meetings also serve as a time for open communication and house conflict resolution. Last year, the house voted on designated spaces in which members can be nude. The kitchen was ruled off limits.

Monthly rent at luxury high rises start at $900 and might create the illusion that houses and smaller buildings around them will experience less demand and therefore offer lower rent, but a study commissioned by the Washtenaw County Office of Community and Economic Development in January 2015 shows that’s not true. At an October town hall meeting for members of both the University’s Central Student Government and Ann Arbor City Council, Teresa Gillotti, the Washtenaw County housing and infrastructure manager, said 56 percent of tenants in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti pay 30 percent or more of their income on rent. Because the University guarantees housing only for first-year students, many are consequently pushed farther and farther from their academic buildings in search of affordable housing.

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Minnies Co-Op Housing

Minnies Co-Op Housing Buy this photo
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The first Cooperative House in Ann Arbor was established by graduate students in the University’s Student Socialist Club during the Great Depression. Filling a single house on East Ann Street in Kerrytown, members kept their living expenses at $2 per week by jointly buying the property and communally sharing housework. The house was run by democratic meetings, in which each member had an equal say in house affairs. In the following eight decades, the co-op system has grown to include 16 houses on both Central and North Campuses.

The formal Inter-Cooperative Council, which currently maintains the system’s 16 houses, was established in 1937 and was run by a board of directors comprised of representatives from each existing house. In 1951, the system, which was previously entirely student-run, voted on a referendum to hire a full-time executive secretary to carry out accounting and the supervision of purchasing along with carrying out board instructions. The current ICC functions as a nonprofit and has since grown to a staff office of around ten adult professionals. 

Michigan House, a bright blue house on North State Street, was purchased by the ICC in 1947, and has been a mainstay within the system for decades. House meeting minutes contain notes of a canceled meeting the day President John Kennedy was shot. Currently, Michigan House is jointly run with Minnie's cooperative House, a bright purple monstrosity visible from the window directly to its right. Residents of both houses eat together (in Michigan House) and attend house meetings together as a result. 

According to the Michigan House Preamble and Constitution, Minnie’s was once a boarding house run by a woman named Minnie Wallace, who ran away with a nudist taxi driver. The house was purchased by the ICC in 1970 and painted Dauphine Purple — Minnie’s favorite color.

Situated at the angular intersection of Hill Street and Washtenaw Avenue across from the Rock, Luther House traces its history to the radical activism and counterculture that persisted on college campuses from the 1960s through the 1970s. The house was home to the “White Panther Party” — an anti-racist political collective parallel to the Black Panther Party — and its founder John Sinclair, who would go on to be manager of the rock band MC5.

Yet in addition to its rich history, Luther House at its core is a home and community for its current residents. Any given day you'll find residents sitting on the porch, and the house is famous four its annual massive Halloween party featuring a local Ann Arbor band. 

LSA sophomore Melissa Newman signed a lease in Luther House after her other housing plans fell through last-minute. She was familiar with the co-op system because her brother lived in a co-op at Michigan State University, and she thought it might be a fun alternative to independent living. Throughout this past semester, she's additionally come to appreciate the comforting transition from dorm life the ICC offers.

“A dorm is a nice transition from living at home to sort of living alone, because you don’t have to deal with food, you don’t have to deal with a lot of budgeting,” Newman said. “So from living in the dorms to doing everything on your own, I think that’s a really big jump, and the co-op is a good in-between.”

Though she admits sometimes fulfilling her inflexible chore hours seems inconvenient, she concedes the cooperative system is most likely more efficient than independent living in the long run.

“I do think it probably ends up being that you do less work or an equal amount of work you would do anyway,” Newman said. “Because if you have your own house, you’re cleaning the kitchen and making all these meals and that’s really time-consuming, whereas here all that stuff is done for you. And when you do a task it’s just more focused. Instead of it being ‘I have to clean the entire house,’ it’s ‘I have to clean the kitchen on Wednesday.’ ”

Ultimately, Newman praised the system’s priority of affordability in the city’s competitive housing market.

“The ICC is really great in that their priority is keeping rent low and being that option for students,” she said.

Today, the organization’s socialist roots are visible in its continued student self-government and ownership.

Unlike in his past jobs in nonprofit management, Nick Coquillard, the general manager of the ICC, is not directly in charge.

“I’m basically a very glorified adviser,” he said. “The best part of my gig is that I get to work with so many leaders in the houses that get to be the leaders who run the co-ops.”

A framed drawing that reads “I love my co-op” sits behind his desk.

Coquillard added that the ICC experiences some pressure from newer, more expensive housing options in Ann Arbor each year to update the mostly outdated technology, appliances and furniture found in each of its houses — renovations that the ICC must take into consideration rather slowly in an effort to curb rising member fees.

“We’re always facing the cost and the effort and the time of maintaining our homes while staying affordable,” he said. But though he said the speed of cooperation inherent in a purely democratic system could be slow, he said he loves his job.

“It’s amazing — the group of students and people that are in charge of this. They really care and they really want to further the cooperative movement. It’s just a really fun place to work.”

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Landmark high-rise apartments.

Landmark high-rise apartments. Buy this photo
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Back at Linder House, Stone rolls chunks of pink, raw turkey meat into sizable balls and places them on an oven tray. When the meat is cooked, she pulls a rope from an old-fashioned bell that hangs from the counter. Promptly, about 11 or 12 Linder residents fill the small kitchen and neatly fill their plates before sitting down at the picnic-style benches. The wall behind the table holds shelves with small crates with index-card names on them — each contains an individual resident’s “non-GUFF” food items.

She said though joining a co-op was a financial necessity for her, over time it’s become so much more than that. She now considers cooperative living her favorite part of college, as it has provided her with a greater sense of community. She made her best friends living and working in different co-ops, and said she can’t imagine her college years without the constancy of coming home each night for house dinners.

“There’s an emotional significance I attach to this house that I don’t think many college students can say they have about any particular place,” Stone said before sitting down to dinner. “It’s more than just a house. It’s a home.”