The Santa Barbara Student Housing Co-op (SBSHC) recently received a big assist in funding for its next project: the acquisition and renovation of what will be the next student cooperative.
The funding is coming in the form of a Community Development Block Grant, which the SBSHC reportedly received as an agency that removes blight. The nonprofit’s four existing student co-ops, all in Isla Vista, also provide affordable housing to students in an area where it can easily cost $800 a month to share a room. They are regarded affectionately as community spaces and places of innovation and sustainability. Some people call them madhouses; others, a worthy experiment.
Emily Lippold Cheney, the executive director at SBSHCS, said cooperative housing models are more sustainable than federal housing models. This, she said, is a result of the all-encompassing responsibility of ownership—extending from the paint on the walls to the plants in the garden—plus the constant feedback provided by the other members of the cooperative.
Each person living in the house is a member-owner who is paying off the mortgage, as well as investing in SBSHC to provide administrative guidance. The food is shared communally, which saves plenty of money every month. Members typically pay about $100 a month to eat a largely local and organic diet.
The co-ops are as well social experiments: Stick twenty college kids in a house and see what happens. Every couple of years, people say, there are a few live wires who electrify a house. A couple of years ago, for instance, it’s rumored that nudity was the height of fashion in at least one of the four houses. The kitchens and living rooms are often heated with debate about feminism, politics, or art. Sometimes gardening is in season; sometimes it’s music and partying. Whatever it is, the system has a reputation for challenging convention and comfort in a way that encourages constructive growth.
Mohamed, who wished to keep his last name anonymous, is a self-proclaimed nudist and graduate of the student co-op housing system. He said he doesn’t like to be limited by rules based in what he called “unquestioning acceptance of restriction.” Before he moved into a co-op, he said, public nudity would never have entered his mind. However, after living in such an open, accepting environment, he began to question many things, including the function of clothing.
“Why subject yourself to that warmth and uncomfortability when there’s no rational reason not to?” he asked rhetorically. As a computer engineering student, Mohamed maintained a 4.0 GPA and worked for Google straight out of college. He recently returned from Israel, where he was peacefully protesting “racial injustice” on behalf of the Palestinians. He said that Biko, the house where he lived, on Sueno Road, played a definite role in the path he has chosen, giving him courage and strength to do what he wanted to do and invest himself in activism.
Cheney said that a co-op is about making oneself a better person. Living in community poses many challenges, but she views these as opportunities for personal growth. “A co-op serves as a smaller-scale version of reality,” said Cheney, “so that you can learn to understand a system and apply that understanding telescopically.” She added, “It’s about figuring out who you are and understanding that who you are affects other people. You learn that more intimately when you’re sharing a house and have to constantly communicate with other people.” The ability to cooperate is a learned skill, she said, invaluable in every community.
Most student housing co-ops are organized under the North American Students of Cooperation. Outside of the student world, co-ops take on forms varying from collectives to communes to intentional communities. Even condos and trailer parks can be co-ops.