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Are residential co-ops a solution to Boulder’s affordability and energy goals?

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Sue France

Malik Salsberry waves his hand toward the backyard. “We’re going to do new sod on this half,” he says, explaining the landscaping project he’s planned for the Ingram House, one of Boulder’s newest legal co-ops, where he lives with 11 other residents under one roof in the Martin Acres neighborhood. 

A honeycrisp apple tree will go in one corner, a Japanese lilac tree in another. There’s just enough space for a small greenhouse and a few planter boxes. “Then I’m going to decide between another apple tree or a sweet cherry pie cherry tree,” Salsberry says.

Right now, though, Ingram’s yard is filled with lava rocks, mismatched flagstone and a dysfunctional garden shed. “We’ll get there,” he says, heading back inside, where the kitchen smells like a popular Japanese-Hawaiian fusion joint. Another co-op member stirs the tempeh frying on the stove. Salsberry steps in to fluff the rice.

Salsberry’s been living in the Ingram House since November 2018, when he moved to Boulder from Iowa to work on food-waste reduction initiatives as an AmeriCorps VISTA member. Like many folks moving to or already living in Boulder, Salsberry was searching for a place to live that was not only affordable and easy to access within city limits, but also supportive of social diversity and environmental sustainability. 

Ingram Co-op Malik Salsberry (right) and Eric Budd (left) are two of 12 members in the Ingram Co-op, located in the Martin Acres neighborhood. Photo courtesy: Ingram Co-op.

Of course, finding such a situation in Boulder is challenging. According to Zillow’s rental data, in the final months of 2018, the median rent for a one-bedroom Boulder apartment hovered above $1,600 per month. That means a salary of at least $64,000 a year is necessary for someone trying to spend no more than 30 percent of their income on rent. In other words, most folks working the jobs that make Boulder function (grocery store managers, teachers, bus drivers, chefs, nonprofit employees) are simply not earning enough to afford 600 square feet or less of living space, not to mention a two-bedroom apartment or a house. 

The scarcity of affordable living in Boulder has driven the exploration of nontraditional housing opportunities. Now that it’s been two and a half years since the City implemented a proper licensing process for residential co-ops (intentionally shared living spaces and resources), they’re gaining a foothold. While still working through some early obstacles, it’s becoming clear that co-ops could play a role in solving Boulder’s increasingly unaffordable housing market, while also helping the City reach its energy-reduction goals. 

“Residential land use [in Boulder] is entirely focused on perpetuating simply what’s become expensive single-family housing,” says Bryan Bowen, chair of the City Planning Board. “Right now the paradigm of Boulder as a predominantly single-family-homeowner-run place is problematic.”

Limited housing and income options restrict who can live in Boulder. Hollowing out the working class and narrowing the pool of families that can afford to live in neighborhoods has stunted Boulder’s diversity growth. Last year the City reported 88 percent of the population identifies as white. 

The working class continues to leave the city, seeking lower home and rent prices in east county and beyond. What remains is a wealthier community — a median household income of $97,800 and rising — which prices out more and more people by the year. When folks can’t live where they work, they commute, increasing not only traffic and individuals’ stress, but also county-wide emissions. All these factors together make single-family homes not only the least affordable, but also the least energy-efficient form of city dwelling.

“If we intend to do anything about climate change or social justice, perpetuating the single-family suburban lifestyle is not going to do it,” Bowen says. 

Co-op living is at once a lifestyle that maximizes affordability, encourages community and enhances energy efficiency through the sharing of resources that are normally confined to a user pool no greater than the nuclear family. Bowen says, “It’s a really essential piece of the solution to Boulder’s housing and also carbon footprint problems.”

When Salsberry found the Ingram House, moving into one of its rooms seemed like an obvious solution to his needs as a new Boulder transplant, recent college graduate and nonprofit employee. The Ingram House is owned by the Boulder Housing Coalition (BHC), a decades-old nonprofit invested in creating affordable, community-enhancing, cooperative housing for Boulder County. Like BHC’s three other co-ops, most of the rooms in the Ingram House are designated as permanently affordable; residents must earn less than $30,440, $38,050, $45,660 or $60,423 a year (depending on the room and house) to qualify. 

The seven other independent co-ops in Boulder, outside BHC’s network, don’t have the same income restrictions, though the shared living situation usually results in rents cheaper than the market rate.

