Cooperative housing has been slowly losing favor in the United States compared with condominium housing, but it ain’t dead yet, and its advocates are trying to resurrect it at a model for housing of the future.
Here in the East Bay, activists in housing cooperatives have formed an East Bay Cooperative Housing Coalition, and it has been holding quarterly meetings to explore possible forms of mutual assistance. The main organizations supporting the development of this coalition are the California Center for Cooperative Development and the Bay Area Community Land Trust.
Worldwide, the United Nations General Assembly has declared 2012 the International Year of Cooperatives. This includes worker, consumer, producer, and housing cooperatives.
You can find various stories about the advantages of cooperatives. In Berkeley Town House, the housing cooperative where I live, you’d be hard-pressed to find anybody with such a story to tell. When people occasionally propose converting BTH from a cooperative to a condominium association, screams of desecration ensue, but the reasons for preserving our cooperative status are not on people’s tongue tips. We’re a co-op because we’re a co-op.
Elsewhere, however, cooperativity is part of an economic world view, and its advocates articulate its virtues clearly. The Bay Area Community Land Trust, for example, has issued a promotional document about cooperatives, in which it explains that cooperatives are “democratically controlled” and make housing affordable. “They are living proof that workers don’t need a boss in order to have a successful business and provide good jobs; residents don’t need a landlord to create housing; farmers don’t need corporate agribusiness and the “free market” to produce and distribute food efficiently, and consumers don’t need mega-conglomerates or big banks in order to manufacture products, provide services, and manage their money. Co-ops demonstrate every day that cooperation works, and that competition is not necessary or natural. Cooperatives are a strong model for both self-help and societal transformation.” The document says that “many traditional businesses are going under due to the failure of the capitalist economic system.”
Tell that story to some of those who live at BTH, and you’ll get forceful rejoinders, because a few BTH co-owners are passionate advocates of minimally regulated competitive markets, a.k.a. capitalism. They see no conflict between a competitive economic system and a housing cooperative.
So, the cooperative movement is ideologically heterogeneous, and in fact its leading organizations have not even tried to define what a “cooperative” is. BTH is legally organized as a California consumer cooperative corporation, but people from several other local housing communities claim to be cooperatives on the basis of other attributes, such as having a landlord who invites the tenants to participate in community governance, or sharing cooking and other chores.
Cooperatives may continue to spread as a type of economic organization, but I doubt that it helps when one claims they have magical powers. In fact, cooperatives may be democratically or autocratically governed; they may treat their members equally or discriminatorily; and they may manage their internal economies effectively or with disastrous ineptitude (not to mention fraud). I have pontificated about this before. Anybody who joins a cooperative would be wise to assume that it’s about as hard to manage as, or even harder to manage than, a more centrally governed organization, and that it won’t necessarily stay truly cooperative without eternal vigilance.