Writers’ Note: We do not presume to cover all, or even the bulk, of the diversity that exists in the Berkeley Student Cooperatives. It is also important to note that the writers are both BSC members. We are humbled by and grateful to the many contributors to this piece.
Maybe you’ve wanted to peek into that white house with the flag pole and swing as you ascended the south stadium stairs. Or, maybe you’ve heard from a friend that they live in a house with 139 people where there’s free food. Perhaps you’ve donned your black lipstick and attended Goth party at Casa Zimbabwe, better known as CZ. These initial interactions are glimpses into the lives of members of the Berkeley Student Cooperative and are pieces of a larger whole encompassing 20 properties, 1,300 members and a nearly century-old legacy.
Those outside entertain questions about the system: Is it clean? Is the food good? Do you have sex all the time? The answers: If people did their work shifts; depends on who’s cooking; stop, Mom, you’re embarrassing me! The BSC offers a range of experiences as wide as the Bay Area population it aims to serve, and there is never a stand-alone remedy for co-op curiosity.
Established in 1933 under a former YMCA director named Harry Kingman and 14 students, the BSC’s mission statement is “to provide a quality, low-cost, cooperative housing community to university students, thereby providing an educational opportunity for students who might not otherwise be able to afford a university education.” The immensity of the BSC funnels down to smaller properties, each with their own cultures. But because the large majority of students both within and outside the system only ever skim the surface, the archetypal co-oper can be caricatured anywhere along the spectrum from dumpster-diving neo-Marxist to established Dungeon Master. Here, we aim to to demystify the Berkeley Student Cooperative system — explore stereotypes, explain how and if the system works and inquire why 139 people don’t flush.
Available to any post-secondary student in the area, the BSC is the largest housing cooperative in the country, with three apartment complexes and 17 houses ranging in size from 17 to 140 residents. One has the option of being either a full resident or a boarder, who participates in social events and a certain number of meals per week. Applicants are placed into houses based on their chosen preferences, with priority given to Educational Opportunity Program students, students with disabilities and international students.
All houses are equipped with a fully stocked industrial kitchen, study rooms and a mix of room sizes consisting of mostly singles, doubles and triples. The houses and apartments are all fully furnished. Beyond the commonalities of intended purpose and some shared furniture, each of the houses is architecturally unique. Kingman Hall, a medium-sized house on Northside, formerly housed the Living Love Center, an infamous ‘60s Berkeley cult. Convent, the graduate- and re-entry-only student house, was once a rectory for nuns. Cloyne Court — the largest house, with 140 members — used to be a hotel complete with three wings and multiple bathrooms on each floor. The design of the house influences member interaction with both the property and with each other. Wolf House, a small, bright yellow house on Southside, attributes its close-knit community to its architecture. Resident Jake Dickerman explained, “The architecture brings people together. Our common space is all transparent and connected.”
“I think a lot of time people forget they signed a contract to live cooperatively and they take advantage of the space as being this open and accepting space. … This is a social experiment.”
On the other hand, some properties are limited by their architecture and physical location. Oscar Wilde House, the LGBTQIA theme house, initially had concerns with its proximity to the fraternity houses. Members of Afro House, the African American-themed house, said their house’s location sometimes doesn’t appeal to visitors because of an inconvenient climb to the top of Prospect Street. Furthermore, some of the properties that might not have been designed for communal living, such as Hoyt Hall, are not as conducive to the co-op lifestyle because of a lack of open common spaces.
In addition to the houses, the BSC offers apartment housing to 391 members in three properties. Fenwick and Rochdale apartments are located between Dwight Way and Haste Street, and although they are close to campus, they are isolated from the rest of the BSC properties. For Fenwick house manager and current ASUC Senator Cuahuctemoc Salinas, the apartments can feel like a separate identity from the houses, leading some to feel in the dark in terms of the greater BSC community. He commented that this divide between the apartments and the houses is often unacknowledged and requires two-way communication if it is to be improved. But like different states of a nation, the uniqueness of each of these environments helps produce the plurality of cultures that defines the BSC.
Unified by a common governance structure, Central Office, costs are kept low through required work shift hours and cost-sharing by means of bulk-buying and combined purchasing power. Central Office allocates funds to each property based on both size and need. All houses are subject to BSC and house-level bylaws. These are supplemented by semester-specific community agreements framed and revised by the house members at a weekly council. Theoretically, council is an open and equal forum where decisions ranging from budgetary allocation to party themes are made on a majority-rule basis, with the exception of Lothlorien House, which runs on consensus.
Members democratically elect house-level managers to oversee house operations, including work shift, food, policy, maintenance, social and community operations. They are compensated at the discretion of house bylaws. Insourcing management keeps costs down and is supplemented by a required member contribution of five hours of work shift per week in the houses. Work shifts range from cooking dinner for the house to washing pots and from cleaning common spaces to scrubbing compost bins. A fining system is in place to penalize members who fail to complete their work shifts, but specific commitment to work shifts is still largely dependent on the house.
