Cooperative housing can be a way to break through the barriers of traditional homeownership, and move regenerative practices forward. They reflect the values of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity, and solidarity,
according to the International Cooperative Alliance
Principles also include voluntary and financial membership, democratic control, autonomy, education and training for members, and a concern for community. 
“While not a new intervention, co-ops remain a powerful tool to disrupt income inequality, steward community ownership, and create strong, vibrant places of opportunity through democratic ownership and asset building,” wrote a manager from Capital Impact Partners in 2019
Importantly, co-ops are rooted in place. 
BIG is collaborating with a growing network of local groups and our co-ops initiative members to advance and scale equitable housing cooperatives across California. Since securing resources to develop co-ops is a different process compared to other housing projects, we asked co-op experts from community organizations to share their experiences and answer questions during our recent learning session. 
While we work to normalize co-ops in California, sharing information and connecting our network with experts from other places is a vital part of BIG’s work. 
The written answers have been condensed for brevity. If you’re interested in joining BIG’s co-op initiative, please reach out to Jenny Low at [email protected], who facilitates these learning conversations. 
Speakers: 
  • Helen Leung, Executive Director of LA Más
  • Miguel Ramos, Director of Community Initiatives of LA Más
  • Óscar Quiroz-Medrano, Vecinos Activos Coordinator of SOMOS Mayfair

How do initial conversations start between future members and your organization? ​

Miguel: Initial conversations really start up with building relationships. We have a couple different programs that support that effort and hone into the cultural practices of communities, whether that’s through our Regenerative Communities Program — which really supports working class, community service entrepreneurs — or our Community Tending Program, where we support that relationship building of the community but also with the connection with the land. Having spaces like that allow for opportunity for people to organically share and build. Initial conversation comes from getting to know each other from a place where people can show up as who they are. From there, that’s where in-depth conversations come.
Miguel: We do exchange fairs, a non-monetary event where we do a seed exchange, clothing exchange, knowledge shares, providing free food from our community serving entrepreneurs – being able to activate community that shifts away from that extractive, consumer based perspective that much of our society is based on. It’s beautiful that a lot of these practices have already been carried along with a lot of the community members that we work with. This brings them back to the time when they were in Guatemala, El Salvador, Mexico, just like these cultural practices you don’t see so often. It’s great to connect with people in that way and shift that conversation. If this is a way we could be each other, it’s the same way we could be with the land and with our housing.
Óscar: We have different avenues for how folks come into our program, we have a Family Resource Center. We also focus on leadership development… They offer different courses like organizing, facilitating, note-taking, seminars that our community has access to. Through those programs, our leaders are able to have leadership development to be able to apply for job or the campaigns that we’re working,. Our limited housing co-op project, we have a vision committee that started three years ago that researches and understands different models. From there, our folks said this is the limited housing model we want to focus on. Our folks do have experience in Guatemala, Mexico, El Salvador, bring that knowledge into these spaces to be able to essentially push the work we’re doing into moving forward and through there, that’s where folks educate each other. We have a mentorship program which is related to leadership development. We try to create that essentially incubator to prompt the system to be able to expand it, and educate more talks about these models.

What excites future members about co-ops?

Óscar: Folks move from apartment to apartment, three times, six times, in a year or two. It’s unhealthy for the family to be in such an unpredictable space when they’re moving from apartment to apartment. The biggest benefit that folks see in this is actually just having stable, safe, and affordable housing so that they cannot be worried that, within a year or when the contract ends, that they’re going to be uplifted from their current home. What really attracts our folks is that type of benefit. At the same time, it’s the overall cost savings associated with a limited equity housing co-ops that are really interesting for folks, making decisions and having collective ownership. Governance is another piece people feel empowered because they get to make their own decisions where they live instead of having to listen to a property manager or an owner that usually never comes on the property.
Miguel: They want to be able to work with their community and family to develop some type of foundation that could create stable housing, especially here in Northeast Los Angeles where house prices could be out of reach for many of these families. There’s some opportunity for collaboration, there’s an opportunity to bring in family and community. Also, just it being an educational opportunity, people don’t know what the process is just to get a home, right? This way, it’s a collective learning process amongst all the people that are participating in the housing cooperative. A lot of folks want to strive to eventually be connected to a single family home, right? This is a good opportunity – like a stepping stone, build up some aspect of equity, some ability to save. Those are all key pieces of what excites people for a housing co-op.

What scares or intimidates future members about housing co-ops?​​

Helen: It’s a very different model than what society offers. And a lot of our community members aspire for that homeownership because it has stability, there’s agency. We’re in a very hot market that is not a path that is possible immediately. 
What does it look like when community members can steward property together? We want to figure out how to support the community by being the anti-flippers, acquiring property before corporate landlords or our flippers acquire property. We want to help community members get together and acquire properties on their own. We want LA Más as an organization to use public subsidy and acquire property. And all of these strategies will be an aspiration of having community members being able to steward the property and having a cooperative decision making process. It’s hard enough to make decisions with your family, but to do with your neighbors is something that is going to be a process and there’s a lot of time commitment.
Óscar: Some of the folks are undocumented and funding is a problem for us because we can’t necessarily use those funds for those units. And fundraising is something we’re figuring out at the moment. How are we going to gather all this money to make this project work? Not being tax exempt for these projects, or having other challenges within the city council members not supporting certain policies that benefit projects like this or not wanting to allocate funding towards projects like this is a challenge. There is some pushback towards some of these new models because they do compete with the existing idea of real estate.