The Ingram co-op resides in the Martin Acres neighborhood and can house up to 12 people at a given time. Each resident contributes 4-6 hours of weekly work to keep the co-op functioning and orderly. Pictured above, current housemates Justin Justin Trammell and Caelynn Christoff enjoy a meal. Photo courtesy: Ingram Co-op.

At Ingram, monthly rent and utilities, which make the 4,600-square-foot house run, are split between all 12 people, which comes out to approximately $685 each. Food is bought in bulk, divided among house members who pay an additional $150 every month. 

Every Monday night the 12 residents of the Ingram House gather for dinner and then a house meeting, where they debrief the prior week and plan for the week ahead. Each house member periodically rotates chores and responsibilities — like cooking dinner, cleaning the refrigerator, shoveling snow, buying bulk food, coordinating social events, mediating and accounting — that generally add up to around 4-6 hours a week.

Split across three floors — a basement, ground-level and upstairs — there are 12 bedrooms and four and a half bathrooms; the large kitchen has a floor-to-ceiling pantry with shelves stacked with dried goods like beans, rice and spices, two industrial fridges, two stoves and an elongated dining room table; the common room is lined with couches, chairs, art and instruments. It’s clean and orderly. 

The night of stir-fried tempeh and steamed rice, nine of the 12 Ingram House members gathered around the table, passing the soy sauce and spicy mayo. One is an architecture student, one is an engineer, one is a software developer, one is an energy strategist. They host communal meals three nights each week so co-op members can come home to a warm, family-style dinner; individuals make other meals as they please with the food stocked in the kitchen. 

For most of the Ingram House, this way of life is a welcome contrast to the individual-centric and increasingly transient trends of modern society — particularly as the app-heavy, Uber-driving gig economy continues to swell. Most young professionals are moving away from their families, hometowns or college communities, and while technologies like social media help people stay connected to old friends, it doesn’t always completely replace the support that in-person communities can provide. 

“I think cooperative housing and cohousing are beacons of a future paradigm,” Bowen says, “where your quality of life can go way up through the sharing of resources and through sharing your lives and through relying on each other as opposed to the sort of isolation that we get from the way most Boulder neighborhoods are designed.” 

A 2015 study used by co-op advocates during the legalization debate analyzed a year’s worth of per-capita energy consumption in each of Boulder’s known-but-illegal co-ops at the time and compared them to the typical Coloradan consumer. The study found that people living in co-ops use about 25 percent of the electricity, 30 percent of the natural gas and 30 percent of the water that average Colorado consumers use. They share appliances, heat, tools and, in some cases, cars.

In the context of household energy use, co-ops represent the housing model that comes closest to meeting Boulder’s commitment to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 80 percent by 2050 — all without changing their electrical supply or significantly investing in infrastructure upgrades. Even so, plans for solar panels and electric car chargers are in the works at several co-op locations.

19 bikes fit in the garage at the Ingram House. Photo courtesy: Ingram Co-op.

Co-op residents also learn a variety of essential skills while living in the community. “Each house has a lot of autonomy,” says BHC’s Executive Director, Lincoln Miller. “People are doing a whole bunch of stuff. They’re doing maintenance, they’re doing accounting, they’re doing food ordering, they’re doing a consensus process, they’re serving on the nonprofit board, they’re doing management. So our residents are getting all of those skills, which is super important and that’s what makes this model so different. It’s not only the affordability but the rights commensurate with ownership, and the skill-building we provide.”

For all co-op living’s social and environmental boons, however, a proper licensing process wasn’t formalized in Boulder until January 2017. Since then, only eight co-ops have successfully navigated the licensing process.

The issue is how tightly the current single-family-household paradigm is woven into the fabric of Boulder and most other urban/suburban areas across the U.S. If Salsberry had moved to Boulder two years earlier, the Ingram House wouldn’t have been an option for him. 

That said, since at least the ’70s, illegal co-ops have existed in Boulder in many iterations, as ways for community-oriented folk to find inclusive living spaces and for residents to create more stability and comfort for their lifestyles. These group-living arrangements would violate the City’s longstanding occupancy ordinance that prohibits more than three or four unrelated people (depending on the density zone) from living together in an apartment or house. 

This occupancy limitation is not unique to Boulder, and, according to Miller, it’s part of a national housing system “created to enforce classism.” He says, “The occupancy limit makes sharing [resources] illegal.”

