Consider a co-op

Charlie Saginaw

Before parents leave their children to explore the world on their own for the first time, they go through the process of cramming all of their child’s worldly possessions into dorms across campus. While parents might enjoy the supervision of resident assistants, cozy, shared living spaces and after-hours check-in desks, students might already be thinking: “I can’t wait to escape from this 15-floor dungeon with a recently refurbished lobby!” and already considering next year’s living arrangements.

Perhaps next year they can get their own place, probably an apartment in West Campus, Hyde Park or Riverside. After negotiating with a realtor, signing a mountain of leasing paperwork and paying a myriad of extraneous fees, they can finally be free. They are free to drive to H-E-B, cook for themselves and juggle the responsibility of writing monthly checks to the landlord, utility company and cable/Internet provider. When they discover their roommate’s insomnia-inducing love of techno music or decide they must satisfy the urge to study abroad for a semester in Spain, these unfortunate souls must fish for a “reliable” sublet on Craigslist or Facebook who will pay half of the monthly rent if they’re lucky.

But there’s an alternative.

Tucked away in West Campus, more than 900 students live in 15 student housing cooperatives. Co-ops — no, not the bookstore — provide a low-cost student housing community, complete with 15 hot meals a week, a room furnished with a desk and bed and no utility or Internet bills. While one of the larger co-op’s meal rooms boasts one of the best views of the Capitol and Austin skyline, smaller co-ops promote a close-knit feel and emphasize social justice. Unlike a landlord or realty company, co-ops are nonprofit organizations, owned and managed by student residents who pool their money and labor to provide amenities, food and an academic environment. Such cooperation results in affordable housing and an environment that teaches diverse life skills, ranging from interpersonal communication to onion-chopping.  

Maybe the mere mention of a co-op evokes images of a squid crash pad circa 1968 with Marxist literature scattered across the floor. Others might envision a smelly anarchist ranting about the Federal Reserve as he stirs a vat of green tofu stew and listens to The Smiths. Others might think of a co-oper as a fifth-year anthropology student looking to “escape the system, man,” or a shoeless 20-something who has been “taking some time off” since the late ‘90s.

In reality, co-ops are home to a diverse group of students. Sure, there are some anthropology majors, but there are also pre-med, fine arts and MBA students. Some co-ops also require all residents to be currently enrolled students. Meanwhile, foreign exchange students flock to co-ops from around the world because they have the option to lease for only one semester and there is a lack of housing options on campus. If college is about new experiences, try cooking lasagna for 100 hungry college students with a crew resembling the United Nations.

In tough economic times, co-ops also offer democratically elected leadership positions in exchange for rent scholarships. Instead of paying management companies to dodge responsibility, co-op leaders are elected by their peers. For example, a nutrition major can gain professional experience planning menus, and a business management major could oversee the co-op labor duties.   

In the coming months, before signing or renewing a lease, think of all your options. Consider price, convenience and what you want to gain from your college experience. Imagine after a difficult day coming back to a home instead of a dorm. In the end, how bad could cooperation be?

Saginaw is a history junior.