Are there any key differences that come up when discussing buying a single family home/condo compared to joining a housing co-op?​​

Óscar: Someone does lose their job. There’s safety in a limited equity housing co-op where the co-op sets up an emergency fund for example, that actually helps pay that person’s payment until they get reemployed. You don’t have that safety net if you are in a single family home. That’s one of the biggest benefits that our folks really enjoy. Being able to save more because you’re not paying the full price on your own. The full price of the loan is divided into however many different co-op members are in that apartment complex or property.
Helen: Even though it’s a lot more inaccessible given the current system of single family home ownership, it’s an easier to understand process. There’s a lot of first time homebuyer workshops out there. In contrast, housing co-ops are a little more complicated to understand. We’ll continue to do popular education to explain that it’s not as complicated. There’s avenues to work together. That’s the big difference, our society, where we live in the U.S., housing co-ops are not a natural state of options for community members. It’ll be exciting for us to start that journey so you can compare the difference and be compelled to be able to do it in community rather than to do it on your own.

How do you discuss member “buy-in" with prospective members? (If there is a fee, or discuss share loans, etc)​

Óscar: We have a pilot project, a core group of 19 folks. Originally we kept it as just us, as organizers knowing how much people have in their savings accounts. This is the baseline of what we have to work with when it comes to buy-in, buying a member share. Some of our folks have zero, some of our folks do have a bit of savings, but it’s not much. So how do we make that not much work for a certificate? We have been clear with our folks that it’s essentially their investment into this co-op. We want to make sure it works and in the case it doesn’t work, then they may not get it back. That’s the challenging part of starting fresh and creating it new – those risks that are associated with that process. Luckily our folks have been understanding in wanting to figure out solutions to that process but that’s something we’re still trying to figure out, and how that capital stack is going to work out… it’s not an easy answer.

BIPOC in California face systemic oppression from banks when it comes to lending opportunities. Given that baseline for single family homeownership, how do you see that intersect with co-ops? ​​

Óscar: We’re working with Cornell University, researching alternative finance models with them. What we found out is there’s public funding that is targeting just that – how do we make it more accessible? There should be public funding in the city, state, or country where those funds are allocated for those specific purposes, correcting those issues. Other parts of what we’re looking at is those public funding, grants, because there is a lot of language addressing those issues. That is our hope, where those type of funding is accessible for our folks to be able to create the capital stack needed to direct us in the way of making those projects reality. When it comes to specific homeownership programs, one of the things that’s been spoken about in other spaces is how do we include the benefits of home ownership programs into limited housing equity co-ops or co-ops in general, but I don’t know where that stands at the moment.
Helen: We haven’t spent any energy into trying to change the single family homeowner financing process, we’ve been trying to use our 501(c)3 status as an entity that’s able to receive public funding, we have fundraising ability to figure out how we can close the gap. Do we act as a CLT? Yes we can, depending on how we can get housing to stay in the community. We’re not prescriptive of – it has to be this model – because every model has its challenges. For us, we want to start where our residents are most interested in making a project a reality. For us not to pursue it on our own, but to do it in partnership with community members.

Has your organization hosted (or plan to host) conversations with the neighborhood residents about developing a housing co-op in their locale?​​

Óscar: We hold collective meetings where folks from the community and our folks from different parts of the organization come and learn about the model, and the community gave us permission to do the work we’re doing right now… We have included them in the process in terms of… how are we going to explore this? Are we going to talk to property owners and see if they’re willing to sell their property to be able to create these projects? We have also included them in the education of the model. Something we want to do is include the rest, the wider community into this model.
Miguel: We’re going to continue doing a series of workshops with popular education around housing cooperatives to build up that awareness and opportunities… and explore the feasibility in carrying out a housing cooperative. And really being able to share what’s that good midle ground, where community has capacity and where our organization has capacity to support housing cooperatives… We’ve worked closely with tenant unions. Being able to support the people that are in the highest need to be able to get stable housing, that is very difficult. There’s a fine line between what they’re facing, which is a possible eviction or not being able to afford their home or where they’re staying. We’re hoping these popular education workshops get people to understand more about the opportunity to connect to resources but also something to look ahead to.

