My relationship with the co-ops as a low-income resident

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Daniela Cervantes/Staff

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By my freshman year of college, people were already talking about housing for fall 2016. I had friends who were willing to dish out $1,600 a month for housing that was mildly nice, but not even close to campus. There was no way I could afford that. Not to mention, I had to eat.

So even if I could discipline myself to $5 a day for food, that’s still money I’d have to spend out of pocket. I was lucky enough to know about the co-ops before freshman year through my cousin who lived in a few during her time at UC Berkeley. I was worried about being subjected to low-quality housing because I am low-income and cannot afford something nicer.

If you are low-income, you know you have to budget every dollar and decline invitations for pricey events. You’ve probably had to do this for much of your life, and you know it sucks. If this doesn’t apply to you, recognize your privilege.

The Berkeley Student Cooperative’s, or BSC, 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.” A diversity study in 2012 showed that 12 percent of its members living in the houses were Educational Opportunity Program, or EOP, students, whereas now the number is 43 percent, according to the executive director of the BSC in an email.

Around October of 2015, I applied to live in the co-op houses for the upcoming academic year. Sometime in spring, I got my contract offer. Phew.

The BSC offers applicants the option to live in a house or an apartment. The average total semester rent for Rochdale and Fenwick apartment complexes is $2,573.25 and $2,916.60 respectively. On the other hand, each of the standard, nongraduate-student houses cost $3441 flat for the semester, but include food. EOP students compose 81 percent of student membership in the BSC’s Southside apartments, whereas that number is less than half for the houses.

I applied to live in the houses instead of the apartments so that I wouldn’t have to buy my own groceries, not knowing the disparity in EOP representation. I was also more familiar with the houses, thanks to my cousin and a co-op party I went to. I thought I knew exactly what they were all about.

For all those who don’t know, orgies are less common than you think (maybe less common than you hope). The houses aren’t that messy unless people aren’t doing their work shifts. But the food — the food! The food is so good. If you don’t love chik patties or tofutti cuties — or if you don’t even know what I’m talking about — all of that will change if you choose to live in a co-op house.

The co-ops have given me a lot. Beyond incredible dinners, provided at least six nights a week, the co-ops have given me the space to grow far more than I had ever experienced before. Growing up in a white, affluent town — while being neither white nor affluent — suppressed my personal growth so much so that I wanted to be white and affluent too.

In contrast to my high school AP classes, which were predominantly white in faculty and students, my classes at UC Berkeley have always been pretty diverse. While it was an improvement from Santa Barbara, UC Berkeley still has a long way to go to make minorities feel more included and respected (I hope you’re reading this, Carol Christ).

When I came into the co-ops, people were generally more open and down-to-earth, and they came from all different backgrounds. People were talking about their experiences, struggling to make rent before the payment deadline, angry because of racist comments someone said to them, sending money back home, feeling like they should have gone to another school and on and on.

Gradually, I began to understand that the realities of my life, such as being offered a large need-based financial aid package or the fact that my mom doesn’t own a house in Santa Barbara, are acceptable, even though these were things I was uncomfortable talking about before.

I soon came to the realization that I don’t actually want to be affluent or white. I just yearn for the privileges that come with it. I want to be taken seriously. I want people to assume I am intelligent, rather than making me prove it to them. I don’t want to be called the name of a Disney princess. I just want to be called Ruby. The list of privileges not automatically afforded to me is long, but so many others have lists far longer.

While the BSC provided a space to talk about privileges more so than in other spaces, that does not mean it is a place devoid of it. Personally, I hold my own privileges as I am more light-skinned than other POC. I am an able-bodied, cisgender woman. I do not have any mental health issues. I am well-educated, and I am straight.

However, many more members than the mission statement would suggest, enjoy financial privileges. According to the BSC’s 2017 Annual Report, about 40 percent of its members are not low-income. What in the world are they doing in the BSC? Are they lost?

Here’s some reasons why they might be here, paired with my two cents as to why it’s not that good of a reason:

“The cooperative community! It’s so cool! I hate capitalism and I love the counterculture and I’m so progressive!”

You can literally make your own cooperative living situation if you want.

Step 1: Decide how many people you want to live in your co-op.

Step 2: Find a place — consider a place that will permit doubles and triples so rent per person is relatively low.

Step 3: Assign workshifts/chores, and center it around the BSC’s model if you want.

Step 4: Be your anti-capitalist, counterculture, progressive self.

Congrats! You’re now in a cooperative community. You can still hang out in the BSC houses if you want, but this way you’re not taking up as much space as you would otherwise. Love the cooperative model so much? Tell other people about how great it is and start the revolution.

“The food! I don’t want to have to buy groceries and I love having people cook for me. Food is super expensive!”

To that I say: Try boarding! You can get access to a co-op house’s food for about $5-6 a day by contacting their food or kitchen manager. This is just slightly above the typical Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, budget. As a former food manager, I loved having people board at my house. The additional money gets added to the house’s food budget, and better food can be bought. This is awesome! Thanks for doing that! Enjoy your authentic co-op food.

“They’re all so close to campus!”

So are other housing options that you can probably afford.

A more objective explanation is that not enough EOP students apply to the BSC. When EOP, disabled students or transfer priority students are all given contracts, there are still bed spaces available. Thus, those lower on the waitlist with no priority whatsoever are offered the rest of these bed spaces.

Maybe it’s an outreach problem or a perception problem — either way those who could benefit the most from the benefits of cooperative living are not those who are applying. Instead, those who do not necessarily need low-cost housing in order to afford college are applying to be in the BSC.

They’re not getting in because they found some loophole or paid someone off. It’s literally because beds need to be filled and rent needs to be paid, both requirements that non-EOP students can fulfill. However, the tides are turning. Recruitment efforts are increasingly aimed at low-income college or community college students. The future is bright for its mission statement, but only if the progress that has been made gets built upon.

I love the fact that I live in the co-ops, the friends I have made here and the person I have become. Most of all, I love that it has provided me with low-cost housing.

However, I do not love the people who make others feel unsafe, those who commit microaggression after microaggression and those who live in the co-ops simply to bask in the “co-op vibes.”

Most of all, I do not love those who perpetuate systems of oppression. These oppressive systems operate nonstop, including within the walls of the BSC. Oppression within the cooperatives can often be attributed to privileges gone unchecked because of their reinforced power. I strongly believe that in a couple years time, these people will be few and far between.

If you’re EOP, you should strongly consider living in the BSC. From a purely economic standpoint, the benefits truly outweigh the costs. There are many ways in which your rent can actually be decreased.

A personal example is that for four terms I have held a “manager position,” which means that the additional time commitment required to fulfil my duties gets compensated as rent credit. Every house has manager positions and it really is a win-win: The house can function smoothly and your rent goes down! Additionally, 145 students received scholarships in 2017 that added up to $145,000, all of which were based on unmet financial need.

The BSC has many other opportunities to mitigate the cost of rent, such as obtaining a position within the Central Office or at Central Food and Supplies, which is the system’s warehouse. Even without supplemental rent mitigation, the cost of rent and food is half the off-campus average rent.

With time, the co-ops can become what they were meant to be: a quality, affordable, cooperative housing community to those who could not afford a university education otherwise. To all EOP students out there, I encourage you to be a part of it.

Contact Ruby Sapia at [email protected].