A co-op, in certain references, is a type of store where the customers are the members, and sometimes even the producers. Think food co-op or eating co-op, or REI, or the like.

A co-op, in cerain OTHER references, is a type of internship. RIT, for example, requires that comp-sci majors, along with other majors, have four quarters of co-op before achieving a Bachelor's Degree

I help to manage the finances for the last remaining food co-op on Long Island. This co-op operates a convenience store sized food retail outlet plus a thrift store. Our co-op also provides rehabilitation services for the severly mentally ill and developmentally disabled.

When our co-op says it is "non for profit", we mean it. The revenue from the food and thrift store barely covers minimum business expenses such as the telephone, computer supplies, promotional material, and the salaries of those who work there (excluding the rehabilitation clients.) While a Board of Directors attends to the legal and sophisticated financial operation of the co-op, two bookkeepers keep tabs on the day to day cash flow through the system.

Most food is ordered in bulk, either directly by co-op members or by the store manager. Lots are usually obtained from warehouses that specialize in stocking food cooperatives. Most grocery products are of the "no frills" economy brand variety; there is also a wide selection of vegetarian, vegan, and organic foodstuffs.

Our co-op (barely) thrives on its ability to provide its patrons with rare items not found at the local mass retail supermarket. For example, our store stocks a zillion different types of soy protein, variety not usually found at the A&P. Most members, including board members, use the co-op as a way to supplement their diets with interesting items, find knicknacks in the thrift shop, and congregate around the cash register as if the center of the store was an agora. This, I think, is the most important part of a buying club. Co-ops bring people together who happen to enjoy a good deal on fava beans.

There are a number of student housing cooperatives all over the nation, most notably in Ann Harbor, Michigan (NASCO) and in Berkeley (USCA). These houses, like all co-ops, operate on the we-own-it we-run-it basis with member economic participation democratic (and occasionally egalitarian) government. The housing co-ops manage to stay cheap because all of their labor is done by their members ("workshifts"). Not suprisingly, the co-ops are often centers of vegetarianism, anti-war movements, marijuana smoke and other attributes of hippidom.

What is a co-op?

A co-op is an organization that that follows the cooperative principles. There are a bunch of those, but getting right down to it, a co-op is a democratically-run, socialist organization--that is, the people who use it, own it.

The user-owner part varies from co-op to co-op. It can mean the people living in it (a housing co-op), who work at it (a worker co-op), who shop at it (a consumer co-op), or who bank at it (a credit union). The level of involvement will vary from co-op to co-op. With my credit union, it mostly means the profits aren't going to the rich capitalist owners, but instead it's run for the benefit of the members. At consumer co-op REI, I get dividends back on my purchases. At my local grocery co-op, I get some special discounts, and there are annual elections for the board of directors. At my housing co-op, though, man oh man, the nineteen of us living in the house control almost everything, and the 188 residents elect the entire board (and are 13/15 of it), which ultimately controls all the rest.

As such, when I think about co-ops, everything other than worker and housing co-ops pale in comparison, in my eyes. Since I don't work at a worker co-op, let me tell you about living in a student housing co-op, and what it means.

The view from a member of the Inter-Cooperative Council in Austin1

ICC Austin is a co-op comprising (as of 2015) nine houses housing 188 students. Each house sends one member to serve on the board of directors, and the membership as a whole elects four officers from within our ranks, and two non-residents from outside our ranks, to form a fifteen-member board of directors, which oversee our staff of three and two halves. As such, collectively, that 188 member body has complete control over the organization. More saliently, though, the nineteen people living in my house have semi-complete control over how our house runs.

And it runs quite well, usually, and it's usually quite wonderful. Here are some reasons why:

We have assigned labor

Everyone who has ever shared an apartment or house has tried to divide up chores, but being larger and more democratic than most families, we've had to get it down pat. We got structure.

Each member is assigned 4-6 hours of labor per week (depending on the co-op; each person in a house should have the same). In student co-ops, these are assigned at the beginning of each semester based on their availability and preferences.

