Co-op housing provides safe, affordable option for students

Mark Birkenstock

As freshmen are settling into their dorms or off-campus apartments this semester, many will discover that some inconveniences become apparent once the novel shine wears off their new homes away from home. Maybe your upstairs neighbors insist on partying until 3 a.m. on a Wednesday night. Or perhaps your quaint North Austin condo has equally quaint plumbing, and your landlord has adopted a decidedly relaxed attitude toward fixing it. But there’s nothing you can do about that, right? Especially if you want to live close to campus, it’s just accepted that you have to pay a high price for a mediocre living space.

Faced with this bleak landscape, I found an appealing alternative to typical student housing: co-ops. This year I am living at the Taos Student Housing Cooperative — one of seven co-ops that make up the College Houses cooperative organization — and I’m happy to confirm that cooperative living is definitely worthy of consideration for any student living in Austin.

Austin is home to many jointly-owned, student-run housing cooperatives that offer students affordable living space close to campus and allow residents to assume direct responsibility for keeping their housing looking nice and running smoothly. In addition to the seven College Houses, there are nine co-ops operating as part of the Inter-Cooperative Council, as well as some other independent co-ops. While rules vary between each house, co-op residents are generally expected to contribute a handful of hours each week to clean communal spaces, cook meals and help out with anything else their house needs to stay functioning.

It may not seem appealing to have to cook and clean in between doing homework and studying, but cooperative living does bestow some great benefits. Co-opers are never beholden to the whims of a lazy super when something needs fixing. And if your neighbor is too loud, you can bring them to task during regular house meetings. The Taos Co-op also has designated “quiet hours” during which it is agreed that everyone needs to turn down the music and let others sleep, a courtesy sorely lacking in dorm life.

Austin’s co-ops also work hard to keep rent low for students. The cost of living at a College Houses co-op is, on average, about half the price of living at the UT dorms. That price includes utilities, meals and a well-stocked pantry and fridge.

“I like the fact that many resources which I could not afford became available to me by living in a co-op,” said Nathan Prisco, chemical engineering senior and director of Taos Student Housing Cooperative. “[We] always have a fully stocked kitchen with crates of avocados. We have almost every cable channel imaginable.”

Living in a co-op is also a great way to take part in the larger cooperative movement, which encompasses much more than just housing. Any business in any industry can be organized as a cooperative, valuing its members and its community as much as its bottom line. The International Co-operative Alliance defines the core values of a co-op as self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity. Another way to think of the cooperative movement is that it encourages people to be thoughtfully engaged with both the production and consumption of the goods and services used in their community.

Austin has many businesses that operate according to these principles. The Wheatsville Co-op is a member-owned grocery store that provides fresh, high-quality foods. Then there’s the Red Rabbit Bakery, a vegan bakery owned entirely by its workers. 

So even if you’re stuck in a dorm and can’t move into a co-op house, there are a ton of ways to participate in Austin’s co-op culture. Joining local cooperatives is a great way to directly support the people of your community and promote the not-so-radical principles of self-reliance and responsibility toward your neighbors.

Birkenstock is a linguistics junior from Long Island, N.Y.