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The Case for Co-ops

Bathroom wall at the Lorax

There’s something odd about 13th and Olive. Better known as Crap, er, Capstone, it’s a pretty blunt edition to downtown Eugene. But something about it just doesn’t quite make sense. A handful of the first-floor rooms are completely uninhabited, and yet they’re all done up: televisions turned on, beds made, journals on the desks and one or two lone T-shirts hanging in the closet. 

It’s a little creepy.

Eugene has a handful of new apartment complexes popping up just like 13th and Olive, from campus onward. Most of these buildings seem like viable housing options for students. But does Eugene really need so many new units — or rising rent prices?

Maybe more apartments isn’t the only approach to better housing for students.

For those who don’t have their parents’ credit card to get them through school or are looking for a richer experience on their path to getting a degree, there is an option that utilizes pre-existing homes or buildings while maintaining low rent costs, and all the while building community: cooperative housing. 

Prior to living in co-ops for four years, I didn’t really know how to be a part of a community. I paid too much for rent and ate too much pizza. That changed after living under one roof with about 30 other folks for nearly two years, and with 16 other people for another couple of years.

Not all co-ops are full of radical punks or on the verge of being a squat. Not all of them are big, smelly hippie houses. Most are actually pretty darn nice, dawning DIY projects or their own sustainable gardens. Co-ops are more a reflection of their members than a defined and manufactured space, which, depending on the house and its turnover rate, can be ever-changing. 

 

 

GETTING COZY

Cooperative housing in the U.S. is nothing new — in fact, the National Cooperative Law Center states that cooperative housing dates back to 1876 in New York City. A cooperative is usually a shared home or cluster of houses in which community members construct a set of norms that accommodate that community’s needs.

Since cooperatives are usually organized by independent, nonprofit groups or by local community members — instead of, say, a profit-hungry investment company — rent prices tend to be more reasonable.

Cutting down living prices can mean negotiating on personal space, though. Folks generally share common space in cooperative houses (kitchens, living rooms, etc.). Depending on how many people you’re living with, it can be a little overwhelming if you’ve had the luxury of apartment privacy. Affordability comes at a price, and that cost may be having your own bathroom.

Students looking to live on their own can suffer a blow from over-priced homes. Finding affordable housing while paying tuition is a beast — even with financial aid. And when students find something in their price range, at what point are they a part of the community or merely stopping at the University of Oregon like a late-night Taco Bell run — quick, temporarily rewarding and a bit sloppy at times?

Community, then, is one of the more significant perks of co-op living. You’re building friendships as well as life skills, such as being able to get along with other people.

 

Members of the East Blair Housing Collective

 

HOME GROWN

My first Eugenean home was at the Lorax Manner (okay, so I’m a little biased). Settling in was something of a shock; for instance, I’d never seen so much mold in my life, and I didn’t understand why people had so many patches on their clothes. I spent two years in that old, creaky mansion with wall-to-wall art and a rat problem every now and then, but I learned what a community is and became active in Eugene, all while being able to pay tuition. 

Eugene has a handful of co-ops scattered throughout town, some of which have been around for decades. The Student’s Cooperative Association (SCA) buildings are located between 16th and 18th on Alder Street and consist of the Campbell Club, the Lorax Manner and the Janet Smith (which is geared towards graduate students).

The SCA is a nonprofit housing option with the most affordable rent in the area. Room prices clock in at about $306-$398 per month — as opposed to The Hub on Campus, where you can pay approximately $764 per month to live with four other students. SCA membership includes a meal plan and utilities, and each of the houses has its own personality, culture and level of cleanliness. 

That’s the trick with co-ops: some are spick-‘n’-span and run butter-smooth, while others prove rougher around the edges. The intent, though, is to provide people with the experience of learning how to be in and of a community — one that ultimately reflects the city at large.

Melanie Sicotte worked for the SCA roughly 17 years, as well as being involved with the East Blair Housing Collective over in the Whiteaker. “There is a natural community need that is met to a lot of people whether you live here or not,” she says. “That I’ve definitely seen from day one.” 

Sicotte says she’s watched dozens of college kids live at the SCA and blossom into community leaders. 

Past members of the student co-ops have gone on to be active in environmental groups, women’s rights work and some have become college professors. Over this past year, house members have hosted local groups like Food Not Bombs and Burrito Brigade, two nonprofit organizations that use donated and local resources to make meals to share with folks around town. 

Unlike apartments, which by their very definition create an isolated living situation, Sicotte says co-ops offer more social-based skills. “You’re gonna get a crash course in business management, group dynamics and, gosh, financial planning,” she says. “No matter what you do in life, you’re going to take that with you, but then you have the added benefit of community.”

The SCA may be student-only, but Eugene has plenty of other cooperative housing options. Du•má is a quieter intentional community for the more professional crowd and is still only blocks from campus. A bit further from the UO sprawl is East Blair Housing Cooperative, which is a co-housing space (multiple houses as opposed to one large home) in the more residential area of the Whiteaker offering family-friendly and eco-enthusiastic alternative living. 

