Death in the Co-op Family

Yes, Virginia, sometimes murders happen


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Yes, Virginia, sometimes murders happen

Sometimes co-ops are killed by others. Co-ops generally fall into only three categories: (1) those that own their own property, (2) co-ops that lease from private or non-profit owners, and (3) co-ops that lease or manage university owned property. In the last two cases (and in rare cases even when property is owned), the co-op is at the mercy of people who are not members. For a variety of reasons, this can lead to death.

Death by landlord execution. Death by landlord is the easiest kind to understand, although the reasons for it can vary widely. When they first begin, many co-ops lease their buildings from private landlords. If they have a strong identity and are not just a collection of random people, the co-op can survive the loss of a lease and move to anther location.
With private, for profit owners, there is always a risk that the building will be sold to someone who wants to use it for a different purpose. In other cases, the owner will want to raise the rents to an unacceptable level. Whatever the reason, this has been a common problem over the years, and whether the co-op dies or simply moves to a location is a test of its character and stability. Some examples are given in the case studies below:
Case Study: War casualties at the University of Michigan. Independent student housing co-ops began in Ann Arbor in 1932 and grew rapidly, until there were thirteen houses by the start of World War II. All were in rented rooming houses, and all were single sex groups, as required by the university and the mores of the times.
When the war broke out, some of the men’s houses closed, while others had “sex changes.” This much was understandable, given the drain of men into the armed forces. A different kind of problem arose toward the end of the war, however, when speculators realized that the student body would swell far beyond even pre-war levels when the GI’s returned to school. They rapidly began to purchase property around the school, including houses rented by the co-ops.

The co-ops had generally been leasing from older families who owned large houses and rented out rooms to students – a common pattern in pre-war North America. The speculators were often absentee landlords, however, and rooming houses were too difficult to manage. During and after the war, the new owners rapidly converted many of the large, old structures into apartment buildings, where they could increase the profit margin and decrease the number of leases.

This often meant that the co-ops had to go. Even where they were allowed to stay, the new owners were much more interested in profit than the families which had benefited from renting to the co-ops during the Depression. Moreover, the prices were going up dramatically, and the old rents simply couldn’t pay for the new loans needed to finance a purchase.
Many of the co-ops moved on an almost annual basis in order to stay alive. Robert Owen House “lived” in four different locations between its founding in 1938 and purchase of a permanent home in 1944. Others just couldn’t make it. Rochdale Co-op, Brandeis, Lincoln, and Pickerill all closed during this period, often simply because they couldn’t find another house to rent.
Case study: Ahimsa Co-operative. Often the loss of a lease will simply mean finding another place to rent, as in the cases above. Sometimes, however, the co-op sees itself as a building rather than as an association, and moving is psychologically not an option.
Ahimsa, a more recent co-op also located in Ann Arbor, rented a house from its inception in 1977 until 1998, when the owner died and the building was sold to someone who preferred to lease out individual rooms. The co-op even had an opportunity to buy the building from the former landlord’s estate, but their culture was not strong enough to overcome member lethargy, and the opportunity was lost. The group eventually decided to simply disband rather than find a new home.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated example of this kind of problem. The death or sale of a house by an elderly owner has frequently ended long and well established relationships which the co-ops somehow assumed would last forever. In a couple of cases, the group has been able to purchase the property, while in too many instances, they have simply died.

Death by university decision. While it’s true that leasing co-ops have a high rate of mortality, the problem is still worse for co-ops in university owned buildings. While profit is generally the motive for death in off campus leasing co-ops, universities have a whole arsenal of reasons for destroying their co-ops. Between 1873 and the present day, there are scores of colleges and universities that have provided buildings large and small for co-operative use, but few of these groups survive today. And sadly, most of these co-ops have been killed in spite of their success rather than because of failure.
The reasons for “death by university” fall into several general categories:

  1. Death by different priority. While many universities recognize the need for affordable student housing and strong learning communities, these are not always the priorities that drive them.

Case study: The Strange Case of Texas A&M
This a mystifying story, but there have been many similar stories from other universities up to the present day. Over the years, universities from Idaho and California to Rhode Island have attempted to force out or kill successful cooperatives, often without apparent reason. Because the schools have seldom been forthcoming with logical explanations, we’ve often been forced to guess at motivations.

The story of the meteoric rise and fall of the co-operative at Texas A&M is simply too long to include in the body of this paper, and I have placed it in Appendix A below. It is an incredible story of one of the first and largest independent co-ops ever established in the United States, established in the small town of College Station, Texas in 1933. In 1938, while still in the depths of the Great Depression, the university Regents made decisions that not only destroyed the co-op, but forced some students to leave school. We can only speculate, on the slimmest of evidence, as to why this happened.

Case study: University of Texas Women’s Co-ops

A more recent example took place in Austin, Texas where up until the late 1990s there was an extremely successful group of co-ops for women (collectively known as the U.T. Women’s Co-ops). Many of the groups were founded in the 1930s and 1940s and were originally in rented houses off campus. In the 1950s, the university constructed a number of small group housing facilities specifically for the women’s co-ops (self-contained duplex units for 24 students on each side) with the help of alumni donations and grants. All but one group moved in. In the early 1960s, the number of houses on campus was doubled, for a total of about 200 residents. Men’s groups remained off campus in rented facilities and later became coed groups.

