by Jim Jones, formerly of North American Students of Cooperation
A forward: How this paper came to be In Scotland, progress is brewing. At St. Andrews University, the Student Union is interested in developing housing co-ops, not a small undertaking for a country where none exist now. Last fall, Ben Reilly, who is one of the officers of the St. Andrews Student Union, came to the NASCO Institute to learn more. Ben is well organized, thoughtful, and always seems to know the right questions to ask. Recently he asked for thoughts on why co-ops fail, so that they could avoid some of the pitfalls. This is the first time that I’ve ever had such a request, though I’ve been thinking about the question for years. We tend to focus on success stories, and there are many: Berkeley, Ann Arbor, Austin, Oberlin, Toronto, Waterloo, Madison, Minneapolis and other places large and small have co-ops that have prospered for many decades. We know a lot about them, and we can both celebrate and emulate their success. It’s much harder to learn about failure. Co-ops with serious problems seldom write much about them, and those who participate in disaster often leave for parts unknown. As a part-time historian of the movement, I’ve had to spend many hours in dusty university archives to figure out why things happened as they did. This paper is based on what records and memories we can gather. In some respects, it’s a sad and depressing story, filled with tragedy that has scarred both our movement and the people who failed in their efforts to keep their co-ops afloat. At the end, I’ll try to draw some conclusions and give some suggestions on avoiding similar failures – and hopefully that will provide some relief from these stories of gloom and doom.
In many cases, I’ve drawn conclusions based on the limited information, and these could be way off base. I would invite any readers with more information or different thoughts to share them with me, so that future efforts to discuss these tragedies can be more accurate and complete.
Introduction: the Mysterious Presence in Student Cooperatives
In this paper, I will constantly be drawing an analogy between housing co-ops and human lives. I firmly believe that this is an accurate way of characterizing co-ops, in the sense that conclusions drawn from this analogy often do describe and predict behavior.
I used to offer a workshop on our co-ops called “The Mysterious Presence.” I talked about the way that our members come to think of their house as an entity separate from themselves, with its own name, personality, clothing (the physical structure), money, a history and a future. Sometimes, even a language unique to the co-operative has developed, such as in the Ann Arbor co-ops, where the word “guff” has a 70 year history of meaning snack food and other goods which are up for grabs.
The most fragile years for a co-op are the first two to five, when the personality is first forming. There is often a struggle during this early stage between different groups, each with their own ideas of the purpose and norms which should develop. This can sometimes be avoided, but only if planning predates development. This is like the parents talking about how to do toilet training or discipline before the baby is born – it can avoid many later arguments.
When this doesn’t happen, or when the planning isn’t effective, groups with competing visions often conflict until one becomes dominant. It can be a bloody process, and it is a dangerous time. After the first year or so, the losing group or groups will leave, and new members will know what to expect before joining. This early developmental stage will set the course for the co-op for years to come. As the old adage goes, “As the twig is bent, so grows the tree.”
As the personality of the new co-op takes shape, the group gains a stability and continuity that’s difficult to explain to the outside world. This is much more true for group housing than for apartments, where the social ties are much looser and socialization a weaker force.
In a group setting, there are two forces that strengthen the personality and character of the group. The first is self-selection: only those prospective members who are attracted to the emerging nature of the co-op will seek to join, and when they do join, they reinforce that “mysterious presence.” In those co-ops which have a selective membership system, there is also a tendency (which many deny) to invite people with similar and compatible ideas into the group. While this works against diversity, it does have a harmonizing effect, which in the early years could be considered a survival mechanism.
The second force is socialization. Acceptance of the norms of the co-operative are vital to building a strong community, and the informal educational structures in a successful co-op are incredibly effective. In the typical group housing co-op, a new member will come to understand and accept the systems and normative values of the group within the first two weeks; in cases where that doesn’t happen, the new member will be socially ostracized and will generally leave or be forced out of the group.
Most co-ops pride themselves on diversity and openness, but it’s clear that only a certain range of attitudes is acceptable. Before the end of housing segregation in the United States, most student co-operatives were the only private housing near campus where Black students could live. During World War II, the co-ops in Ann Arbor welcomed Japanese-Americans when they too had few choices. Jews and gays have also been welcomed into membership. A racial bigot or homophobe, by comparison, would clearly not be accepted. Nor would males who believe in more traditional roles for the sexes, a fact quickly impressed on many students from male dominated countries.
The values of the co-operatives are related to their degree of success. Clearly, co-ops with strong communities and shared values will be more likely to pull through difficult times. And the longer the co-operative exists, the stronger the community, the personality, and as a result, the “mysterious presence” become. Over time, co-op members re-define their roles from birth parents to caretakers. They see their work as protecting and sustaining the entity where they are temporarily living, part of an ongoing history rather than as an isolated experience.
Going back to the analogy, a co-operative may be thought of as going through developmental stages, with its ability to cope with difficulties increasing as it gains experience and develops a strong core identity. There are many pitfalls along the way, however, and as a toddler it’s always in danger, both from external forces and from its own mistakes.
The members are like the brain, nervous system and organs that keep us all alive, and they must all do their job in order for the co-op to survive. Diseases can and will develop, as we will see later in this paper, and the strength of the culture is in this case the same as the strength of the immune system – it’s absolutely necessary for survival.
This paper will be divided into three sections, each dealing with different kinds of disasters that can and do happen with cooperatives. The first section deals with outside forces which can destroy a cooperative, which I would term murder, or perhaps more accurately, manslaughter. The second section describes dysfunctional cultures/personalities, which can lead in the worst cases to suicide. The third section talks about accidental death – the kinds of disasters that are caused by forces of nature, or more often by lack of experience, and sometimes just through plain stupidity.