 

 

THINK BIG PICTURE

I recently visited the Student’s Cooperative Association and, after chatting with the current members and soaking up some nostalgia, I heard that one of the three houses has hit a bit of a rough patch: low membership and a touch of debt. Maybe the Campbell Club just isn’t anyone’s cup of tea at the moment, but the house is also smack-dab in the region of campus, where new apartment construction and rent competition is at its height. 

Rosalie Roberts is the new business manager for the SCA. She describes the Campbell Club’s current standing as a transition stage with an uncertain future. Over the past several years, there has been a cultural shift in the house, which, honestly, can go either way in cooperative housing. 

“I think the co-op model works … it’s just communities have challenges,” Roberts says. “It just happens.” SCA members have been strategizing methods to raise money for the Campbell Club (via Kickstarter, petitioning and fundraising) and the community is addressing how to cultivate a more sustainable house culture. 

The Campbell Club’s problems seemed to unfold around the same time that big investors began pouring more money into student housing. Over the past six years, Roberts says she’s noticed a shift among those able to afford the UO due to tuition increases, as well as what type of housing was being provided for students. “A lot of those crazy places, as remarkable as it may sound, are marketing themselves as affordable student housing,” Roberts says, “when the rents are still astronomical.”

Since a particular income level is needed to afford these new, on-campus modern apartments, Roberts questions what impact this will have on the Eugene community at large. For those who fall into a lower class, people of color or who are gender non-conforming, Roberts says, “there are only so many places they can go.”

Brian Kester currently works with Bell Real Estate, a prominent real estate company in Eugene, and he’s been in property management for more than 20 years. Kester has been watching these giant complexes change the face of campus neighborhoods. “Over the years … people have been buying [older homes in the area] up and making them into a big apartment unit, raising the price,” he says.

This rise in the cost of housing pushes people out of certain parts of town and brings in those who can better afford it — often disrupting older communities already in place. Kester says he’s started discouraging homeowners from buying homes in the campus area because the competition is too difficult. 

As far as advertising goes, these new student-oriented pads have their name plastered everywhere. If you’ve been looking for a place to rent on Craigslist lately, it’s likely that you have been bombarded by the endless spam of Duck-happy housing. These shiny new homes are ready to take in as many renters as possible — which makes sense. If you have the room, use it.

But Kester says he noticed an interesting hiccup in the number of rooms being built, noting that there are more rooms than there are people to accommodate them, especially in the campus area. “Where are all the other bedrooms going to?” he asks.

 

Students prepare meals at The Lorax Co-op

 

BUDGET BUSTING

Financial aid is my lifeboat in the rough and expensive seas of earning a degree. I work, but if it weren’t for financial support, there’d be little to no chance of me being able to afford tuition, books, housing and food. When I finally get that glorious email at the start of every term saying my aid has been deposited, I get a rush of temporary financial stability.

Then rent is due, and poof, it’s gone. 

You might think a college town with such a financially successful university would be able to create more affordable housing for its students, especially considering the impact the student population has on the housing market in Eugene. 

According to reports provided by the Housing and Urban Development Department (HUD), students in Eugene account for 7,050 renter households. HUD’s 2015 housing market analysis points out that 720 apartments are under construction (some now completed), 60 percent of which are located near campus and are, or will be, targeted towards students — in areas of town where rent prices are rapidly increasing.

There are options on a financial par with the prices of on-campus cooperative housing. Stadium Park Apartments is a bit off campus and offers a four-bedroom option at $440 per month (per person). Stadium Park pales in comparison to its on campus competition, Uncommon, which offers a similar four-bedroom at about $200 more.

Uncommon, Courtside Apartments, Capstone and other new complexes in town exhibit an architectural similarity that is more than just a little eerie. “Luxury” student housing is now a trend in Eugene, according to HUD’s reports, so we may be seeing more complexes like The Hub on Campus — a place that offers $1,239 one-bedrooms along with the option for students to have their own terraces, with or without a private hot tub. 

Generally, the apartment complexes around town are being built for the population growth estimate of 2030, which accounts for the 4.5 percent renter’s vacancy rate we’ve got going on. Although it’s less than the national average for vacancies (7.8 percent), it may or may not change depending on the choices investors are making now — which brings up two big questions: Who is going to be able to afford these homes and what is this going to look like for Eugene in the long-run?

There may be different options to housing students as well as those being planned to accommodate Eugene’s student population increase in the coming years.

Cooperative housing may not be for everyone, but it is a resourceful way of providing sustainable, affordable housing for the degree-seeking folk who have a big impact on Eugene’s housing market, as well as other renters in the campus area. 

For now, though, our forecast looks like more buildings, higher rent prices ansd the distinct possibility of less skyline in Eugene. Consider a co-op.