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The Poop on Co-ops

Nicki Arnold Investigates Cooperative Living in Isla Vista


The people who live in the housing co-ops in Isla Vista make up 0.4 percent of the community’s population. So why are they so deserving of so much attention? Despite their small numbers, the co-opers are a veritable force in Isla Vista, and have been making rumbles in the community since their incorporation in 1976. In recognition of National Cooperative Month, I chatted with some of the owners of the four cooperative houses in I.V. in an effort to find out what makes them such a unique bunch.

First, some statistics on what the Santa Barbara Student Housing Cooperative (SBSHC) is. There are four houses in Isla Vista-Newman, Manley, Biko, and Dashain - and the 75 co-op members, who must be affiliated with UCSB, live in one of these houses. Every resident is also an owner of the co-ops, which means they’re collectively responsible for such chores as fixing leaks, replacing broken screens, making sure mortgages get paid. Margaret Prest, the executive director, and Tony Serrano, member service coordinator, have been hired to take care of paperwork and organizing finances.

Eye on I.V.

The co-ops are ultimately a nonprofit organization with a $400,000 annual budget, and the students are in charge of what happens with the business. Prest said the co-op lifestyle - in which the people who live in the co-ops are also the owners and people who get to call the shots business-wise - is quite beneficial and can be more inspiring than any class.

Each of the houses has its own personality. Dashain, which was remodeled over the summer, is the vegan and vegetarian house. Not a single food with a face is allowed in the kitchen. Biko, named after founder of the Black Consciousness movement in South Africa Stephen Bantu Biko, is the “people of color” house and is inclusive of all types of people. Manley is still in the process of defining itself since its 2005 remodel, Prest said. Newman, which is the only house made up of apartments, has the feel of dorms; everyone has their own space, but the doors are almost always open.

I’ve long been fascinated by the housing co-ops. From the outside, they look just like the cliche you’re probably picturing in your head. Most of them are painted wacky colors and have remnants of tenants past in the front and backyard in the form of leftover couches, pieces of art, and dying sunflowers. People walk out of the front door barefoot, in dreadlocks, or with tattoos, or perhaps a combination of all three. Until a recent remodeling, Dashain had a huge golden sun painted on the front of the house.

My hippie side itched to just hang out at a co-op and see what it was like, so I did just that. On a sunny Friday afternoon, my friend Cameron took me up to the porch of Manley, where we talked about the ups and downs of co-op living.

Cameron said the best thing about co-op living is easily the close-knit, community aspect of living in a house with so many people who share similar interests. In the past year and a half that he has been living in Manley, his 17 housemates have become a family to him. He might even cry when he has to graduate and leave at the end of the year - which is a big deal for a non-crier like him. Prest, who lives in Newman, also talked about how close the owners grow to each other. They all pile into an apartment together to watch a debate or whatever is on TV at the moment.

Another obvious plus of living in the co-ops in I.V. is the cost. A double room including rent, utilities, and food runs about $500 per month. For some perspective, a shared room on the ocean side of Del Playa Drive can be more than $700 per month-and that’s just for rent. The co-opers are able to keep prices down by doing everything themselves. Because they don’t have a landlord to report to - which is a great thing, according to Cameron - they fix everything on their own, only calling in professional, outside help as a last resort. Each person in each house is required to complete about three to five hours of chores each week, which can be anything from cleaning the bathroom to cooking meals for everyone in the house. They also complete service projects that help promote and beautify the co-ops, like planting a garden or becoming resident barber or seamstress or editor.

In addition to being involved in their own houses and in the SBSHC, many of the members are also active in the community, holding weekly meetings about the I.V. Master Plan and making plans to replace the recently torn down Lath House at Little Acorn Park.

Living with so many people has to result in big blow-out fights, right? I asked both Cameron and Prest. Putting that many people together is asking for trouble. Both of them said that while it’s impossible to be best friends with everyone, disputes are usually solved fairly easily. Each house has a constitution that they approve at the beginning of the year, and they can refer back to those agreed-upon rules if need be. They also live by the Seven Cooperative Principles, which keep them all in check.

Getting into the houses is no easy feat. While the application process itself is simple, the wait list can be huge, sometimes with 100 people vying for only 20 spots. Prest said they don’t discriminate against anyone - if you want to be part of the co-op, the co-op wants you - so spots are always first come, first served.

Applications for the 2009-2010 school year will be accepted as early as January 9. Once applicants are accepted, they attend mandatory house tours and sit in on a house activity. Prest says it’s one thing to read about the co-ops, but something entirely different to sit down for dinner in the kitchen on a Tuesday night, and they want to make sure everyone knows everything about co-op living possible before they make a commitment.

With surplus funds from previous years, Prest said the SBSHC is looking to buy another property. The co-op community will continue to grow for years to come, and I think that can only be a good thing for Isla Vista.

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