What It’s Really Like Living in Cooperative Housing

5 years ago my wife saw an online ad for an apartment in a housing co-op. We had no idea what cooperative housing was, but we needed a place to live and we couldn’t afford much, so we answered the ad. Yesterday I handed in my keys, thus ending what I would previously have called one of the most unique experiences of my life, but which I now hope to replicate in as many ways as possible going forward. Because we didn’t just move into an apartment, we moved into a community.

The first thing we had to do was to attend a session in which they explained to us what exactly living in a co-op meant. Most people are not familiar with the idea, and it’s better if people walk in with eyes wide open so that there are no surprises. Because each member is expected to participate. Were there times that I felt bogged down by all the participating? Sure. But for the most part I felt that helping out and interacting with my neighbors was smoothly integrated into everyday life. And hopefully you are excited to take care of the property, since you own it.

Part of the deal with the co-op is that we all own an equal share in it, so we are our own landlords. Yes, we pay “rent” to ourselves, which we call carrying charges, but we set the amount ourselves as well. We come up with our budget, how much it actually takes to keep the place going, and then we set our rates accordingly. There is no middle man making a buck off of our housing payments. But because this is a combined group effort, we get the benefits of ownership, while also avoiding some of the pitfalls. When something breaks, we have a committee for that, and the repair costs have already been factored into the budget.

We have committees for everything, and every member is on a committee. That’s where you might start to feel slightly put upon; you have to attend a meeting once a  month. Meetings: does anybody like them? But they are important, and an hour or two per month is not really that much time. We have committees for maintenance, grounds, finance, membership, conflict resolution, and we have a board to oversee everything. I was chair of the board for almost my entire 4.3 years of living at the co-op, and it was a lot of fun actually. It gave me a much better understanding of how everything worked. If you want to know what’s going on somewhere, get on their board. You will have more information than you ever wanted!

Aside from the committee work, we are all expected to do things together like fall and spring clean-up days, and there is a big annual meeting that we hold for all members, but now that I’ve mentioned all of the obligations, I should probably start on the benefits. Because living in cooperative housing was my first chance to experience real, extreme, radical community, and I can’t overstate its life-changing significance.

I have never lived in a place where I knew all of my neighbors. There was that magical little street in Baltimore where I knew several of them, but most places that I have lived I have known, at most, one or two neighbors. Sometimes I have known zero. Can you imagine the feeling of safety, coming home to place where you had a relationship with every single person in your neighborhood? To know that, not only did you not have to worry about any of them, but that they were also looking out for you? If you show up at the co-op and nobody recognizes you, it’s a safe bet that someone will be approaching you to ask where you are going, who you are here to see, and if they can help you. This gives the combined effects of friendliness and security. You can put up as many walls and fences as you like, but there is nothing safer than to invite everyone inside the barriers with you and live with them as friends.

When I have to leave for a rehearsal 15 minutes before my wife gets home from work, I have a dozen people who are happy to watch the kids for a few minutes so that I can leave. Parents, I know you know how amazing that is. That is worth the price of admission right there! The kids had instant playmates and friends to hang out with after school. Parents had a network of support that was always available. All those ambulance rides of last year meant that we needed a place for Ruby to go, often in the middle of the night, and different neighbors took her every time. I don’t know how we would have survived last year without the co-op.

And you may think this strange, but the best part is also the worst part. The best part of living in the co-op is all of the people I didn’t like. I mean, I didn’t hate anybody, but there are the people I liked the most, and then the people I liked okay, and also the people I normally would never have spent five minutes with. And I got to build relationships with all of them. There is no “unfriend” button when you live in a co-op. Differences of opinion and disagreements have to be resolved, and you have to stay in community with these people. That is what I mean by radical community. Other than moving away, you are stuck with every one of those people, and they are stuck with you. How you navigate your way through it is up to you, but for me it has been a place of real growth and opportunity. My world view has shifted, I think for the better, and I plan on going forward in a way that is much more inclusive and tolerant.

We don’t live at the co-op anymore, but I think we’ve found the next best thing. The only other place I have found that has even hinted at the kind of radical community that I had at the co-op, is at my church. And now we’ve moved in. No, it’s not quite as radical, because people do leave the church. People feel that things are not going their way, or that they don’t like someone, and so they leave. Some people. But there are enough people who stay, people with opposing viewpoints, people who might not otherwise interact, people who agreed with my sermon yesterday and people who thought it was 100% wrong, people who fight and make-up, that it feels like radical inclusion to me. We’re not perfect, and we certainly don’t get it right all the time, but we are committed to the work, and to each other. My new goal is to make the church more like the co-op, and the world more like the church. And then maybe someday we won’t need any walls at all.

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