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Co-ops: How Students On A Budget Can Beat Dorm Living

Cloyne Court student housing cooperative in Berkeley, CA.

CREDIT: Flickr/tsackett

For centuries, many progressives have seen cooperatives as a way to make economic life more equal and democratic. More on all that to come, but for now: cooperatives are a way for many students to save some serious money.

Amarro Nelson has lived at House of Commons in Austin, Texas for about six months. He’s a grad student at the University of Texas at San Antonio and landed a scholarship for a semester-long internship in the Texas state legislature. Looking for housing in a pricey city, “I ran into the cooperative,” he said, “and I was looking at how much it cost and the value they had and I thought that it would be a great fit for me.”

Nelson isn’t a UT-Austin student, but most of his housemates are. For them, the co-op living cuts their living expenses roughly in half. According to Austin’s Inter-Cooperative Council, a year of housing, utilities, and food in the co-op costs $6,347, while a year in the dorms is $10,715.

Co-op proponents say the savings come from the absence of a landlord who needs to work a profit into the price of rent, and that tenants benefit from economies of scale.

For example: About $100 of each House of Commons resident’s monthly rent goes towards purchasing food in bulk for the house—enough to feed residents breakfast and dinner on weekdays. House members take turns cooking for the group of 27.

The food system might be an apt symbol for life in a co-op writ large: It saves substantial time and money, but it does come with a few tradeoffs.

“When you live with so many people, of course you’ll have your issues at times,” Nelson said. “Sometimes there’s food where I’m just like ‘Oh my God, really?’ but then there’s some other times when it’s really good.”

The group solidarity that co-op living fosters can also translate into concrete economic benefits. According to Nelson, one of his housemates was recently caught off guard by a debt suddenly coming due, and the co-op was able to lend her money to cover the payment until she received her next paycheck.

Nelson said the group told her, “We understand your situation, we understand how hard you work.”

This post is the second in a series on student housing cooperatives. Read the first here. Next up: Can co-ops make student housing more democratic?

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