Despite a resurgence in cooperative housing in college towns across the country, Ann Arbor’s co-op community is experiencing a decline.
According to Inter-Cooperative Council President Travis Jones, interest in co-ops has waned over the past three or four years, prompting an increase in the cost of cooperative living.
The cost per person has gone up slightly during that time. While the increase hasn’t made rent significantly higher for individual residents, it’s indicative of a disturbing trend of lack of interest, Jones said.
The average cost of living in a co-op is about $460 per month, or $2000 to $2200 per semester, including food and utilities. Most University dorm prices fall between $3,000 and $4,000 per semester. Students living in a co-op are also required to contribute four or five hours of work each week to the maintenance and operations of the house.
“Shared labor is what makes them so cheap,” Jones said.
Off-campus housing in the city is notoriously steep. It isn’t uncommon to pay more than $600 per month for an apartment near campus.
Co-ops traditionally have a reputation as a haven for hippies, though across the country, they seem to be opening their doors to more mainstream residents.
Jones said the biggest problem facing the ICC, which oversees 19 co-ops in Ann Arbor, is a difficulty generating publicity around campus.
“Our main recruitment tool is word-of-mouth,” Jones said. And word of mouth can be fickle: One person who has a bad experience in cooperative housing can scare away five or six people, Jones said, while someone who has a positive co-op experience will only recruit one or two people to the co-op way of life.
Jim Jones, Travis’s father and a former executive director of both the ICC and North American Students for Cooperation, said he isn’t sure why Ann Arbor’s cooperative community has been struggling in comparison to those in other college towns. But he agrees with his son that only a small percentage of the student population actually knows that co-ops are an option.
“We get lots of people who grew up in Ann Arbor,” said Jim Jones, currently NASCO’s director of asset management.
Ann Arbor is one of four American cities where cooperative living has historically been very successful. The other three are Berkeley, Calif.; Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minn.; and Austin, Texas, where the University of Texas and the city of Austin are building a new complex of co-ops for students.
Both Travis Jones and his father said the key to the success of co-ops in cities like Austin is constructive partnership between universities and local city governments.
“That would be great if we could do that up here, but it’s not in the cards because the University likes to make money off its students and keeps building dorms,” Travis Jones said.
University Housing spokesman Alan Levy explained that the University originally built and structured Oxford Housing as cooperative housing but discontinued the practice in 2000 because of a lack of student interest.
“Our experience was that students really look to on-campus housing for a traditional residence hall experience or an apartment experience,” Levy said.
The University has no plans to provide cooperative housing to students again because there is already a high-quality option available in the form of the ICC, Levy said.
“This is their sole focus, and they’re good at it,” Levy said. “We think we’re doing a better service for U-M students by focusing on what we’re good at, which is residence halls and on-campus apartments.”
While University Housing is currently focused on improving its existing residence hall and dining communities – including the ongoing renovation of Mosher-Jordan residence hall, construction of the Hill Dining Center and the pending construction of North Quad Residence Hall – the University maintains a good working relationship with the ICC, Levy said, and actively promotes co-ops as an affordable alternative to traditional off-campus living.
Another feature of co-ops is the flexibility they offer when it comes to lease lengths. Only one co-op – King House on Kingsley Street – offers only 12-month leases. Other co-ops usually offer leases from four to eight months.
During the summer months or with special permission during the school year, residents can sign contracts for just a month or two.
This kind of affordability has been a huge help to Engineering freshman James Rivard, who pays for his own room and board.
Rivard estimated that living in the Nakamura co-op on State Street saves him between $2,000 to $3,000 a year compared to University dorms.
He compared residence hall life to living in a co-op.
He said co-op living had added benefits aside from the low cost.
“I don’t think they have 28 people that they can call really good friends or that they can depend on,” Rivard said.
Engineering junior Liz Maxey, Rivard’s housemate, said living in Nakamura is a lesson in responsibility.
“You know you have to do your work,” Maxey said.