The years I’ve spent in cooperative housing have been the best of my life. Like a dorm dweller, I’ve made friends through the intense intimacy resulting from close proximity. Like a Greek, I’ve helped to host enormous, exciting open houses as well as intimate, in-house social functions. Like a renter, I’ve performed duties that make a residence not merely livable but hospitable. A co-op has benefits seemingly unique to each of these living options, as well as one no other housing alternative can boast: Members own their co-ops. I define this collective ownership and the resulting economic democracy as socialism. My co-op is the less than cheap, more than fun, always educational living experience of practical socialism.
I’ve been living in Robert Owen Cooperative since Fall Term 2000. Any generalizations I make about co-op living apply only during the Fall-Winter, and only to the Central Campus houses governed by the Inter-cooperative Council. The two North Campus co-ops, the ICC managed apartments, and the independent co-ops all offer experiences different enough from mine that this commentary doesn’t apply. In a co-op, a democratic power structure oversees every job, from porch clean to president. I’ve had to take sides in countless arguments about house and ICC politics. These struggle sessions have broken the rosy lenses of some of my idealistic friends, leaving them almost as cynical about collectivism as former Soviets. Their disillusionment has biased my view on the ICC’s governance. Consider these disclaimers as I discuss co-operative life.
When I first moved into Owen, it would have been impossible for me to know all my housemates before my lease went into effect. To avoid moving in almost blind, I focused my myopic vision of membership by collecting information. To make an informed, educated decision, I asked co-opers where they wished they’d lived and chose my house accordingly. As for the kinds of houses, a crude comparison offers an unfair analogy: There’s socialism akin to Cuba or socialism akin to Sweden.
A Cuban house provides a nice place for wild parties, but the standard of living is relatively low and the crime rate is relatively high. A Swedish house provides a safe, bountiful environment where people still say, “Skoal!” but the waitlist for residence is often long. If interested in a more Scandinavian situation, move quickly, as the nice houses fill up the fastest. Bring this co-op-ed piece to the ICC office on William Street, show this paragraph to whoever’s signing contracts, and ask for directions to Stockholm. If looking to live in Havana, sign a contract only days before moving in, and ask about the house named after what Peter Fonda passes to Jack Nicholson in Easy Rider. The prospective member chooses a community, and the nature of a co-op’s benefits and the extent of a co-op’s drawbacks depend on this choice.
One particular misconception has disenchanted more working class heroes than any other: the contention that low cost is the primary benefit of co-operative housing, or should be. When I scrutinize the apparent financial incentive of my living situation, I conclude that cost is at best a marginal benefit. Two years ago, my mom asked me if my two roommates and I were really paying $1,155 for one room. I reminded her that food was included – we only paid about $825 to share one room. A year ago, a friend’s mom asked him if he and his roommate were really paying $832 for one room. He reminded her that food was included – they only paid about $612 for one room. “In the Fall/Winter, singles in the houses are given to returning members,” according to the ICC website: www.icc.coop/about. This year I pay roughly $306 for my own room, but I’ve been living here since Clinton was in office, so I get an exceptional deal in a house full of marginal savings.
Nevertheless, I pay what would be moderately low rent for far more than a residence. With these charges, I finance a community that challenges me to practice cooperative principles, and has taught me a great deal when my ideals have failed. If I could add one requirement for a degree from the University, it would be for everyone to spend at least a semester living in a co-op. Living in Owen, I’ve learned more about group dynamics than in any of my psych classes, more about socialist politics than in any of my history classes, and more about housekeeping than during an entire childhood spent with a homemaker. I’ve partied as almost as hard and heard almost as many crazy stories as a rock journalist in the 1970s. And the chicks are great, too.
Brock is an LSA senior.