Zoe Lewin, a former work shift manager at the medium-sized house Andres Castro Arms, expressed some of the downsides to the work shift system. She said, “I think a lot of time people forget they signed a contract to live cooperatively and they take advantage of the space as being this open and accepting space. … This is a social experiment.” Work shift also raises issues of ableism, as extracurricular engagements can limit a member’s contributions to the house. On another front, many feel that the amount of ADA accessible facilities are insufficient. The BSC has tried to combat ableism, especially in the apartments, where the members owe only eight hours of work shift a semester, but this policy is still prone to limitations. Overall, the BSC’s policies are an attempt to foster a cooperative spirit.
Join or die: Does it work? Building a community
To summarize dozens of individual and group interviews with members, the biggest draws to the BSC are affordability, its service as a post-residence hall substitute and the promotion of community belonging.
That being said, many associate the co-ops with their parties, which are open to any outside members. For Q Cerabino-Hess, a member of CZ, the second largest house, it’s what drew him into the “yellow block of debauchery.” He said, “The first time I was here, I was in full drag: Target dress, hoop earrings, looking fine as hell, nobody gave a shit, everybody just smiled at me.”
Responding to her house’s stereotype as only the party palace, however, resident Nina Angelo explained, “People have this conception that CZ is just a party house, but I’ve met some of the smartest people here. … We motivate and inspire each other.”
CZ House President Aditi Pradhan similarly commented on the preceding reputation of the co-op system brought on by parties: “When I decided to move in, people said, ‘I’m scared for you!’ ” She added, “There are a lot of things about me that don’t necessarily fit into the CZ stereotype,” but as one of the only South Asian women in the house, “it’s helped me develop that (identity) and be a stronger woman of color. It’s a place where you can grow and explore your different identities.”
While some seek a place where they can explore the unique aspects of their identity, some seek the strength in numbers. Such is the case for house manager of Afro House Suashunn Harlan, who explained his draw to the house as, “This is the place you come to find the Blackness. … It was my first time being surrounded by Black people, but they were all different and unique and extremely intelligent.” For him, the house has created a space that is a morale boost where, as a transfer to UC Berkeley, he is able to share experiences with fellow Black students.
David Jaime, a resident of Wilde, suggested that most of the students hear of the BSC through word-of-mouth, so similar demographics of students apply year after year. A 2012 census of the BSC population showed that white students, making up 29 percent of the student population at the time, were the most highly represented in the houses, while Latino students, making up 13 percent of the population also in 2012, were most highly represented in the apartments. These two groups were more likely to apply to the BSC, while Black students, composing 3 percent of the total UC Berkeley population, were proportionately equal in applying, and Asian students, constituting 39 percent of the total, were proportionately underrepresented across the system.
“This is the place you come to find the Blackness. … It was my first time being surrounded by Black people, but they were all different and unique and extremely intelligent.”
The BSC does not exist to simply house people and their friends. As Fenwick board representative Natalia Reyes observes, “Bottom line: Our mission statement is to provide low-cost housing if you can’t afford housing otherwise, but there’s another part of that mission statement that says we’re providing a community. … The BSC does have a responsibility to make sure its housing is inclusive. … So to what extent does the BSC adequately do (this)? ”
While many feel that their houses function well in terms of daily operations and community building, the wider BSC demographic imbalance was an issue that arose often in conversations with members. The BSC finds itself at a crossroads when its commitment to provide nondiscriminatory, low-cost housing influences the cultures that form and come to define the organization.
From sunset gatherings to shabbat celebrations, from cult-like initiation ceremonies to all-night board game sessions — members are simultaneously building a collective house community and making larger-than-average living spaces more intimate.
Fourteen-year member Alfred Twu explained the BSC within greater context of the Bay Area, where escalating gentrification, the removal of affirmative action in the ‘90s and revisions in university policy toward marginalized identities influenced demographic trends inside the BSC. He acknowledges these influences on the development of house cultures: “These communities will develop strong cultures, and either you find one that matches or you assimilate into it. It’s really hard to actually change the culture.”
One house that has actively and forcefully changed its culture recently is Cloyne Court. After a lawsuit related to an in-house overdose and pressure from the campus, the BSC decided to retheme the house as a substance-free/academic space. Part of the legal and political process barred reentry of all but one former member and opened the property to an entirely new batch of students. House president Sage Sarwas recalls the change: “All eyes were on us, so we were really intentional with the way we were creating community. I think having it be substance-free has sort of required at times what one might consider creativity or ingenuity in creating social events and social spaces.”
Resident Maya Kulkarni explained, “Cloyne is now what the BSC should be like in the sense that you shouldn’t have to choose between a good environment to succeed as a student and your house.” While the strong cultures can serve as a pull factor for some, fear of distraction and incompatibility could push certain students away from the BSC. The substance-free theme of Cloyne has the potential and resources to include members who might be wary of other co-ops for personal, religious or other reasons.