Some common labor positions are:

  • Common area cleans (living room, other living room, bathrooms, shed) - each once per week
  • Mid-day kitchen clean (someone each day)
  • Dinner cook (1-3 people each day with dinner)
  • Dinner clean (generally 2-3 people; sometimes explicitly separated into doing the dishes and other tasks)
  • Clean the fridge (toss old leftovers, etc.)
  • Cook a bunch of guff food outside of dinner (giant tub o' hummus is always welcome)
  • Food runs (We have a lot of people and a tight budget, so it's common to have weekly trips to Costco, a regular grocery store, a more-bulk-than-Costco grocery store, and often a bulk produce delivery.)
  • Yardwork
  • ...and all the officer positions, which are special and detailed below.

if you don't do your labor, you get punished. This may involve a small fine, it may involve make-up labor, and it will almost always involve a strike/faux pas/love bite--get too many of those in a semester/year and you're up for member review. We don't want to kick you out, but if you're ignoring your chores, we can, should, and will.

Officers

In addition to assigning labor positions, there are some authority-type positions we elect. This also varies house-to-house, but there are some common themes:

  • Trustee/President: This person is technically in charge. They will help handle conflicts or issues as they arise (one thing we always mention is that if the police show up at a party, the Trustee gets to talk to them), and will chair the house meetings (typically every 1-2 weeks)
  • Labor Czar: This is the person who assigns labor, and (this is the hard part) the person who ensures everyone is doing their labor.
  • Kitchen Manager/Food Buyer/Head Chef: This can be several positions, or just one. This may involve keeping the kitchen up to code (a 100-person house usually needs to meet commercial kitchen regulations). The biggest portion is compiling shopping lists each week. This involves collecting/developing the week's menus (so cooks aren't winging it with whatever happens to be around), seeing which non-cooks' foods we need more of, and making it all fit in a tight, tight budget.
  • Treasurer: This is the gatekeeper to the house funds. They keep the house checkbook and any cash we may have independent of the regular house funds. (Official house money can't be used to buy booze, but our own personal pool of money can.)
  • Membership Officer: This person introduces prospective members to the house. Schedule them to come to a dinner/meeting, give them a house tour, explain to them what they're getting into.
  • Education Officer: This is the gatekeeper to the house fun. Yeah, "education officer" means "person who plans the parties". Also some non-party events. But let's be real: mostly parties.
  • Board Representative: Each house sends one person to serve on the board of directors, and this is that person. This person should also keep the house aware of what's going on at the board level.
  • Maintenance Officer: Handle minor repairs and contact someone who can for things you can't.
  • Yardmaster: If you have a nice yard, you might want one person organizing all the yardwork, beyond just the Labor Czar.
  • Secretary: Take minutes at meetings; maintain the house manual.
  • Tech Officer: keep our wifi and Internet connection going strong. Maybe maintain a house printer and/or computer. Shared media box full of movies? Sure, why not?

Finances

Something like $115 of each person's rent (or "work share" or "cost share" in some co-ops) each month gets deposited into the house checking account, and this money is used to stock our homey industrial kitchen with guff2 food, as well as cleaning supplies, and some basic house maintenance/improvements (major issues are dealt with by the central office using the rest of our rent moneys).

Why this is great

  • You get to live in a house, but it's usually cheaper than most college housing.
  • You're in college and you're not living on Ramen. You get a home cooked dinner five nights a week, and a fully-stocked kitchen all the time. ("Fully-stocked" includes Ramen if you really want it.)
  • You're learning to be a person. Learn to cook dinner for twenty people. Learn basic house maintenance. Learn conflict mediation. That Board Rep position? How many college students can say they've sat on the board for a multi-million dollar organization?

I'm guessing this is similar to living in a frat/sorority, except instead of mommy and daddy paying tens of thousands of dollars so professional gardeners can tend your perfect lawn and professional chefs can cook your food, you learn how to do it yourself. (Yeah, the lawn is a lot less perfect than the sororities, but it's yours.)

Additionally, co-ops tend to be very liberal/progressive/hippie. Being co-ed usually leads to you being a lot less misogynistic than a frat might, though that might be selection bias. Diversity is often a weak point. In my experience, co-ops often have plenty of queer folks, but often are very white. (Granted, mine is at a very white university, but we tend to be more white and definitely less black.)

Control

While the rent rates are set at the board level, and there are organization-wide policies, we control most things. Of the house discretionary funds we get (that $115/person/mo.), we can buy food and the like as we see fit. If we want to be 100% vegan, we can buy all vegan food. If we want to buy a pool table with that money, we can buy a pool table.