Miller has been advocating for co-operative living since the mid-’90s, when BHC first formed to explore the possibility of creating affordable co-operative housing opportunities in Boulder. In 2002, he helped BHC secure an affordable housing grant from the City and buy its first co-operative (and Colorado’s first affordable rental co-operative), known as the Masala House, an 11-bedroom fourplex that still houses people in permanently affordable rooms today. 

The building’s technical status as a fourplex in a high-density zone allowed for four residents per unit, totalling 16. However, as BHC sought to expand its co-op operations — envisioning its eventual network of community co-ops — it recognized the severe limitations of the City’s occupancy ordinance, coupled with the increasingly hot real estate market, necessitated legal changes to Boulder’s residential occupancy system.

Though BHC was legally operating three co-ops by 2013, thanks to its status as a Community Housing Development Organization and daft political maneuvering, no other groups had successfully navigated the process. A handful of illegal co-ops were sprinkled around the city, sometimes subject to neighborhood harassment, and at risk of eviction. 

These co-ops intentionally outed themselves in order to lobby for a new co-operative housing ordinance, one that would create a pathway to living in community, in accordance with lifestyles they believe best serve significant sectors of Boulder’s current population, and also future populations, too — more working class folk who want sustainable lifestyles.

Miller says, “It took four years of incredible effort and an enormous amount of savvy political work by a lot of impressive young people” to unravel the decades of policy and laws designed to keep residential neighborhoods as they are: filled with neatly spaced rows of quiet single-family houses bookended front and back by small yards with two cars parked in the driveway. 

The years-long battle for co-op legalization revealed some concerns that the Boulder residents who can afford current traditional rentals and/or home purchases have about the changes new populations and generations bring; many didn’t want co-ops infiltrating their neighborhoods, fearing the challenges high-density living can bring: influxes of parked cars on the streets, the difficulty of enforcing occupancy numbers, trash and noise concerns, and decreases in property values.

“People were saying, ‘I don’t want more cars. I don’t want more people because I got what I want. I own a house.’ It was all kind of like what Trump is saying to the immigrants: This country is full,” Miller says. “It’s a pretty selfish way of thinking about things, and it’s not helping us with climate change.” 

The co-op debate also illuminates some of the hypocrisies in “Boulder’s so-called culture of open-mindedness and friendliness and environmental causes,” says Jennifer Fluri, a geography professor at the University of Colorado Boulder and the principal investigator of the Boulder Affordable Housing Research Initiative. 

“I think it’s a little bit of a case of the ‘NIMBY,’” Fluri says, the “not in my backyard” philosophy. “[Co-ops] are considered alternative, or radical, or new or different, when actually it’s just a really old way of living. There’s nothing new about it.” 

Hundreds of comments were filed and hours of testimony were recorded in opposition to a new co-op housing ordinance during the public hearings leading up to an eventual City Council vote in favor of co-ops in January 2017. Social justice and environmental advocates alike celebrated. As Miller puts it, “co-ops are actually a pretty radical, revolutionary idea. Ninety-nine percent of the housing in the U.S. doesn’t work like that. You’re either rich and you buy it, or you rent from somebody who has money and controls it. This is different. This is saying, ‘Hey, how about the people who live there getting control?’”

Most agree that within the last two and a half years, the co-op licensing process has proven itself robust enough to weed out groups who aren’t serious about legitimate co-operative living and addresses both the needs of co-op groups and the concerns of established neighborhood residents that potentially bought into residential locations with certain lifestyle expectations. 

The Ingram Co-op looks like and takes up the same space as a traditional neighborhood home. What’s different is the efficiency with which its resources are used and distributed. Photo courtesy: Ingram Co-op.

The first step in the licensing process for a budding co-op group is to work with a vetted expert co-operative housing organization — either the BHC or Goose Creek Land Trust in Boulder — to draft a series of bylaws. Then a few of checks must be sent to the City of Boulder, which add up to around $800 and the group must notify the future neighbors of the dwelling. 

Then, “if you’ve got everything, if you’re complying with the terms at the co-op ordinance, then after a couple of weeks you get a license issued,” explains City Councilman Aaron Brockett. “It’s a substantial application process … but it’s doable. If you have a genuine co-op where you have a group of people who really want to live together in community, it’s a hurdle that you can get over.”

