October is National Cooperative Month. The slogan for this years co-op month (and for the annual International celebration of Cooperatives) is “Cooperative Enterprises Build a Better World.” I can’t quite attest to the global impact of cooperatives, but I can to say a little something about the real and positive impact of cooperatives on a personal and local level. That’s because I have the good fortune of being part of a housing cooperative. I live in the second housing cooperative in Maine. We call ourselves the Faire Bande a Part Housing Cooperative, or Faire- Op for short. It’s named after a French film called “Bande a Part” and means to do something apart from the group.
At a glance, our little blue building looks like an average multi-unit apartment complex, but we function differently than a building full of strangers paying rent to an absent landlord. Instead, we operate more like an organism whose parts, in this case it’s occupants – four adults, three kids, two dogs, and two cats to be exact – live in and act as the sole decision makers of its future. (The kids cats and dogs aren’t voting members, but they do have quite a bit of influence on the decision making process).
How did an organism like the “Faire-Op” come to be? Like the birth of most organisms, the parts that made it whole had to have a common vision and a willingness to work together in order to make life and movement happen. No cooperative can exist without a common vision and a willingness to work together. When we came together in 2007 (“we” being four twenty-something-year-old do-gooders), our vision wasn’t yet entirely clear beyond wanting to start some-kind of cooperative, but we shared several core values and common history that ultimately led us in a single direction. We were all active members in our community and passionate about continuing to make the city a great place to live. We all had some experience working or living collectively and shared an interest in collectively owning a property with a mission that would positively impact our neighbors and friends. We did not have an interest in sharing one bathroom with seven people. The more we talked about possibilities, the more it also became clear to us that we found our current living situation as renters frustrating. We were tired of paying rent to absentee landlords who seemed like they had little investment in the neighborhood. We experienced first-hand the effects on a living space occupied by people with little power over their living situation – trash, vandalism and general unneighborly behavior, to name a few examples. Looking around, we also saw the need for creative affordable housing models to continue to make our neighborhood an accessible place to live for people of low to moderate income (we were all recent college graduates, with student loan debt and meaningful, but low paying, jobs). Not to say all our motives were totally altruistic. We were also practical. We wanted to save money and invest the money we were spending into our community and our futures. If we were going to pay rent, it might as well go towards something positive and leave us with a modest return. Thus began the humble beginnings of the Faire-Op, which in less than a year was a fully functioning non-profit corporation.
Fast forward five years, and the Faire-Op is still standing and has arguably helped to “build a better world,” in the micro-sense of the word, at least, for its inhabitants and the neighborhood which it resides. How has it done this? And, how might you begin to imagine something similar for yourself or your neighborhood? Here is a quick laundry list of some of what the Faire-Op has helped build and create, both literally and metaphorically:
1. A vegetable and flower garden grown in soil that was remediated by sunflowers! It helps to feed co-op members and is a definite improvement to the gravel driveway that was there before.
2. A fenced in backyard with play space for dogs and kids. Previously designated for parking, members of the Faire-Op opted to have more green space and less car space!
3. All new energy efficient windows for the entire building and a new back door. These were installed as part of our mission “to reduce the ecological footprint of residents through conservation and improvements in building energy efficiency,”
4. Policy changes at the state level regarding how housing cooperatives are thought of. Members of the Faire-Op worked with the Maine State Housing Authority to make it so housing cooperatives qualify for state heating assistance and lead removal programs
5. Education and outreach for the larger community. Faire-Op members have held multiple workshops to teach about the benefits of housing co-ops and how others can start their own, which is part of our mission.
6. Savings for all. The Faire-Op is a limited equity housing cooperative, which means we can’t charge more than we paid for our share in the building, helping future members still afford great housing BUT current members still make money on their investment by receiving a percentage of what they put towards the mortgage plus inflation when they leave the building and sell their share.
7. New floors in two of the three units. This is both a functional and aesthetic improvement!
8. Community. Both within and outside the Faire-Op we’ve been building community. It’s not always easy, and it takes work, but weekly pizza nights, music shows, potlucks, and neighborhood BBQ’s all help and make cooperative living that much more worthwhile.
And all this happened because we were working within the freedom of a housing coop model. A housing cooperative has the potential to offer many of the benefits of home-ownership without as much risk and a lot of shared creativity.
For more information on the Faire Band a Parte Housing Cooperative visit our Facebook page, send us an email at email@example.com, or check out a few of these articles:
What is a Housing Co-op?
Faire-Op a Model for Shared Housing in L/A
For more information on housing cooperatives in general, make sure to visit this completely awesome website www.coophousing.org.