By: Shannon Mullery
Austin’s Co-Operative living scene for college students enjoys a status among the ranks of cities nation-wide, such as Berkeley, Ann Arbor, and Seattle; however, the basic principles and advantages of co-operative living go far back. Before student co-operatives started popping up, various non-traditional intentional communities historically provided affordable housing and divided house responsibilities, for people of various backgrounds. The benefits of co-operative living are not limited to college students seeking cheap rent and people to party with. Hidden in the suburbs of South Austin, not far from Bouldin Creek or SoCo, Sunflower Co-Op is a vegetarian, (roughly) eight-person house that lies atop a grassy hill, wedged between residential and family homes.
SMEAR interviewed three current members, Laura Aavang, Emma Chevalier, and Maya Smith, to discuss how a small, adult co-operative is run and sustained, and find out what unique advantages and challenges have been a part of their respective experiences living there.
How It Works (Structure/Rules)
SMEAR: Can you tell me about how your unique house operations?
Laura Aavang: We have very little turnover as a house. People tend to live here for 2+ years - right now, there’s a woman living who’s been living here for 17 years - but just recently there was a wave of people that moved out and we’ve been filling spots for the past four months. I was the last person to come in, because it’s consensus based everyone needs to be in agreement about who comes in. We have this whole interview process. Prospective members have to interview with everyone in the house, then we discuss them and vote on them and there’s a probation period. One month in you have to interview with everyone again and talk about if there are any problems, and then another month later you do it again. I just got cleared, recently, so that’s good.
Emma Chevalier: When you have a lot of people who co-operatively, actually own something that’s worth money, it’s a lot different than just living in a house. Also, our house, if you’ve ever lived here and been voted in, you’re a member for life, so there’s this compound group of people - everyone has an equal vote… The amount of voices continues to grow every year.
Maya Smith: Yeah, technically if you’ve ever lived here, you have a vote.
S: How does that work legally, for everyone to be a member?
EC: We’re all members of a non-profit; the non-profit is Sunflower Co-Operative.
MS: Instead of a landlord standing over us and charging us however much they want, we set our own rent based on what we need, and we actually have to be careful not to pay too much rent because we have to be careful not to spend too much rent.
LA: We also have a lot more responsibility, because if you live at ICC and have something break, you have someone to fix that. Here, we take care of that.
EC: There are really different kinds of co op structures and different laws in every state.
S: What about meetings and labor?
LA: Meetings are every week on Sunday night, 7:30, usually about an hour long - I know ICC has officer positions; for our house meetings we kind of rotate jobs, so there’s the facilitator who kind of runs things and keeps things in order. Then we have the note-taker who takes notes on the meeting, the task master who’s in charge of like - so someone says there’s a job that needs to be done so they write it down, then at the end of the meeting they read all the tasks… and then so we’re consensus based so we have to make decisions all in agreement... And then we have, in addition to the meeting roles, we have different committees So we also have a board which also includes some past members, and an accountant, so whenever big decisions are made for example, taking out a tree. If something costs over 1000 dollars we need to get that reviewed. Then there’s other stuff, like garden, maintenance, budget, facebook, email - that’s kind of my job right now - so we kind of divide the roles up that way, too.
S: Cool, so is labor volunteer-based, or assigned?
LA: Yeah, we kind of just like sign up. There’s also a really interesting one called legacy - we’ve been around for 35 years and they’ve created a legacy fund over the years. It’s like several thousand dollars, and I’m also on the committee that organizes that.
Economic Benefits and Challenges
S: How does your house maintain itself financially?
LA: That’s an amazing thing about living in this Co-op – this is an amazing area. There’s a house for sale next door for over a million dollars. We pay $700 [monthly] for rent, utilities and food combined, and I don’t think you would be able to find that in this area.
MS: And that’s while putting away a great deal of that money for savings and maintenance, looking forward.