Another attempt to bring house demographics more in line with the BSC mission is the decision to transition Castro, a 56-person house on Southside, into a Person of Color house in the fall. While the initial goal was to acquire a new property to alleviate systemwide waitlists, Castro was deemed the best-fit space after it became evident that obtaining a new property with the right specifications was not an option. Attachments to the house remain strong and some have opposed the move, but the wider community has been largely supportive. House member Esteban Herrera-Stewart said, “Knowing how much I love this house, it makes me really excited and happy to see that (more people of color) will have the possibility to enjoy this beautiful house on a large scale.”
“Bottom line: Our mission statement is to provide low-cost housing if you can’t afford housing otherwise, but there’s another part of that mission statement that says we’re providing a community. … The BSC does have a responsibility to make sure its housing is inclusive. … So to what extent does the BSC adequately do (this)?”
Referencing the move as a “step in the right direction,” several respondents across houses are still concerned, though, that it is a Band-Aid solution to a wider systemic problem. In response to this decision, Harlan said the co-op system “is for low-income people, but a lot of white people live here, which is fine, white people can be low-income. But I’ve met some hella rich white people that live in the co-ops, and it’s kind of mind-boggling to ask how that happened.”
The ongoing experiences of members in other theme houses such as Wilde and Afro have raised issues of insufficient support from the BSC, as well as the question: “Who does the theme support?” Because of the nondiscriminatory approach of the BSC, there are few ways that theme houses are able to filter who is accepted into the space. With the substance-free theme of Cloyne, transgressors who bring substances on to the property are easily identified. But themes rooted in fluid identities complicate the metrics of disrespect. Several residents of Wilde expressed that members (either straight or queer) who are not committed to living out the community’s mission as a queer space often take away from the intentionality of a theme house.
Ideally members would self-select the best-fitting house, but with waitlists numbering in the hundreds, applicants tend to prioritize houses they think they will get into. This leads to a mixed bag in terms of community engagement. While having house members indirectly committed to a theme does not inevitably produce tension, intra-house dynamics are are highly variable semester to semester. For example, Lothlorien, the vegan/vegetarian-themed house, has also become known as a space of political activism. Lothlorien resident Iman Kazah said, “It took me a long time to learn a certain dialect in Loth,” a house where the culture encourages speaking in a specific rhetoric as to best engender inclusivity.
Member of the house Jose Valle explains how tension can arise from this elevated dialogue, saying, “I think we should all feel uncomfortable, but it comes down to who is making the demands. Some people can’t handle being uncomfortable. Some people can’t handle privilege being spoken about.” At their best, the co-ops can be spaces for productive conflict. Diverse opinions fold into shared stories and buttress interpersonal growth. At their worst, conflict can produce a sort of oppression olympics that further marginalizes certain groups. While they surely aren’t perfect, many members emphasize that the co-ops are learning from conflicts and fostering flexibility in response to tensions as they arise.
Furthermore, the themed houses have been the first line of response to the demands of specific groups. Members of Wilde see the house as aiming to be a community rooted in mutual queerness. Similarly, some members of Afro House prioritize its function as a space for the Black community over its status as a co-op. These themes not only bring together house members, but also provide forums for wider community engagement and discussion. This was especially evident in fall 2014, when Afro House became a hub for organizing around the Black Lives Matter movement.
But sometimes, house loyalty is akin to nationalism. Certain people identify with these spaces like soldiers to their stations, as the maxim “CZ or Die” exemplifies. Central Office is trying to find new ways to foster unity between properties. Current house manager of Stebbins and former Afro House member Rebecca Jacquez feels that the BSC empowers members where “our white, patriarchal, capitalist society draws these boundaries and these borders that we essentially can’t cross and that we can’t have conversations over, but we do, and we break them down and we learn from each other.” Through a collective effort to introduce more exchange between and within different properties in efforts to demystify these internal presumptions, the BSC might just become more accessible for those seeking a home in the system.
“It took me a long time to learn a certain dialect in Loth.”
Taken from a conversation with Salinas, the term “BSC home” seems more fitting than “BSC system.” Elaborating on this, he said, “I found myself. I found what I am capable of doing and what I’m not capable of doing. I found a family in the BSC. I found a space, and most importantly I found a home.” The BSC is not a just an arbitrary bureaucracy that exists to label applicants, set agendas and allocate scarce resources to a sea of supplicants. Nor is it a loose federation of drug dens. It is a matrix of complex identities, relationships and wholehearted commitments to large ideas that extend beyond the walls of the physical. As with any large group of people, there are conflicts, but rather than representing an environment of conformity, many feel like the co-ops have created space for individuality. While some voices may continue to be softened and silenced, many feel that this is what separates the co-ops from other student housing options. The BSC, in its 93-year history, has evolved and taken different shapes, attempting to provide low-cost housing and make homes and communities for all individuals to live in. As the act of 139 residents choosing to not flush in a joint effort to save water and the standard BSC email sign-off “cooperatively” remind us, compromise is the mortar that binds us together.