There’s a three-car-per-co-op rule so streets don’t fill with extra vehicles. Like any other rental or residential zone, noise and trash limitations apply. With four co-ops now under its purview, BHC provides substantial support for its houses — providing everything from eGo CarShare and Community Cycles memberships for its 64 residents, to new cooperative living trainings and mediation resources. These are resources it hopes to eventually provide to all community members invested or interested in co-operative living.

The concern that a million-dollar-homebuyer might not want to purchase a house next-door to a 16-person co-op, thus reducing the buyer pool and subsequent home value, remains central to discussions about where to potentially place new co-ops, but Professor Fluri reports there is no literature or data to support these concerns. It’s just people “trying to live in peace and harmony, quite literally,” she says. Often they’re great neighbors.

As for the task of enforcing the number of people in each licensed co-op, “it’s based on complaints,” says Councilman Brockett. “And what I’ve heard is that there have not been any complaints.” 

Perhaps the biggest hurdle that the co-op movement has faced since 2017 is finding members.

Jan Trussell, one of the Boulder residents originally opposing the co-operative housing ordinance, says, via email, “I can tell you from my observations since [legalization], some of these co-ops are having difficulty finding and keeping people. I always see openings posted at our closest co-op and elsewhere. I don’t know if it’s the cost of rent or what I’ve been saying since the beginning, that most people, regardless of their situation, don’t wish to live with eight or more people in the same dwelling.”

Eric Budd sees this firsthand. A political organizer and software developer, Budd moved into the Ingram House as soon as it was licensed in January 2018, where Malik Salsberry would eventually join him. Budd now serves on the BHC board and is the Ingram House’s membership coordinator. He says the law works well enough to create the co-operatives, but “now the need is actually to work more on the supporting organizations,” and facilitating connections between folks interested in building more co-ops in town. 

Recruiting new folks to fill vacancies in any co-op is particularly tricky. Not only must the person jive with the residents already living in a given house, but in the case of BHC, some rooms are income-restricted based on Boulder’s affordable housing criteria. While the independent co-ops are not necessarily limited by income restrictions, all co-ops strive to maintain a strong community foundation that necessitates interviewing and carefully selecting residents, an intentional and democratic process that can sometimes take months.

Moreso, finding enough people ready at the same time to create a new co-op can be difficult. To tackle this and foster more dialogue about co-operative housing, Budd and four other Boulder residents formed a meetup group called Boulder Housing Cooperatives and Intentional Communities. In March they started hosting monthly meetings that are designed to encourage strategic discussions, facilitate relationships between like-minded folks, and feature a rotating speaker focused on growing the cooperative housing movement.

At their April meeting, nearly a dozen people gathered in a room at the Boulder Main Library. “We’re looking for people who are interested in building human connections and pooling resources in one way or another,” Marshall Poland, one of the group’s co-founders, said to the crowd. He and his wife are interested in creating a new co-op. “The hardest thing about starting a co-op is probably meeting the right people because you’re really putting a lot on the line with these strangers, and you have to do a lot of searching before you can find the right group of people.”

Co-op living isn’t for everyone, but “it’s a great option to have for housing in town and I hope it’s one that’s some more folks take advantage of,” says Councilman Brockett. “It’s a great way for people to live affordably and in community.”

Eventually co-op advocates like Miller, Budd and Poland hope to strengthen the network of support for new and existing co-ops, making them accessible to folks interested in affordable, socially and environmentally conscious living in Boulder. They envision co-ops becoming a housing option as ubiquitous as any other.

“Personally, I feel like I’m getting quite a bit out of it in terms of the personal growth aspect. I’m definitely developing community, for sure, not just with other house members and what not, but in the Boulder community,” says Salsberry, whose role as Ingram House’s gardening steward also lets him pursue his passion for being outside and in nature.

His room is up the stairs, a few doors down to the left. In the hallway, there’s a little shelf holding a row of cardboard cartons filled with dirt, a bright light shining down on a few tiny sprouts poking through. He points to one carton and identifies the baby leaves as San Marzano tomatoes, “really good for sauce,” he says. The others are eggplants, bells and Spanish padron peppers. 

“It’s definitely been a place with a lot of constant changes going on,” he says. But he wouldn’t have it any other way. “There’s a lot of growth.”

ON THE BILL: Boulder Housing Cooperatives and Intentional Living Communities meetup. 6 p.m., Tuesday, June 4, Innisfree Poetry Bookstore & Cafe. 131 Pennsylvania Ave., innisfreepoetry.com