Community of Urbana-Champaign Cooperative Housing to Reduce the Post-Pandemic Youth Housing Divide

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Harvest House on West Washington Street in Urbana, an early COUCH house. Photo courtesy of COUCH

Housing cooperatives have a long history in the US. In university towns like C-U, those laboratories of young people assume new importance in the post-pandemic city. Escaping the logic of a typical landlord-tenant agreement, members self-manage and maintain the houses in which they live. The Community of Urbana-Champaign Cooperative Housing (COUCH) was constituted at the end of the 1990s through the efforts of a group of current and former university students. Fast-forward to 2019: COUCH has evolved to consist of three houses and 37 members. The total number of members that have at one point passed through COUCH since its foundation exceeds five hundred. For organizations like COUCH, the pandemic meant two years of crisis and deep transformation. In 2023, the first year in which the co-op has reverted almost to its pre-pandemic state by reducing the vacancy rate that characterized the previous two years, it is a good moment to reflect on the state of the group and to look at the larger role of youth housing co-ops in the US.

COUCH’s history is a fitting example of why we need to assess the role of self-managed arrangements in youth housing after the pandemic. Housing providers, planners, and policymakers tend to subdivide housing into sectors so that, for instance, housing solutions are targeted at university students, young families, or young people in need of temporary shelter. This sectorialization hides the fact that youth housing is a stage of all people’s lives, and a moment in which young people may develop solidarity with people they wouldn’t otherwise have met.

The logic of co-ops started by students in university towns is to combine the need for affordable accommodation with the opportunity to maintain and adapt the existing housing stock and to prevent its condemnation and demolition. And it’s important to note that youth housing co-ops can benefit more than just students. The student cooperative housing system was born out of a need to address high housing costs during the Great Depression, and to fight against exclusion mechanisms. While the context has evolved, it’s encouraging to see that students are still involved in cooperative movements, particularly when it comes to housing.

Informative material distributed in Champaign-Urbana to promote the culture of cooperative living. © COUCH, used with permission

A global debate has developed recently on the commodification of housing—its transformation into a good or service that is bought and sold in the market—and the disruptive effects on youth. This has been exacerbated by the pandemic, which comes with its own impacts on finances, people’s well-being, and changing life perspectives. Data published in 2022 by the National Center for Homeless Education show that the number of students who experienced homelessness increased by 63 percent between 2004/05 and 2020/21, with an average increase of 4 percent per year. Being a homeless youth means not having access to stable and adequate housing, i.e., youth living in cars, unhealthy homes, or unstable accommodations. During the school year 2020/21, more than 85,000 students in their senior year of high school were homeless immediately before applying for college. Housing insecurity is also a problem for higher-education students because of the unsustainable cost of education and living, including housing, food, and services, combined with job loss during the pandemic.

Some cooperatives also provide stable housing solutions through collective ownership of the houses or support organizations that keep the houses out of the instability of the private market. For example, COUCH leases its houses from a larger nonprofit organization called North American Students of Cooperation Properties (NP), activating a mechanism of financial solidarity between North American co-ops. NP was born in the late 1980s as a “co-op of co-ops.” Today NP owns 20 buildings, four of which were added to its portfolio in June, and three of which are part of COUCH. NP bought all three COUCH houses from private landlords. COUCH is one of seven co-ops in the US leasing their houses from NP. COUCH representatives sit on the NP board, whose functions include supporting the yearly maintenance of the properties and supporting the members in upgrading the houses. In contrast to landlord-managed properties, by-laws of formalized organizations like NP define specific conditions to protect the interests of the community of people and houses, not only the rights of individuals within the housing sector. NP is the largest organization in the country supporting group-equity (rent-based as opposed to cooperatively owned) cooperatives, whereby member cooperatives lease from NP. A majority of NP’s Board is required to consist of elected cooperative residents. Group-equity cooperatives maintain affordability by keeping rents under the market rate, and they use collective equity from property value increases to support member services and new property purchases.

In U-C, COUCH members are responsible for interviewing and accepting new members with the support of North American Students of Cooperation (NASCO), which provides guidelines and training. It is a delicate process at the local scale, as members must respect the Fair Housing Act—Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968—that prohibits discrimination in housing-related aspects. Being part of this fully self-managed co-op demands an understanding of fair housing laws, and learning how to collectively prevent individual and group discrimination in society, starting in housing. The house must record the specific reasons when rejecting a potential member, such as a demonstrated lack of conflict-navigation skills in the interview process or from personal references, to ensure the rejection is not discriminatory.

The Randolph House, recently included in the COUCH family, in the building of the former Worker House on S. Randolph St. in Champaign. © COUCH, used with permission

Many young people and young adults join a co-op because they previously lived in one or know people who have. It is also not uncommon to have people in their twenties, thirties, and forties who are not connected to the university system living in this co-op. Developing non-discriminatory practices and ways to address misconduct or conflict is becoming more and more relevant as recruitment aims to incorporate and support people with different backgrounds and lifestyles. COUCH is currently revisiting its by-laws to include more robust processes for addressing non-cooperative behaviors, in addition to setting up an alumni advisory board to help the U-C co-op groups navigate the complexity of the post-pandemic period. Students have dropped their studies during or after the pandemic; people have been restructuring their lives; and young people are emerging from years of disconnection from other people. COUCH works to encourage objectives, projects, and shared desires that can help people feel less lonely. Integrated services such as meals, transport, and emergency intervention are part of the solidarity co-ops informally provide, increasing the quality of members’ lives.

Community meal for members of the Community of Urbana-Champaign Cooperative Housing. © COUCH, used with permission

COUCH and youth housing co-ops are systems that might reduce inequalities in cities. Part of the reason COUCH was able to survive the pandemic is the support it received from NASCO, the legacy of the 1946 North American Student Cooperative League. COUCH joined NASCO in 2000, and the North American organization is now present in 25 cities, including Chicago, Boston, and San Francisco, where youth inequality is increasing. There is undoubtedly great potential in North American housing co-ops, also to address the global housing problem of students and youth. For instance, last May in Italy, a wave of protests started in the main Italian university cities: students camped at the entrances to university buildings to protest post-pandemic rent increases. The long tradition of alternative housing solutions such as student and youth co-ops has tested and reinforced non-speculative models.

After the pandemic, cities are places where inequalities are becoming greater and sharper, and university towns are sites where alternatives exist. Exploring the potential of an alliance between students housing co-ops and larger urban communities could be as interesting as it is necessary. It’s a horizon worth pursuing, and one that could lead to a more equitable and just society for all.

To find out more about the COUCH Project visit their website.

Marilena Prisco is a postdoctoral researcher in urban planning at the University of Naples “Federico II” in Italy. She is visiting the UIUC Department of Urban and Regional Planning as part of the Fulbright Visiting Scholar Program, developing work on post-pandemic youth networks in Italy and the USA. She joined COUCH as a researcher and activist in November, 2022.

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