As housing costs rise in Austin and many are forced to consider whether they can afford living in the city, some advocates are looking to less conventional housing models as possible solutions.
Cooperative housing—a model in which residents of a house or apartment complex share ownership of the property and manage it democratically—is not new to Austin, but what many associate with college housing is becoming increasingly attractive to a range of area residents seeking affordable housing and a sense of community, advocates say.
Carol Lilly is leading the Boomers Collaborative, a proposed senior cooperative community she said will offer mixed-income housing to residents age 55 and older as well as a business incubator and ground-floor retail.
“The traditional model for retirement isn’t going to suit most of us,” Lilly said. “We can afford to live, but we’re having trouble living here in Austin.”
Lilly said her organization has its sights set on The Grove—a proposed mixed-use development near the intersection of 45th Street and Bull Creek Road—as the future location of the cooperative.
Grove representatives confirmed they had conversations about the co-op buying Grove property, but as of July 22 said a deal had not been made.
Lilly’s Boomers are not the only area residents interested in the cooperative model as an alternative to more traditional homeownership or rental options.
Daniel Kaufman, membership coordinator for the 4-year-old Eastside Treehouse co-op, said he receives multiple inquiries each day from individuals of a wide range of backgrounds and ages.
“We’re not a party house, and we’re on good terms with our neighbors,” he said. “People sometimes say, ‘Oh, you live in a commune,’ but we’re not like family; we’re roommates. You can live in a co-op that doesn’t have any hippies.”
At least four nonstudent cooperatives have launched during the past five years, and some older co-ops are reporting increased demand. Representatives of Sunflower Co-op in the Bouldin Creek neighborhood said they received 20 applications within four hours of listing an available room this summer.
About 38 percent of Austin families are cost-burdened, meaning they spend more than one-third of their income on housing, advocacy organization HousingWorks Austin reported in 2015.
Recommendations released this summer as part of CodeNEXT—the city’s land development code rewrite—stated a critical component of increasing affordability is supporting diverse housing types, such as cooperatives.
Cooperative housing is affordable partly because it cuts out middlemen, such as landlords and maintenance staff, and depends on residents to manage property, said Ryan Nill, a co-founder of the La Reunion co-op in Central Austin. Residents may also save money by sharing meals and household items or by occupying single bedrooms in a large house.
At La Reunion, formerly a traditional apartment complex with about 40 units, 900-square-foot apartments start at $880 a month, and single bedrooms average about $440 a month, including food and some utilities, Nill said. The average monthly cost of a 750-sqaure-foot apartment in Austin is about $1,013, according to a 2015 report from real estate research firm Capitol Market Research.
“Part of the reason why it’s affordable is essentially the tenants have many of the rights and responsibilities of homeownership,” Nill said. “With that comes the ability to make major decisions democratically. It definitely gives people easier access to homeownership without taking the gamble of having to borrow money to purchase properties.”
La Reunion co-founder Hannah Frankel said affordability is not the only advantage of cooperative housing.
“I think a lot of folks … move and stay [at La Reunion]because of the cheap rent, but if you ask someone what their favorite thing is, they’ll say the sense of community,” Frankel said. “If you’re sick, someone will bring you crackers and Gatorade; if you need a ride to the airport, someone will help you out.”
Cynthia Sibley moved into La Reunion five years ago before it was a cooperative and said the complex has changed, with residents now moderating conflicts, sharing meals and making democratic decisions about the property.
“I like our co-op; we stick together,” she said. “It’s a community now.”
That sense of community is one reason Austin resident Howie Richey and others are designing a collaborative community called BohemiAustin. Richey said the proposed multigenerational housing collective will provide a level of interpersonal connection and support not found in many Austin residential areas.
“We have a desire to live near each other and share resources and collaborate on the daily basics of living,” he said. “We’re building a neighborhood where we choose our own next-door people.”
The path to establishing cooperative communities and other types of collaborative housing models is not always an easy one in Austin, advocates say.
Jules Esh founded Earphoria: Austin as a live-work community for musicians in 2014 and said her group, which is renting a home in Central Austin, has faced challenges trying to purchase property.
“People want to live [together in small communities], but it’s not at the forefront of what the city is presenting as an option, so people don’t know how to organize, and if they do organize, it’s not an easy road,” she said. “It’s very difficult to secure land as a group.”
Earphoria is a collaborative that houses multiple unrelated individuals on a single lot. Esh said clearer regulations and support for small groups such as hers could save the city money on social services and limit redevelopment of older homes and neighborhoods.
“I think there are a lot of individual groups living together that are going to be losing their spaces to condos,” she said. “It seems like we’re out of bounds; it doesn’t seem like there’s a support system for us.”
Kaufman said his co-op is seeking to purchase the house it now rents and also found it challenging to navigate city regulations for cooperatives.
“I would definitely like there to be a clear set of steps that a co-op has to follow in order to take a residential property and turn it into a co-op,” he said. “There are a lot of people who want to live in co-ops. … I wish there was more supply to meet that demand.”
Austin does not have a zoning category specific to housing cooperatives, but that could change through CodeNEXT, principal planner Paul DiGiuseppe said.
“One of the challenges we’ve seen is Austin does not have a very diverse housing stock; it’s primarily single-family detached homes with yards or large garden apartments,” he said. “What we want to do is look at the regulations that need to be refined so [diverse housing types are]allowed in more places throughout the city.”
DiGiuseppe said it will be important to define cooperative housing and look at land-use categories to see where the cooperative model fits, possibly by creating a new category.
In addition to zoning reform, Nill and Frankel said they are advocating for access to affordable housing tools such as down-payment assistance.
“[We] are asking for recognition via public policy that cooperatives are providing the community benefit of long-term affordable housing,” Frankel said in an email. “Help us help everyone.”