This eco house

Living cheap, green and fun in a co-op

Resident Michael Konieczki tunes up his bike and shows his co-op pride.

Resident Michael Konieczki tunes up his bike and shows his co-op pride.

Photo By VIncent King

cob building

Remember those weird “co-ops” from college? The perpetually filthy and dilapidated house; the dreadlocked, shoeless boarders; the permanent stench of beer and bong water soaked into the couches?

Well, co-ops are still around in various forms, but they’ve grown up alongside their quickly yuppifying neighbors. What was once an excuse for collegiate excess is now a viable housing alternative that’s cheap, sustainable and still a helluva lot of fun.

Co-ops vary in ownership details, but the principles remain the same: a bunch of people live together who are invested equally in the future of the property. Some hard-liners will say this must entail equitable ownership interest for all parties, but a rental co-op does not differ at all in day-to-day functioning.

At least two such properties exist in Sacramento. I know this because I live in one of them.

On the surface, our house isn’t much different from many others in Midtown that have been subdivided and rented out to a gaggle of 20-going-on-30-something-year-olds. But on a philosophical level—if a house can have one—we are a community of 12 people seeking a higher plane of social, environmental and residential bliss.

A few essential elements make a co-op. The first, according to house owner and former co-op mate Chris Ganson, is shared food. He should know, as he lived in co-ops in Berkeley, Santa Cruz and Sacramento (including the two he started) before heading back to school to earn a master’s degree in city planning.

“The feel in a co-op is completely different from a house where a bunch of people live and each has their own shelf in the fridge,” he said. Maybe that’s because myriad interactions and negotiations unfold when five people battle over who gets the final egg for breakfast or who gets to take last night’s leftovers for lunch.

The kitchen becomes the nucleus from which all co-op life emanates, and food the major rallying point. We each take turns shopping at the organic grocer of our choice, we compost all our fruit and veggie scraps, and we even planted a garden. Explicitly green actions, such as reusing food waste and growing our own food, become much more feasible when labor is split among 12 people instead of just one or two.

There’s also an implicit element of environmentalism that works its way into the ethos of a co-op: Sharing resources is an inherent way of minimizing one’s carbon footprint. Whether that’s reducing the amount of land used or maximizing the number of bodies heated or cooled with gas and electricity, cooperative living is gentler on the Earth than going it alone.

On a per-person basis, energy consumption is much lower than in a standard house or apartment. “In a single-family home, especially a big one, how well-utilized are all the rooms? You’re heating and cooling space that is occupied a tiny fraction of the time,” Ganson said.

Plus, it’s an instant “smart-growth pill,” he added. Co-ops take advantage of existing homes for urban infill instead of encouraging young folks to move into pre-fabricated condos in the sprawling suburbs, where rent or mortgage is low but infrastructure for work and play is distant.

The savings in time and money realized through collective action and packing a big house full of people frees up those resources to be spent elsewhere—like installing solar panels. And you’ve got all the friends you need right there under your own roof, so forget driving all the way to San Francisco to have a brew with a buddy.

Many of the environmental benefits that co-ops generate are far less tangible, however. Brian Fischer, founder of 100 Minds Network, a local nonprofit organization, lives in another house owned by Ganson, sharing the space with his wife, two daughters and three other housemates. He sees his co-op as a vital instrument of social progress in a fragile neighborhood ecosystem.

“The co-op is a bastion that allows you to strengthen and get emotional sustenance and engage people in the streets,” he said. That kind of support has been essential, as Fischer has launched a ground attack against violence and prostitution in Oak Park, the neighborhood in which his co-op is located.

During his first year, Fischer witnessed a murder and listened to nightly exchanges of gunfire. But instead of heading for the hills, he and his co-op mates dug in and made an attempt at revitalizing the neighborhood.

Co-ops also are lending credence to the economic viability of alternative housing options. While traditional home ownership may be beyond the means of many young families, a co-op provides an affordable, short-term solution within the city limits.

“We don’t want to live in suburbia. We don’t want to be priced out of the central city,” Fischer said. “We want to maintain the connection and have access to urban culture and amenities.”

Co-ops help beat back the tide of slumlords that buy up valuable property in the city but have no interest in the longevity of the neighborhood. Why not find a way for local residents to invest in their own community?

Thankfully, those in charge of shaping Sacramento’s housing landscape are taking note. At a presentation during a city council meeting in November, representatives from the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency and the City of Sacramento Planning Department heard from David Thompson, co-op guru responsible for creating hundreds of limited-equity cooperative-housing communities worldwide.

Thompson traced the evolution of cooperative housing from its beginnings in Rochdale, England, to modern incarnations in Davis. From massive Soviet bloc-style workforce apartment complexes to quaint row houses purchased one-by-one by neighbors working together, co-ops have offered affordable housing options for more than 150 years.

Here in Sacramento, cooperative housing might be just the thing to help fight suburban sprawl and provide affordable housing where gentrification threatens to push working-class folks farther into the city’s outskirts. And beneath the surface, co-ops promote sustainable development and lend themselves to the sort of collective action that makes green living possible.