Advocates push for more co-op support in Austin

La Reunion housing cooperative in Central Austin is owned and managed by its residents.

La Reunion housing cooperative in Central Austin is owned and managed by its residents.

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.



Affordability


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.”



Community benefits


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.”



Regulatory challenges


Advocates push for more co-op support in Austin Want to give input on Austin housing affordability?[/caption]

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.”




Austin housing cooperatives Some advocates say cooperative housing—a housing model that gives residents equal shares of ownership in a house or apartment complex—could be one way to address rising housing costs in Austin. Cooperatives are often cheaper than market-rate housing options because they typically use fewer resources; cut out the middlemen, such as property owners and managers; and transfer the responsibility of maintenance and decision-making to residents.[/caption]
By Emilie Shaughnessy
Emilie covers community news in Central Austin and is the beat reporter for Austin City Council. She started with Community Impact Newspaper in 2015 after working as a journalist in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.


MOST RECENT

Bikers ride up Shoal Creek Boulevard in February. A bond proposal from Austin would fund additional bike lanes, sidewalk reconstruction, capital improvements and more. (Jack Flagler/Community Impact Newspaper)
Austin will send $460 million transportation bond to voters in November

The bond would fund include capital improvements to a number of projects, including the Longhorn Dam Bridge over Lady Bird Lake. The cost to the median Austin taxpayer would be about $77-$80 per year.

The future location on South Congress Avenue would be the third located in the South Austin area. (Community Impact Newspaper staff)
P. Terry's plans for S. Congress drive-thru and more Austin-area news

Read the latest Austin-area business and community news.

Tesla announced its decision to bring its next gigafactory to Travis County on July 22. (Jay Jones/Community Impact Newspaper)
Tesla posts first gigafactory jobs as construction gets underway in Travis County

The company has 49 active listings for Austin-area jobs related to the gigafactory and other operations.

A police officer rides past protesters during the June 7 Justice for Them All March. (Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)
Police transformation begins in Austin as City Council approves millions in budget cuts, reinvestments, commitments

The move comes in response to a national and local reckoning over police brutality and the future of public safety.

Capital Metro's plan to build rail lines and expand its public transportation network, Project Connect, will head to voters in the city of Austin on Nov. 3. (Jack Flagler/Community Impact Newspaper)
Project Connect officially in the hands of Austin voters Nov. 3

Austin City Council took its final vote Aug. 13 on a plan to ask voters for approximately $3.85 billion in local revenue to expand the city's public transportation network.

Austin Regional Clinic location
Austin Regional Clinic now recruiting for coronavirus vaccine trial

Local health care provider Austin Regional Clinic will recruit 250 patients from the Austin area to participate in a late-phase clinical trial for a coronavirus vaccine.

(Courtesy AMC Theatres)
AMC Theatres to reopen Aug. 20 with 15-cent tickets

AMC Theatres—which has multiple locations in the Austin, Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston areas—will begin reopening its movie screens Aug. 20.

Austin bars scrap for survival during monthslong shutdown

Bars are fighting through red tape to reclassify as restaurants, offering takeout orders and finding new uses for their spaces. Local business owners said they are finding every avenue possible to survive.

According to the report, 380,174 total COVID-19 cases have been reported in children nationwide as of Aug. 6, which accounts for approximately 9.1% of all confirmed COVID-19 cases in the U.S. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)
REPORT: COVID-19 cases in children increase by 90% nationwide in 1 month

As school district officials across the U.S. prepare for the start of the 2020-21 school year, 179,990 new COVID-19 cases were reported in children nationwide between July 9 and Aug. 6—an increase of 90%, according to a report compiled by The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children's Hospital Association.

Burnet Road and Braker Lane
City pushing to finish Burnet Road improvements before Austin FC stadium opener

Austin construction crews will work to finish improvements at the intersection of Burnet Road and Braker Lane in North Austin before Major League Soccer franchise Austin FC plays its first game in the upcoming stadium at McKalla Place.

Austin City Council is considering moving the forensics lab services and internal affairs department out from under the Austin Police Department and into civilian roles. (John Cox/Community Impact Newspaper)
Police cuts, community reinvestment, reimagining public safety on table as Austin City Council looks to adopt budget

City Council is considering a cut of more than a $150 million to the police budget.