Co-Op Housing Draws Students

Off-campus home brings students together to cut costs, share labor.

AUSTIN, Texas, Dec. 9, 2008 -- Shivering in the cold, University of Texas senior Matt Coleman managed to look purposeful while holding a half-empty beer stein.

A party at the 21st Street Cooperative was raging while Coleman double-checked party-goers' ages. It was his job for the night. Or he could clean up after Saturday brunch. At least this way, there was beer involved.

"There's set labor time every week, and for parties, you've got to do a little extra," Coleman said.

As a student living at the 21st Street Co-op, Coleman is required to contribute four hours of labor each week to housing maintenance. Owned by Austin-based nonprofit College Houses, 21st Street Co-op has become something of an institution since opening next to the UT campus in 1974.

The co-op was founded as a way to embody cultural change and offer an alternative to the university's formal education structure, said Allen Robinson, College House's general administrator.

Changing Direction

"The original structure was more focused on education," Robinson said. "People were hired to cook and clean, and professors actually lived in the houses."

The nonprofit company opened in 1964 and started moving its modern cooperative labor structure in the late 1970s in order to save money, Robinson said.

"It was more cost effective," Robinson said. "It also helps to create and strengthen the community and creates a bond among the residents."

Rather than simply assign menial labor tasks, the 21st board of directors tries to use residents' special skills, says board chairman Thomas Butler.

"There's a haircutter, somebody to teach guitar lessons and, of course, people to make meals," Butler said.

The co-op has avoided making "traditional" assignments, such as relegating women to such duties as cooking and cleaning. It has never considered gender when making household assignments, says Jody Cross, the co-op's trustee.

"Anyone can pretty much do anything," Cross said. "There are just as many guys in the kitchen as there are girls."

Women can also find themselves in leadership roles pretty easily, Cross said.

"Man, woman, transgender," Cross added. "We are really open here."

The coop offers its 100 residents three meals a day, which are included in their monthly rent. All told, a single room costs $649 a month, including utilities, Robinson said.

West Campus is the student stronghold, a few blocks west of the UT campus. In recent years, the area has become filled with high-rise, high-end apartment buildings. It's increasingly common for students to pay a rent of four figures a month, though local real estate companies often list $750 as an average rent.

A Waiting List

Considering the price savings, it should be no wonder that 21st has a waiting list most semesters, though people who want to live in the co-op usually get a chance to, Coleman said.

"A lot of people move in and out," Coleman said. "Come to the parties and get to know some people and it's pretty easy to get in."

The co-op requires its new members to be accepted by a group vote, Coleman said.

Despite lacking many of the flashy amenities that new luxury complexes offer at West Campus, such as roof-top pools, liquid plasma TVs or state-of-the-art gym facilities, 21st Street's community spirit continues.

"Most apartment complexes negotiate utility rates with the company that provides them, then get a cut of the monthly bill," Robinson said. "So it's usually in the company's interest to charge you as much as possible."

At 21st Street, the board of directors, a panel of elected residents whose interest is to keep costs down, makes utility decisions, Robinson said.

"The board also sets the rent rates," said Robinson. "We're not looking to make money, just cover the cost of business."

The co-op has become much loved by students for many reasons over the years. The 21st birthday party is a big draw and has featured fire breathers and burning effigies of political figures in past years. This year there were 21 kegs, which is why Coleman had to be vigilant. And why he was checking his watch every other minute.

"I'm done at midnight," Coleman said. "I don't like having to be this guy, but some times you have to."

The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission has cracked down on drinking in the student neighborhood, making 21st Street a prime target.

Cracking Down

Police eventually responded to this year's party, too, residents and attendees said.

But such events only work to strengthen an already stable and thriving community. For Butler, the co-op is evidence that he has some impact on the world.

"Living here teaches you how much control you are in as a member of society," Butler said. "It's very self-actualizing."

Coleman admitted that finding a quite place to study can be hard and said he rarely studies at the co-op.

"I study in the library," he said. "The coop is always busy and loud."

Despite the minor complications, Coleman said his three years at 21st Street have been invaluable.

"Looking back, you get to meet so many people that you learn about people," Coleman said.