Throughout my time, we've had meat option at meals and we've had vegetarian with a vegan option3. One house in our organization isn't just 100% vegan meals, but prohibits you from bringing meat onto the property. Another refuses to have a vegetarian option at all and proudly proclaims meat at every meal. We've merged tech officer with maintenance (and then unmerged), combined kitchen manager into one position, and added/subtracted/merged/split dozens of labor positions. We stopped fining people and added a strike system and member review policy. If we wanted, we could make labor three hours per person, or ten. We could say "no more Labor Czar--labor is managed with this novel new system! We've set a pet limit of three in the entire house and then completely abandoned it when that prospective member's cat was just soooo cute. We've redefined what it means to abstain in a vote. We've established penalties for having piles of dirty dishes in your room when there are only so many cups to go around4.

We have to abide by the cooperative principles--democracy, fair treatment of members. But those restrictions aren't really holding us back from doing anything we should be doing.

Downsides

You live with a lot of people. Some have a different messiness tolerance than you do. Some have very different sleep schedules and/or noise tolerances than you do. Some will want to spend the food budget on avocados and others on fancy coffee. Some people will have different opinions on what constitutes cleaning the fridge than you do.

Some will just get on your nerves because of who they are and who you are. Seriously, you didn't move into a house with three already well-known and vetted friends. It's ~20 (or ~30 or ~150) semi-random people. Maybe you got to meet them and vote on them briefly, but my co-op used to do that (come to two dinners, fill out an application, and then we'll vote on you), and I don't think we did any better than our current "come to two dinners, fill out an application, and you're automatically accepted" method. I know I voted against some great co-opers and for some terrible ones back in the day.

You might all be progressive hippie types, you'll be different progressive hippies, so you'll not just meet but really get to know a lot of people whom you otherwise would likely know in passing at best. This will sometimes be unpleasant, but can make you a much better person. You'll likely have the opportunity to learn good conflict mediation strategies, and plenty of opportunity to practice them.

Why I'm still here

I've lived in Seneca Falls Co-op for eight years (with one summer at New Guild Co-op). It's had some major ups and some major downs over the past eight years, and throughout it all, even when my thought was "I gotta move out of this place", it was also "co-ops should be the norm in housing". Even when I considered moving out, it was always "Whitehall Co-op is really beautiful; maybe I should move there. Sasona Co-op has it together. I should move there." I don't want to live in an apartment by myself.

Because, really, do you need a whole house just for one or two people? Does it make sense for you to have your own fully-stocked kitchen just for you? And alternatively do you want to not have a fully stocked kitchen? And do you want to go grocery shopping every week? (Hint in my case: I have no car. Don't need one. Other people go grocery shopping for me.)

Housing co-ops are centers of community--the best communities I've seen. I suspect they're where I learned what democracy really is, and, as an American, perhaps my only experience with a truly functional democracy.

Relevant external links to things I mentioned

  • ICC Austin - the co-op system in which I live (and serve on the board)
  • Seneca Falls Co-op - the co-op in which I live
  • ICC Ann Arbor - our namesake, and home to three co-ops at which I've stayed for the weekend
  • Whitehall Co-op - an independent co-op nearby, which doesn't look all that impressive form the outside, but is too beautiful to be a co-op on the inside
  • Sasona Co-op - a semi-independent co-op in Austin (it's part of a two-house organization now)
  • College Houses - an ICC-like organization in Austin, but with those 150+ member houses
  • NASCO - the North American Students of Cooperation, the major student housing co-op meta-organization

Footnotes

1 I believe we're the fourth largest co-op system in the US, though I'm not certain. I believe the biggest co-op systems are Berkeley Student Cooperative, Inter-Cooperative Council in Ann Arbor, College Houses in Austin, and Inter-Cooperative Council in Austin. Between these four, I'm pretty sure we're over 50% of student co-op housing in the US.

2 GUFF: General Use Food and Furniture, or (according to a sign in Nakamura House's kitchen in Ann Arbor) "General Unrestricted Free Food". This is food owned collectively that we all may partake in as we see fit, as opposed to the bottle of wine I bought and labelled with my name don't drink this it's mine.

3 And vegetarian with gluten-free and nut-free options, vegetarian with gluten-free and mushroom-and-avocado-free options, vegetarian with gluten-free and vegan options. We choose accommodate the needs of our housemates with their bizarre and inconvenient allergies.

4 "Come on, this can't be a problem. Just buy more cups!" Oh, we have plenty, but if two exceptionally messy people each have fifteen empty coffee mugs in their rooms, the shelf can start looking a little sparse.

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