The radical possibilities of student co-operative housing

Texas may not be a bastion of social progressiveness, but at least students can live affordably

When I arrived to Austin at the beginning of my exchange semester at the University of Texas at Austin, I moved into the 21st St Co-op. The co-op is a sprawling, strange looking house for one hundred students, built around trees and with vines curling across its walls and balconies, and garden beds adorned on the front yard. It stuck out like a sore thumb amongst all the other bland apartment blocks near campus. With the words “WELCOME HOME” chalked messily onto the front wall, I knew this was more than just a place to live.

21st St Co-op was established in 1974 as a social experiment in affordable student housing. During this time, communal housing spawned from the awakened consciousness of the ‘hippie 60’s’ which rebelled against institutions of power. The premise behind co-operative living is to restore values of community and human connection, providing a viable alternative to the “real” world of living in isolated apartment blocks in an increasingly urbanising and capitalist society. They shift the balance of power from predatory landlords and letting agencies to the stakeholders residents and owners.

Every resident is contractually obligated to complete a few hours of labour each week. Labour positions can span from cooking, kitchen cleaning, maintenance and grounds upkeep, which  ensures that the residence operates independently and efficiently, rather than contracting to expensive outside agencies to do simple labour. The house holds two meetings a week, where each member has a democratic voice to bring change. As such, the premise behind co-ops is to nurture a community of inclusion, participatory democracy and co-operation.

“I gained confidence in pretty much every area of my life,” explained Jack, who had been living at co-ops for two years, when asked if he had gained any lifelong values from living in such an autonomously operated space. In 2016, Jack was jointly elected Membership Co-ordinator at 21st St Co-op. He became responsible for not only the administrative upkeep of membership records, but also the emotional balance of the co-op’s 100 members. The officer description included supporting members with mental illnesses, substance abuse, poverty, self-harm and sexual assault. Although the emotional burden was ultimately too challenging for him to remain in the position, his experience as an officer confirmed to him that a democracy shouldn’t rely on leaders in power. Instead, success was dependent on the collective power of the people. “Co-ops have more potential. Everybody needs to take ownership and responsibility for a co-op’s success. Everyone also has the power to make things better.”

Sydney currently has one student co-op: STUCCO, in Newtown. With rent costing $92/week, many of STUCCO’s spots are reserved for low-income students. But the student co-op scene seems discouraging Australia-wide: there are only two other co-ops in Melbourne and Canberra. Why are there are so little low-income student housing options in Australia when the cost of living is so high and becoming increasingly unable to accommodate poorer students?

Co-ops became such a popular option for affordable student housing that Austin now has 18 official co-op residences near campus. The co-op scene flourished in American student life, particularly in progressive college towns such as Berkeley, Ann Arbor and Austin. In these areas, co-op living is as prevalent as fraternity life. For many people, the co-op allows them to save about $3000 per year due to low rent being offset by labour hours and daily healthy meals.

Austin is primarily known for being a liberal bubble in the grand Lone Star state of cowboy Texas, being occupied by newly migrated musicians, techies and hippies. Taylor, a current resident of the 21st St Co-op, grew up in a small town of 425 called Palo Pinto, Texas. As a non-binary person, they felt isolated and threatened by its socially conservative values. One night at 5am when I was taking a break from studying all night, they joined me on the back porch to chat. They told me how they felt forced to overplay an image of masculinity to protect themselves in their hometown. “I had to train really hard with guns because then no-one would want to fuck with the best shooter in town.” In 2014, a friend introduced them to 21st St Co-op and they subsequently moved to Austin. Taylor has been living here ever since, where the co-op provides not only a safe respite but also the freedom to be themself. They are now planning to begin hormone replacement therapy with Planned Parenthood at the end of this month. “It’s really freeing,” they said. “I’m definitely not the first person to transition here at the co-op. If I hadn’t moved here it would’ve taken a couple more years before I could be confident enough.”

Being a foreign exchange student who was daunted by the idea of adjusting to a new life in America, 21st St Co-op provided an immediate default family. Lunch and dinner would be served every evening in the communal dining room, which provided ample opportunity to get to know the people you’re living with. Every week our social events officers organised house-bonding events from weekend camping trips to themed parties and baby oil wrestling matches. Co-ops promote a vibrant student life, and we often hosted band shows and parties that were open to the public as our co-op doubled as an underground DIY music venue. At the same time, there was no obligation to be involved in social activities. “If you want to” was a constant refrain to espouse values of consent and eliminate social pressure.

Co-ops offer an affordable alternative to apartments where we actually have collective bargaining power, rather than being managed by landlords and building managers. When we give ourselves the power to choose and shape where we live, it’s empowering, and it equips us with skills to deal with normal life. The co-op feels like an organism, where each resident represents the little pieces and links that synchronise together and keep the house beating.