The wall is plastered with bears. One is eating a human foot, while another holds a fish up like a trophy.
Live murals, good food and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros fill up the common room, as friends and strangers meet for the Chavez Art Show. This is the Cesar Chavez Co-op, where UC Santa Cruz and Cabrillo College students have been living for nearly 20 years.
Chavez is a housing cooperative in which residents share rent, eat meals together, and are responsible for upkeep of the house. One of the biggest in Santa Cruz, Chavez holds close to 30 members.
Events like Chavez’s Art Show used to be a lot more common, says UCSC third-year Chavez resident, Nick Golden.
Neighbor relations, zoning problems, debt and a fire in 2005 all affected planned events and membership at Chavez. But Golden says that Chavez is making a comeback.
“We’re definitely on the up right now, which is really exciting to see,” he said. “We’re still working out some kinks with getting the house back on track in
terms of work shifts and making sure people do them, and getting it into a fully functioning co-op, but it’s so much better than it’s been in the past.”
Housing co-ops are nothing new. The first housing cooperatives in the United States popped up in New York City in the late 1800s, initially serving the upper class. Eventually they became widely populated by union workers who didn’t want to live in the slums.
Since then, cooperatives have become a popular option for college students. Housing cooperatives have grown to over a million units across the country, according to the National Cooperative Business Association (NCBA). NCBA is a resource for cooperatives of all types, such as food, credit unions, agricultural, business and housing.
Currently, UC Berkeley has one of the largest network of student co-ops, with 17 houses and 1,300 students in the Berkeley Student Cooperative. Their network is solely focused on students, while most in Santa Cruz are open to anyone, including non-students.
Morgan Harris of the Food Not Lawns co-op off of Mission Street, said there are a lot of benefits for students living in cooperatives.
“As we move off to college we tend to go through this extremely individualistic and often isolationist kind of phase, so the value of co-ops is that it gives you sort of this family to connect back with,” Harris said. “It may not be as deep as your blood family, of course, but in terms of a place for you to grow and love, you really can get that community and get grounded.”
Chavez and Zami! on Laurel Street are two of the largest co-ops in Santa Cruz. They’re sister houses, meaning they make up an organization called the Santa Cruz Student Housing Cooperative (SCSHC), colliqually known as “Chazam.” They work together on projects, from building chicken coops to writing co-op cookbooks, and they also share a lease with a the North American Students of Cooperation (NASCO).
NASCO, founded in 1968, is an organization that helps educate co-ops across the country. It holds an annual conference, the NASCO Institute, where it tackles common issues with co-ops. Part of the company, NASCO Properties, also holds leases, and is working with Chazam to get its debt paid off and come back to its master lease. This is instead of the individual leases it has now, which provide a little more security for NASCO.
While individual leases give NASCO more financial security, NASCO is committed to helping Chazam get back on their feet, and gain more local control with a master lease,
Daniel Miller, NASCO’s director of development and property services, said that NASCO is there to help.
“The whole idea behind NASCO Properties is to help the local co-op get the tools they need to run their co-op,” he said in an email. “We try to help them understand the process of starting a new non-profit, doing outreach to find new members in their community and running their co-op legally and responsibly.”
Other cooperatives in Santa Cruz either own their house, or have worked out a situation with their landlord to allow a cooperative to exist. Food Not Lawns is one such co-op.
Ducks quack and chickens cluck behind recent UCSC alumnus Harris, who sits on a wooden bench in the garden behind Food Not Lawns. Holding a cup of tea, Harris said a love of sustainability and farming unites them.
“We are here to learn how to garden and to learn how to live sustainably,” he said. “We’re fortunate, we’re blessed enough to have this space where we can do that, [in which] we can work in and play.”
The front lawn of the house, which sprouts off between Mission and Laurel, was completely dug up a few years ago and replaced with vegetables. In the back garden, greenhouses were installed and rows of lettuce, flowers and other plants grow. Food Not Lawns was founded by a group of UCSC students who had met at Pica, a green sustainability program based out of UCSC’s The Village.
Harris, who has been a member for a year and a half, will be teaching a Free Skool course this year, along with two of his housemates.
Free Skool, a community-driven education system loosely organized by residents of Santa Cruz, is all about free learning for anyone who wants it, by whoever wants to teach it.
“[As a co-op] we are teaching a lot of classes this quarter,” Harris said. “One’s about agroecology, horticulture and backyard composting, and then there are other fun ones that we do.”
Food Not Lawns has between eight and 10 members, and only half are students. Harris said personal history and education are not necessarily relevant to living in a co-op.
“We just want passionate people who want to learn more about this kind of lifestyle,” he said. “They just have to have a willingness to learn and be an open communicator, someone who wants to be part of a community.”
A death in the house, combined with zoning issues and member turnover, has brought down membership at Zami!.
Caity Fares sits on an old couch on the Zami! Patio. As music floats out of the house and holiday lights rest above, Fares remembers how they recovered.