LA: I personally would love to see the independent co-op community expand in Austin. I know when I was looking, it was kind of hard and it can get pretty competitive, too. A lot of times there’s just not openings, and stuff like that. I’ve heard of new, independent co-ops being opened, but I haven’t seen much besides that directory that’s online. Most people I know in co-ops kind of fall in love with that way of living in college, and it would be great to see more options for when they graduate. Another difference about our house is that we legally own the house - the mortgage is paid off.
MS: It created a problem, actually, because for years people worried about what would happen when the mortgage was paid off and we could just theoretically live here for free, without realizing that property taxes are significantly higher than the mortgage ever was. The cost of living here never reduced.
EC: We have to be so aware, because non-profits are held to standards that LLC’s or for-profit organizations are not, and you have to know exactly what to do-- report very specific information, be completely transparent. And in some ways that is really helpful, because no matter who lives here, there’s a law outside of the co-op that holds it accountable for complete transparency, and not-corruption. But at the same time, you have to be married to these laws that are outdated, irrelevant and not made for your structure.
Community and Family
S: What are your personal experiences with living here?
LA: I moved in August, and I’ve lived at two co-ops before this.
EC: I moved in here seven years ago, moved away three years ago, left the state for four years, and I just came back.
MS: I moved in at the same time Emma did, and came back two years ago.
S: What made you decide to move back?
MS: I actually was traveling for those two years, like I never really settled anywhere else, so it was kind of like coming home. I was with my husband then, and that’s an interesting element of it - when I first lived with Emma, I was married, which I’m no longer married, and Laura's never met my husband, so it’s different generations. I spent the first three years here, married. I left, and me and my husband travelled, then we came back to Austin with the intention of living a kind of more traditional Austin lifestyle, which I found out I didn’t like. So I came back here, because it’s fantastic. We went through a divorce. There were people here when I was happily married and nothing else, but the poor group of people who lived here when I came back for that year ... actually, this house has had a lot of people here going through transitions.
LA: Married couples.
MS: There have been married couples – a lot of people have come here after big break-ups. Another member moved here when he was divorced, and his son kind of grew up halfway here. So that was a big deal for him. Someone else who lives here moved in after an engagement ended - it’s a good place to catch us. Student co-ops are fantastic, because they’re a good support network for people who haven’t like found their way in the world yet. But adult, community co-ops provide a great community… No one does really well in isolation, and being a grown-up is a really isolating thing sometimes. We see a lot of career changes and changes in relationships, and it’s great for that. It really is.
Another difference between student co-ops [and Sunflower] is, because people live here for a long time, we kind of become adults here and learn how to become adults. Between the people who lived here now and the people who kind of started the place, we seem to have increased our expectations for what we want for the comfort levels of the house. I remember we bought a new refrigerator, we wanted it to be energy efficient and to last and be good, and I was talking to someone who lived here in the early ‘90’s and they said, “Man, I remember when we had a stove, the window was broken, so we just had this heater,” and they said it in this sense of like, “You kids have it so good! You should’ve toughed it out like we did.”
I don’t think they expected it to last this long, first of all. They invested over thirty years ago, and they did something wonderful and created something beautiful, and they moved on and a lot of them are still involved in our lives, which is fantastic. But the people living here now, I think more of us think of it as a forever home, or maybe a starter home, so we think about in terms of, “How do we make it as comfortable as possible? How do we make our home a home?” Even the youngest of us have to learn how to be very mature, very quickly.
LA: I’ve certainly lived in other co-ops before where it is that kind of hippie, run-down environment.
EC: I’m a little sassy lady, and I want all the nice things.
S: What are your favorite memories in the house, respectively?
EC: The garden in the spring. The poppies and larkspur growing higher.
LA: I think mine is just anytime the house gets together, when we go on walks or watch movies together. Just those little community moments - we actually call them co-op moments and give points for them - anytime that you just get that feeling that this is kind of your second family, that’s my favorite.
MS: I think my favorite memories involve actual family coming over here. I have a bunch of nieces and nephews. I was gone for a couple of years but that’s nothing to a little kid, so in some ways they’ve grown up here. My niece has spent a lot of summers here, playing in the garden and chasing the chickens. This is the only home I have that my niece in Ohio has ever been to, and that’s really special to me.