The women’s co-ops became the best and most affordable places to live in Austin. They had a strong relationship with the financial aid office, which regularly referred to them students in need. The co-ops were under university rules and the school refused to let them incorporate, ostensibly for reasons of liability, but the 8 on-campus co-ops formed a strong council and eventually even hired their own administrator.
A turning point came in 1998, when two male students filed a law suit charging discrimination and demanding that the university either provide similar housing for men or allow them to join the women’s co-op. After a great deal of struggle, and after the university threatened to throw them out if they didn’t comply, the women’s co-ops agreed to make one of their houses coed.

However it soon became clear that the gender issue was a “red herring,” and that the university really wanted the co-ops to leave. They developed a plan to move the co-ops out over several years, converting the houses to traditional freshman residences as they left. And, as soon as the conversion was complete, it became apparent that even this was an interim step in a longer range master plan, and that the buildings would soon be torn down to make way for a high density dormitory.

This had been rumored from the very beginning, and it made sense given the prime location of the co-ops, the low density of the four duplex buildings (which were two story construction, surrounding a beautiful courtyard). The University of Texas is now the second largest school in the country, and still growing, but they have a very small residence hall system.
The good news is that the women had enough savings and a strong enough group to move off campus and survive, after a fashion. They purchased one house for about 50 members, but for financial reasons were later forced to merge with College Houses, another off campus co-op which was larger and more secure. The house is still for women, but it is now the last vestige of what developed under the wing of the university for almost 50 years.

  1. Death by cost-benefit. Universities are not monolithic institutions, and ideas that make sense from the standpoint of student life and student aid departments may make no sense at all to the financial and housing people. Co-operatives can be pulled apart by competing power structures focusing on different issues, with the students caught in the middle.

Case study: Franklin and Marshall Co-operative

In the early 1980s, Franklin and Marshall College, a small liberal arts school in central Pennsylvania, hired a new president who previously had worked at Oberlin College in Ohio. Oberlin has a long and successful tradition of co-op housing and dining, with 600 students (nearly 25% of the student body) as members of the Oberlin Student Cooperative Association. The new president at Franklin and Marshall asked his Office of Student Life to investigate the possibility of starting a co-op, and in turn they contacted NASCO for assistance.

The college then purchased a brick row house as its first effort, spent a summer renovating the facility, and opened it in the fall. NASCO found an experienced co-op member to live in the house for the first year as a kind of “house mother” and help with initial organizing. The first members were selected by the college during the previous spring, based on interest, a balance between class levels, and other factors. In turn, officers were elected by the group and asked to figure out how to run the co-op.
The “house mother” and NASCO staff then worked with officers, who came to school a week early to set up the house. It was a very successful start-up, and the house ran smoothly.
Problems between the co-op and the college developed even before the opening, however. Because of extremely high standards for renovation work, the row house was gutted and rebuilt, including an extensive sprinkler system and a top quality commercial kitchen. The total cost for housing 20 students was over a million dollars.
The housing and business offices demanded that the co-op members be charged at least as much as the students in the residence halls (which were above area rental rates). The co-op members rightly objected, saying that they were doing all their own cooking and cleaning and shouldn’t have to pay the same as people having work done for them.
Unfortunately for the college administration, the co-op membership included the editor of the student newspaper and members of the student government, who made the issue very public. The college backed down.

Unfortunately for the co-op, there were no more attempts to develop new co-op houses, and resentment lingered. And over time the college took more and more independence from the co-op members, and within a few years the group ended contact with NASCO. We now believe that they are dead, and they are not listed on the college web site.

  1. Death by bureaucracy. It’s very difficult for university housing departments to deal with small self-governed housing units, which are very different from the rest of the residence hall system. We believe, though we cannot prove, that many of the smaller co-op houses and systems have closed because of a combination of factors including staffing problems. The exceptions seem to be in places where the co-op systems are large enough to support at least a junior staff person to deal with them.

Part of the difficulty seems to be a concern over control. Control is often a very big issue with many administrators, and in many cases this issue has resulted in conversion of co-ops to more traditional residence halls, sometimes with a resident work requirement added.

However, successful co-ops need to have a degree of control over their activities in order to develop a strong identity, and groups where residents work in return for lower charges but have no control should really be called scholarship halls rather than co-ops.

Case study: the University of Wisconsin

While more research would be needed to present a full case study of such a situation, the conversion of several very old co-ops at the University of Wisconsin to residence hall status is probably a good example of this problem.

These co-ops were very old, dating back to 1914, when a group of women were allowed to rent a vacant house from the university. Eventually, the university built several buildings specifically for three of the successor co-ops: Rust and Shriner (which shared a kitchen and dining room) and Susan B. Davis House. These were alive and well as of the 1980s, but they were very much under the thumb of the housing department.

They are now listed on the university website as residence halls (without food service) rather than co-ops. We believe that they simply became more trouble than they were worth for those in charge.

Places were university owned co-ops have died:

    • Michigan State University

    • Texas A&M

    • University of Texas

    • Southwest Texas State University

    • Denton College

    • Washington State University

    • University of Iowa

    • Brown University

    • Franklin and Marshall College

    • University of Michigan

    • Northwestern University

    • Antioch University

    • University of Wisconsin

…and probably many others. Records of dead co-ops are hard to come by.
Places where university owned co-ops are alive and successful:

    • Oberlin College

    • University of Minnesota (married student housing)

    • Stanford University

    • Harvard University

    • Oregon State University

    • Cornell University

    • Albion College

…and probably other small groups that we are not aware of.

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