“After all of the debt was brought to our attention as a serious problem, it was then that we started to come together and form a stronger collective, and you know, hold up the foundation,” she said.
In February, Chavezians and Zami!tes met to discuss the future of Chazam and the current state of their co-ops and their master lease. Flying in from Chicago, Miller from NASCO attended the joint-house meeting, and said NASCO is there to help in a supporting role.
He said that their goal is that within a few months, Chazam will have a plan of action as to what they want to do, and how they want to handle city regulations that limit the number of members they can have.
“NASCO Properties sees what’s happening now as a temporary step to try and help the co-op members get the tools they need to get back on track,” Miller said. “SCSHC has a mission to provide affordable housing to students to make education more accessible to them … NASCO Properties has a mission of helping local cooperatives fulfill their missions.”
City zoning laws limiting tenants create a number of problems for members of Zami!.
“The main issue is parking,” said Zami! resident November Skye. “We have to have a certain number of parking spots per person, and we’re looking into finding spots on the street that we can use.”
Two houses fill the property, along with a mini-barn and five cats. And the front house is sideways — Zami!’s main house once sat where the Louden Nelson Community Center is now.
In years past, most people entered Zami! through the pink and purple gate on the side — to enter through the front meant walking into someone’s bedroom.
Now though, that space is a common room. Similar transformations occurred throughout the house after the enforcement of city zoning laws forced residents to turn bedrooms into common spaces.
After necessary structural renovations, city officials saw how residents were living in more rooms then zoned for and forced the co-op to reduce its number of tenants.
“We feel like we kind of kicked ourselves, because the reason we ran into trouble was because we were finally getting our shit together and getting the renovations done,” Skye said.
Skye, who changed his name upon coming to Zami!, says living in a co-op allows people to change — they get to decide who they are.
“Here, you stop having to work off cultural scripts, of ‘this is what people are supposed to want, this is what I’m supposed to do,’ and it lets people live their own lives,” he said.
Once, with members sleeping in tents in the backyard and a family of six in the house, residents of Zami! numbered over 30 people.
It was difficult organizing that many people, let alone the normal challenges of co-ops, said Skye.
Occupants at both Chavez and Zami! devote five hours of “love-shifts” per week, making dinner, cleaning bathrooms, managing membership, etc., and are working toward being a really “progressive space,” Skye said.
“We try to focus on dispersing skills, especially across class and gender boundaries. It’s not OK when all the working-class people are doing dishes and all the middle class people are doing management positions,” he said.
A handwritten scrawl on the wall declares that the house was built in 1887. This kind of history is often the only way members can leave a lasting message in many co-ops, as houses change with every new generation of members.
“Every time we get new members, they ask about who we are and we get to decide that every year,” he said.
Co-ops provide a space in which communities can grow. Many co-ops tend to be particularly appealing to students because they are also often affordable.
“It is cheap,” said Breeze Kanikula, a member of the 12 Tribes Jewish Co-op. “And that’s a great thing.”
Low rent costs come at a price, however, said November Skye, third-year resident of the Zami! co-op on Laurel Street.
“Part of why it’s cheap is because you’re doing five hours of maintenance every week,” he said.
Posters of James Dean and classic movies line the living room walls, along with the 12 Tribes’ mission statement, which reads, “[12 Tribes] is a home for anyone interested in living communally while exploring Jewish culture, traditions, and values.”
This means that while most are Jewish, it isn’t a requirement.
“I’m not, and neither are the treasurer and one of the other girls,” Kanikula said. “I do participate in the culture though. I like it, it’s fun. I used to go to Shabbat when I was a kid, with my other Jewish friends.”
Kanikula said that there are certain things that their co-op does differently from others, though, being one of the few religious-based cooperatives in Santa Cruz.
“We do keep the fridge kosher an
d all of our dinner nights kosher,” she said. “We do have different pots and pans for meat and dairy.”
12 Tribes participates in the larger Santa Cruz Jewish community.
“Every Friday we do Shabbat with Hillel and Chabad house,” Kanikula said. “Hillel is a house for Jewish UCSC students, and Chabad is a national organization, where a rabbi lives in the house with his wife. Shabbat is from Friday at sundown to Saturday at sundown, and we’re not supposed to work or use any electricity, just be one with God.”
The culture of co-ops is continuing to thrive in Santa Cruz and has a promising future, as is evident through the creation of the Art Co-op in winter 2010. Their co-op is one of the smallest, with seven members, and was founded by two previous members of the 12 Tribes. According to founding member Sarah Jaffe, the group has aspirations to grow as a co-op.
“We’re trying to have shows a few times a quarter, and we all help each other out [with each others’ art],” she said.
Caity Fares of the Zami! co-op said a that a lot can be learned from living in a co-op, considering that it is a space that enables the integration of many types of people to form a single community.
“It helps you to understand how every person is dynamic and important, how society tells you to be one way, but it’s important to be yourself and learn from others.”