The Value of Living in a Co-operative Community

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #13 in April 2013]

A Model for Community Living

Qumbya House family. Image by David Nekimken

I live in a co-operative housing community in Chicago. I am a renter, in an unconventional way. We, the residents in the co-op, are landlords, in an unconventional way. As a co-op committed to affordability, it is affordable, in unconventional ways. Conventional housing is individual ownership or rental of a house, condo (apartment), or townhouse. Home ownership is the centerpiece of our existing and dysfunctional American Dream. I am advocating a new American Dream where co-operative housing is the centerpiece. I want co-op housing communities to become viable alternatives to individual ownership or rental.

I live in the Qumbya housing co-op in Hyde Park. It has three large houses. Bowers, in which I live, is on University, Concord on Blackstone, and Haymarket on Ridgewood. Each house creates its own community, with a board overseeing the overall co-op. There are many models for co-op housing communities, from renting a room in a house with ample common community space to owning/renting an apartment with some common community space to a co-housing community with a mix of ownership, rental, and common areas. Qumbya is a model of renting one’s own room. This model will be the basis for my discussion of co-op housing communities. What are the main features that make our co-op affordable, desirable, and enticing? Why is this unconventional way of living such an attractive alternative?

Shared resources

Affordability. Let’s start with affordable rent. In each house there is a range of room rents, varying by square footage, location, and amenities. Our room rents are below the average for Chicago. This is really only a small part of the savings to one’s total living costs. We share the costs of utilities and food, making it a fraction of the cost if each of us had to pay for individual food and utilities. Also, we are not each paying for own bathroom, kitchen, dining room, living room, office, workroom, laundry room, food storage, yard, etc. Nor are we paying for our own set of dishes, glasses, silverware, kitchen utensils and cookware, and cleaning supplies. And further, we save money by doing much of the maintenance work in the houses ourselves. When we need to pay contractors for maintenance or renovation, the houses share a pool of money from NASCO (North American Student Co-operatives*).

Common space. Everyone has their own room. All of the rest of the house is common space, except for a few private storage areas. The three floors each have two bathrooms. Social interaction occurs everywhere: in the hallways, in the dining room and kitchen, in the living room, on the front porch, and in the backyard. How we pick and arrange furniture in the dining and living rooms and front porch; decorate the walls and stairways; organize the kitchen, attic, and basement; and landscape the yard (maintain a garden) is always open for discussion and shared decision-making. There is a balance between members’ preferences and “what’s best for the house.”

Building and maintaining community. Community works here as well as it does because of our collective and individual commitments to its sustainability and an equal respect to members’ private lives. Developing mutual trust is also important. Our commitment is most visible in our distribution of labor. We have officer positions: membership coordinator, treasurer, secretary, food purchasers, maintenance officer, choreographers. The choreographers assign chores to the rest of the membership, such as cleaning dining room, kitchen, vacuuming hallways and stairways, and tending the yard and garden. Everyone is assigned to a bathroom cleaning cycle. We have a cook cycle, with everyone taking turns cooking dinner and brunch on Saturday. “Work holidays” enable us to work together in a single day on larger projects, such as winterizing the house or spring cleaning. We believe that all chores are of equal value for maintaining and improving community life.

Our commitment is less visible in the following examples. The few members who own cars are willing to share them with their housemates. One can ask if anyone in the house has something he or she needs in the moment, a postage stamp or hair dryer or poster board, how to get to a Northside address, where is a good club or restaurant in Lakeview, etc. We are here to celebrate members’ joys, and when a member needs emotional support, the rest of us come to her or his aid. We like the variety of members’ backgrounds, personal stories, and philosophies, welcoming opposing viewpoints on any number of topics. There are opportunities for personal growth in leadership and management skills within a co-operative setting.

Democratic Process

Each house member, whether a new member or long-term member, whether officer or not, has an equal say in how the house is run, how the house is maintained and improved, in the very nature of the community. Decision-making is accomplished in weekly meetings, with agenda items from “trivial” to weighty matters. All concerns, questions, and viewpoints on an issue are welcome. Decisions can be reached through consensus, majority votes, or some combination. Decisions on spending money need to be made responsibly, often making do with less, not cutting corners at other times, maintaining a reasonable contingency balance. An important function of the meeting and community decisions is accepting new members. It starts with an application from a prospective member. The next step is a visit (Skype interviews where necessary) for dinner or brunch, a tour, and opportunity to for co-op members and prospective member to meet each other. A decision is reached at the next meeting.

The Qumbya Board oversees the operation and maintenance of the three houses, especially in legal, financial, outreach, and growth matters. Each house has three representatives to the Board, with more members at large. The Board officers are Board Chair, Secretary, Finance Coordinator, Maintenance Coordinator, Education Coordinator, and Outreach Coordinator. As Qumbya Housing Co-op is the legal entity, it balances what’s good for the co-op with the needs of an individual house or member. All meetings are open to nonmembers, except for legal and personnel matters. Nonmembers are encouraged to come to meetings to voice opinions and be heard. We have one paid part-time staff person.

Alternative Living Options

I would like to see co-operative housing promoted as a viable option for creative affordable living in Hyde Park and the surrounding area. Qumbya is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit entity, with a mandate for affordable housing. We have an open membership policy, meaning that we don’t recruit for a particular interest or agenda, except that we are vegetarian. Of course, it is perfectly reasonable to create co-ops for seniors or families or special interests. Conventionally, apartment buildings, condos, and townhouses are built and only then are occupied by renters or owners. Creating a co-op requires a community of individuals first, and then finding a structure. Or, both can be done at the same time. The individuals buying into the concept are crucial. Finding a home for sale and adequate financing are important, as is identifying the community. Qumbya is exploring growth with a fourth house. There is also underway an exploration of the city of Chicago adding a residential zoning designation for group living.  Qumbya’s first order of business will be to write our own draft “group living” zoning category, inviting input from other Chicago co-ops.  Then, we can show it to zoning experts and lawyers, and eventually to city officials. Co-op communities are in our future, transitioning from an old American Dream to a newer, different one.

*NASCO is a national organization that facilitates the building of co-ops around the nation. It has many educational opportunities to learn about and improve co-op communities. NASCO Properties owns or hold leases of some of the co-ops’ buildings.

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