I was first introduced to the concept of a cooperative while researching campus life at various universities during high school. I stumbled upon the website of the University of California-Berkeley’s Lothlorien, which seemed nothing short of magical: a house in which roughly 60 students cook and share living space with one another, refer to themselves as “elves,” hang out in their very own tree house and contribute to a communal mural.
Since coming to the University of Michigan, I’ve gotten more familiar with the sizes, forms and functions of cooperative businesses and organizations. Many co-ops are nestled throughout Ann Arbor, like the People’s Food Co-op grocery store, the University of Michigan Credit Union and the 16 student houses operated by the Inter-Cooperative Council. The ICC also hosts the North American Students of Cooperation conference each year, in which members from student housing co-ops across the continent stay in Ann Arbor for a weekend, hold workshops and discuss issues pertinent to the cooperative movement.
According to the ICC’s website, co-ops exist in a range of sectors and are alike in being “owned and operated collectively, for the mutual benefit of their members.” Housing co-ops specifically run on principles such as affordability, democratic membership and participation, sustainability, political engagement, individual contribution and community-building.
I’m now closing out my second year living at Vail, a stucco Kerrytown home framed by several porches on the outside, a maze of hallways on the inside and a backyard fondly described by house members as a jungle. As I search the web of housing options for my first post-university home in Cincinnati, I can’t find too many intentional communities in the area.
And though I’m disappointed, I’m not surprised. Co-ops are a niche housing option and account for only about one percent of all housing units in the United States. They’re more common in some major cities, such as New York City and Chicago, but much harder to find in other areas. Moreover, public knowledge of cooperative living is lacking; ICC houses aren’t well known as a living option among most students even here in Ann Arbor, where they’ve existed since the 1930s and housed over 20,000 people.
Cooperative housing models lie on a spectrum of affordability and degree of shared space and co-living situations somewhat overlap with housing co-ops in style. I believe the ICC and other student housing co-ops set an example by consciously intersecting a commitment to affordability and intentional community building. This, in turn, creates a uniquely sustainable and enjoyable kind of living environment that should expand beyond the realm of college campuses, for people of any age.
Firstly, co-ops offer an affordable alternative to typical living situations, like apartments or dorms. According to MLive, rent for off-campus housing in Ann Arbor averages at $1,085 per month for a four-bedroom unit to $1,402 per month for a studio apartment. Co-ops are by far the cheapest housing option for students living in Ann Arbor itself, mitigating their need to commute from a nearby town with lower average rent like Ypsilanti.
They essentially keep costs low through member ownership, as opposed to paying rent to an external landlord, and pooling resources for bulk food and amenities. My house charges have averaged around $600 per month. This encompasses rent for a fully furnished room, utilities and a meal plan that includes several dinners per week and guff (general unspecified free food) items.
It goes without saying that affordability is meaningful for college students. But for anyone who is of lower socioeconomic status, or unable to afford steep rent in areas with a high cost of living or simply looking to save money, this setup gives them an incomparable opportunity and relief.
Secondly, co-ops tap into people’s fundamental need to be social and spend time with one another. The spirit of shared experiences and inclusion I have seen in the co-ops has completely altered my experience as an upperclassman. Living in a co-op has given me a network of friends with shared interests and an integrated support system. Lara Moehlman’s piece in the Daily on ICC culture and history further illustrates how the structure and traditions of co-ops establish a sense of home within a large college campus.
I’ve loved studying with housemates in our peach-colored living room, discovering our bin of nutritional yeast and sprinkling it on our shared dinners, hosting open mics where friends show off their musical talent, hugging our giant 200-year old oak tree, munching on guff berries, beautifying our home during “work holiday,” exploring other members’ rooms during themed in-house progressive parties and impromptu swims at the docks along the Huron River.
My visits to other co-ops have felt just as special — lounging in Owen’s hammocks, petting cats at Ruths, fetching free Zingerman’s bread for Linder, hula hooping at Debs, playing in Black Elk’s ball pit and grooving at Truth’s pajama parties.
These kinds of experiences thrive when people pool resources and space, build a mindset of interdependence, work to further a shared purpose and develop a common culture. For example, Vail focuses on sustainability, with vegetarian meals, a compost pile and a garden. Many members are politically active and our basement serves as a music venue for local artists.
Other ICC co-ops come together with different missions and atmospheres, but their common emphasis on affordability and community can set an example for future homes in the U.S. These kinds of cooperative lifestyles should be available to people of all ages — I hope to find more of them cropping up soon.
Stephanie Trierweiler can be reached at email@example.com.