Death in the Co-op Family

Sometimes Co-ops Decide that It’s a Good Day to Die


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Sometimes Co-ops Decide that It’s a Good Day to Die

There are times when co-ops have problems, but they simply decide to die rather than change. Here I’m defining “suicide” as group behavior which knowingly leads to death of the cooperative. This may sound odd at first, but surely no more odd than suicide among people. It is generally related to a psychological disorder in either circumstance, and it generally can’t be explained purely through logic.

In the case of student housing cooperatives, there are two types of problems that should be discussed. In this case, we will be talking only about member-owned, off campus cooperatives, although it’s possible that some similar problems occur in rental/university owned co-ops as well.

  1. Death by counter-culture. Some of the most spectacular co-op failures have been related to cultural issues. There seem to be times when the common wisdom of the group is so different from that of the outside world that the two just can’t co-exist.

When the world asserts standards of behavior different from those of the co-op, the group may simply refuse to comply, thereby risking death. The authority of the outside world often takes the form of the government, but it might also be the larger co-op system of which the co-op is a part. Some examples are in order:

Case study: Rochdale Co-operative College. In Canada, the very words “Rochdale College” still bring shudders in the co-operative community, thirty years now after the co-op’s collapse. Rochdale was the first high-rise student co-op built in Canada under an innovative government program, and it was located on a very prominent corner in downtown Toronto.
Constructed in the late 1960s, Rochdale quickly became the center of drug traffic and the “hippy” subculture of Toronto. The co-op had an elaborate security system, complete with personnel dressed as London Bobbies, with an alarm system which would signal drug raids.
The co-op had little knowledge of who lived there or who was paying. A political decision was made not to pay on the government loan that made the building possible, in spite of a probability of foreclosure.

Worst of all, a culture developed which drove out all who attempted to deal with the problem. “Anti-authoritarianism” was the dominant theme, and the very word “leadership” took on bad connotations.

As you might guess, the building is now a home for the elderly.
Case study: Barrington Hall. Perhaps the West Coast version of Rochdale was Barrington Hall in Berkeley. Barrington was the first building purchased by the University Students Cooperative Association (USCA) in the early 1930s. It was a very large building and served its members well for generations.
In more recent years, however, a strange illness seemed to infect the building, leading to property destruction and noise that eventually brought a backlash from the neighbors. A lawsuit was filed, and the City was asked to close down the building.
By this time, the USCA had grown to an organization with 1,400 members housed in 22 buildings, and they were forced to intercede. At first, thinking that physical problems were the basis for the behavior, USCA shut down the building for the summer and did a complete renovation. It took only weeks for the building to be brought back to its “normal” self after the members returned in the fall.
Eventually, the USCA had to sell the building, which in the world of co-ops is a bit like cutting off an arm. The organization as a whole survived the experience, but Barrington lives only in memory.

  1. Suicide by infection and refusal of doctor assistance. There are times when a truly destructive person becomes a leader in the cooperative. If the community is strong the group will deal with the problem. If the community is weak or the self-confidence of the group shaky, things can easily go from bad to worse.

It should be emphasized that this is an unusual situation. Nearly all cooperatives go through a cycle of good and bad years, and if the co-op owns its property, they usually they pull out of slumps without drastic problems. It’s not easy to walk away when you own the building, and members will usually rise to the challenge.

However, the co-op can be vulnerable during bad years. It’s as though the body’s immune system is depleted, and just like a person, the co-op is vulnerable to infection. If a strong negative personality takes charge, the group as a whole may feel unable to respond. If the house is owned by an umbrella cooperative, the response is often to kick out the problem members and try again.
But in an extreme situation, the “nuclear option” of killing the co-op is sometimes the only workable alternative. I would call this a suicide, because it is never the favored option of the umbrella group, but rather the last resort when a co-op is unable to accept help, refuses to take medicine, and prefers to die.
Case study: Lenny Bruce House. In Ann Arbor, a similar story played out with Bruce House, a group of 53 members in a large former sorority building owned by the Inter-Cooperative Council at the University of Michigan (ICC). In this case, the problem was most directly related to an older student returning to school for his masters degree who turned out to be a paranoid schizophrenic. While this person was clearly the catalyst for what came later, he could never have caused so much havoc if the culture of the house had not allowed it.
In this case, he had a group of surfers from the West Coast plus a group of Korean international students who provided support, while the remaining members felt helpless and unable to respond. This was a house which included several mobility impaired people, and they were special targets for his anger. The situation deteriorated to a point where there was real physical danger.

The ICC had to step in, and after a confrontation the building was shut down and the problem people removed. The house was renovated and re-started as a new entity with a new name: Sojourner Truth House. In effect, killing the old house was seen as the only viable solution.

Interestingly, changing the name has an important affect. There very literally is no relationship felt by members of Truth House to the old members of Bruce. It’s as though the group is clearly separate from the building, and the parts are indeed interchangeable. Still, it is true to say that the old co-op was killed, or more accurately chose suicide through its inability to change.

  1. Doctor assisted suicide. In some cases, boards of directors are heavily weighted toward outside interests, rather than being controlled by the resident members. Balance is the key here: having some directors with more experience and more stability over time is really a good idea, particularly if the co-op is old enough to draw from its alumni. The outside members are usually intended to serve as the “doctor” for the co-op in case of problems, and often this works.

However there are a number of cases where the real power has been vested in a board with a majority of non-members, who may have totally different perspectives and priorities. When problems arise, these boards will sometimes simply give up rather than struggling through to a solution.

The “dual corporation” model, with the ownership vested in an outside board, has a long history in student co-ops. The typical fraternity or sorority is based on this model, where the building is owned either by a group of local alumni (the fraternity model) or by the national organization (more common in sororities). Some churches also use this model.

This model, though more than a hundred years old, has serious flaws which are manifest in the condition of fraternities. Because the members feel no stake in the property, they tend to ignore problems, assuming that “someone” will fix them later. The outside board acts paternally to insure the upkeep, and the rich alumni smile knowingly at the antics and excesses of the current group.

Co-ops all go through periodic cycles of ups and downs. They generally can pull themselves out, and the problems rarely are as bad as in many fraternities. But sometimes the slump can be both frustrating and threatening for outside board members. They do not live in the house, yet they feel responsible – and in fact are responsible under law – for it’s upkeep and well being. At some points, it simply becomes impossible to believe that the members will pull themselves out of the crunch. In the best case, the board will reorganize the group; in the worst case, the building will be sold.

Case study: The Student Cooperative Association

As with Texas A&M, this story is too long for the body of this paper and is included as Appendix B. The SCA, located at the University of Washington in Seattle, was another very large cooperative system which started early in the Great Depression and grew quickly. It’s difficult to tell whether the co-op had to die, but it is clear that there was a benefit to liquidation, though not for the current and potential members.

Case study: The Farmers Union Student Cooperative. This group began in 1937 in Fargo, North Dakota by selling shares to local chapters of the Farmers Union. The co-op functioned beautifully for more than 50 years before running into problems and being closed down. In my mind, it was the “nuclear option” used when many other options still existed, sort of a doctor-assisted suicide. This story is in Appendix C below.

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