Student Housing Co-ops in North America

Before student housing co-ops, women had a very hard time finding housing in the male-dominated university environmentIn the years after the end of the American Civil War, many colleges and universities were opening their doors to women for the first time. Almost all students were men, and almost all lived in rooming houses near the campuses. There was very little housing provided by the universities, and women had a very hard time finding housing in such a male-dominated environment.

Students kept costs low by doing their own cooking and cleaning.In 1871, in Evanston, Illinois, located just north of Chicago, a group of wealthy women decided to do something about the housing problems of the girls who were studying at a small teaching college in their community. They founded the Women’s Educational Aid Association and in 1872 purchased a house that they called College Cottage. Six young women students lived there with a matron and a teacher, keeping costs low by doing their own cooking and cleaning. This group continued in different locations until 1968 – nearly 100 years – and was the first of what came to be known as student housing co-operatives.

These early groups were a working model for affordable, non-profit student housing.These early efforts were not co-operatives in the sense that we now use the word. The word “co-op” meant shared work rather than user ownership and control. The women of the Aid Association owned the building and made the rules, as was true for nearly all later “co-ops” owned by alumni, universities or others who sought to help students by providing low cost housing. Indeed, some of these residences came to be known as scholarship halls, which might be a more truthful term. Regardless of what they were called, however, these groups all stressed self-help, and over time became a working model for affordable, non-profit student housing.

Co-operatives provided affordable and democratic housing for studentsIn the 1930s, as the Great Depression hit hard on college campuses, students went hungry and often had to drop out of school. They needed a way to control costs, and housing was one of the biggest expenses for nearly everyone.

In 1942, Laia Hanau, a student at the University of Michigan, wrote a fictional novel about a student co-op during the Depression, called Two Dollar House. In her forward, she said:

Co-op members do their own building maintenance.Some of the universities and colleges got behind us. In the Western States, in the Middle West, in California, Iowa, Oklahoma, Michigan, Ohio, they turned over unused buildings for conversion into co-operative dormitories; they built co-operative living quarters for us. We governed ourselves, we did our own cleaning, we bought our own food, we hired head chefs and worked under them, we established our own central eating kitchens. We put in four to six hours of work a week; and we lived on $15-20 a month. Seven years ago we formed the National Committee on Student Co-operatives, and we became a branch of the Co-operative League of America.

Sixty-eight colleges and universities wanted us to stay, so they helped establish co-operative housing units for us. Twenty-one colleges and universities wanted us to go, so we established our own.

Student co-operative corporations rented houses or, in some cases, purchased property.And so it was, all over the United States. Groups of students banded together, formed co-operative corporations and either rented houses or, in some cases, purchased property. They were wildly successful in some places, although they drew mixed reactions from the college administrators.

Student housing co-ops were started by a variety of sources.The idea for starting a co-op came from a variety of sources. In the 1930s, one co-op began when a college president invited a group of poor students to eat with his family. At another school, a sociology professor helped a group of boys rent a deserted, broken down house. Agricultural co-ops helped to start several student housing co-operatives in the Midwest, while in Berkeley, the university YMCA lent a hand.

Sharing house meals can be part of the student housing co-op experienceToday some of the older, college-owned “co-ops” still survive, but they are decreasing in number every year. At the same time, student-owned and operated co-ops are growing. The largest is in Berkeley, California, where the University Student Cooperative Association was started with a single house in 1933. There are now 1,200 student members in the co-op, living in twenty-two buildings worth many millions of dollars.

Some student housing co-ops are as small as a single house.The smallest student co-ops have only five to fifteen members, often in rented houses. Some of these are started every year, often by graduate students who lived in co-ops elsewhere.

While all co-ops strive to own their property, it’s not easy to convince a bank to loan thousands of dollars to a group of transient students with no track record. Perhaps the wonder is that any succeed at all. But students have found ways to purchase property for over 70 years now, and that ownership base is growing every year.

Some student housing co-ops are massive apartment blocks with many members.Through their association, the North American Students of Cooperation (NASCO), the student co-ops have supported one another through education, training, consulting and assistance with new purchases and refinancing.

Student co-ops are somewhat different from family housing co-ops. The high turnover in a student community results in a great emphasis on participation and intense involvement to hold the group together. The defining characteristics of student housing co-operatives in North America are:

  1. Co-op members share and grow togetherCommunity. There is an old co-op saying that people join for low cost and stay because of community. This is a vital element for student co-operatives because of high turnover. If there is no strong community, the members will not feel that it is important to do their work, pay their money and in general act as trustees for a building that they will pass on to the next generation. This sense of community is gained through (a) shared housework, which means that everyone contributes and works together for the better of the whole; (b) shared meals, which help people to know one another; and (c) group activities, from house meetings to parties.
  2. Low cost. While the co-ops may be only slightly less expensive than other rental units when they begin, they become increasingly affordable over time. The lower initial cost is achieved by (a) shared work, including everything from cooking and cleaning to minor maintenance work, accounting and bill paying; (b) collective buying of food and supplies; (c) shared facilities, such as kitchen appliances, phone, television, computer internet connections, etc.; and (d) density, with each person simply using less space than they would in traditional apartments. More savings are achieved over time because the property is not bought and sold, while the surrounding privately owned properties change hands at ever-rising prices.
  3. Costs are reduced and friendships are encouraged through shared mealsControl. For most students, living in a co-op is their first experience with home ownership, without rules from their parents, the university or a landlord. This is a tremendous responsibility, and they learn quickly. Some become leaders and are elected to officer positions, while others only take part through the meetings in which policy decisions are made. But their control is real, and they rise to the challenge.

Learning to live with different people enriches the educational opportunities of university life.Because of the intense, living-learning experience of a group housing co-operative, many members develop close bonds that last a lifetime. Moreover, they come to see the co-op as more than just a place to live while in school. They gain a sense of empowerment and learn the value of group action and democratic decision making.

Perhaps this sense of empowerment was best expressed by Richard Shuey, a member of a Congress House at the University of Michigan from 1938-1942, who wrote:

"The greatest thing about cooperative living is that if you don't like it, you can change it."

Jim Jones is the Executive Director of the North American Students of Cooperation in Ann Arbour, the United States.

Creator - Author(s) Name and Title(s): 
Jim Jones
Publication Information: 
Youth Reinventing Co-operatives: Young Perspectives on the International Co-operative Movement – (Eds.) Robin Puga, Julia Smith, and Ian MacPherson
Date: 
Thursday, January 1, 2009
Publisher Information: 
New Rochdale Press, British Columbia Institute for Co-operative Studies

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