Are non-prospective members usually open about the idea of a co-op in their city or neighborhood?​​

Óscar: We have a community member who is particpating in our program, learning about co-ops and figuring out how to make these models work. She’s a homeowner. It goes to show it’s benefiting the community and neighborhood to have homeowners involved in the process, but also at the same people who are interested in co-ops. There is interest from both sides to be able to keep a safe community, stable community, making sure folks can find resources they need from the community. It goes back into the idea to invest in our communities and local economies.
Helen: We call our people members of our solidarity ecosystem where we center working class communities of color but we also welcome allies to be a part of our space, knowing their location. What is helpful in Northeast L.A., is because there are lots of people who perhaps have roots but they are now middle-upper class and they want to respect who has been here, we make space for allies… it makes our work stronger, especially with shifting of resources. There are allies who are open to sharing their property, helping with fundraising.

How do you engage the broader community, for example local officials, on co-ops as a housing strategy?​​

Helen: What is essential is to be in solidarity with other organizations that are doing this work. Although we might be geographically focused, there are lots of other organizations with shared values. Similar to the co-op model, there is greater power in working together. We are in coalition spaces, Alliance for Community Transit of Los Angeles, the United to House LA Coalition. There has been so much movement with these coalitions working together…
Being able to share in that popular education and be able to go, This is adjacent to what you’re already working on. We’re lucky now that we have new elected officials… There’s two organizers on the city council – representing the neighborhoods where we work. There’s exciting prospects for partnerships there.
Óscar: The City of San Jose has committed itself to a city-wide, residential anti-displacement strategy. We’ve been working with the Housing Department. We’ve been working with organizations like South Bay CLT, Luna, and other folks…to be able to work and figure out solutions to solve this problem. Working with different folks and different agencies to address this problem creates that holistic approach of not only one organization can solve this, but we all have to work together and that is the city, the county, the state to be able to address these problems…We don’t have to keep addressing them every six years or every year. We want to make sure that we address the problem from the beginning so we can focus on other issues and benefiting other areas that our community does need. And also working with consultants like Community Vision, working with Cornell University to conduct research – All these different agencies and all these different organizations have really come together to be able to one give us a direction and how to go this and two is how do we continue to bring community along through this process?

Does your organization plan co-ops as third spaces?​​

Miguel: A big aspect of our work is that connection to community and connection to land – identifying a place that supports storage, where people could develop a cooperative out of but also, a lot of our community serving entrepreneurs that work with us, work out of their home. We want to support a place where people can organize out of, which includes either a community center, a community farm, or a location that could be run by community and we just kind of step in and offer some of the programming. That’s how we saw the use of third spaces.
Óscar: Residents who live in the community and participate in our programming… act as an incubator so folks and come and learn about these spaces. If they’re interested in replicating them in a different area of town or a different neighborhood in the East side of San Jose, how can they come and learn about this? That’s what we’ve talked about – that co-op spaces as learning and continuing to be participants in our program.

How do proximity to local businesses or employment centers factor in the creation of co-ops? Or how does that attract members?​​

Óscar: If a co-op is stationed or is developed or is in front of a high traffic bus stop, that’s also an incentive. The city might have funding available for that. There is an issue with that because our folks may not live in the neighborhood, may not work in the neighborhood. They might be working in Palo Alto, but they live in the east side of San Jose. They have to drive, or they have to take four or five different buses to get to where they work, and so they have to leave two or three hours earlier than if you had a car. How do we address that problem? But also how do we improve our public transportation to be more accessible and catering to where folks are living? Or how do we bring small businesses into the neighborhoods where folks work so they won’t have to travel so far. Talking to some small business owners in the neighborhood, gentrification also impacts them, but they’re also getting their increase in rent because the area is lucrative. Those retail spots become really inaccessible for small businesses because they’re also trying to benefit from the gentrification of the area. It’s not an easy answer just because there are a multitude of different aspects attributed to it. However, our folks are interested in creating an ecosystem where people can live, people can have their child care in the neighborhood, they want child care, they want business co-ops, they want libraries, they want murals, they want all these different aspects. It goes back to the point of having multiple agencies recognizing the importance of that.
Check out SOMOS Mayfair’s Vision Map. 
Miguel: We engage with a lot of the local businesses when it comes to how they show up for our working class communities. A lot of the residents that we work with, they actually work from their home, making that connection where the location matters – people wanting to be connected to each other but also public transit is limited. Not a lot of residents have cars and I think it’s important that our community members have access to those businesses and employment centers.

What are the similarities and differences in discussing housing co-ops between property owners and future co-op members?​​

Helen: We see property owners as allies in our solitary ecosystem and similar to understanding what a housing co-op is, I think there’s a similar journey with property owners. We have been approached every now and then with a property owner who’s intrigued by the concept of what we’re doing and aspiring to have the property and the assets that they own to be more community serving. And what we found is that there’s a lot to work through with the property owner – how they got their property, how they want to honor their legacy, how they feel that they belong in the community, what’s their personal vision versus what it would mean to work with us. If we’re going to be that intermediary with the community, we want there to be community agency in the process and finding that balance between how much agency a property owner is willing to let go of is a negotiation and it kind of determines whether there is alignment of values. I think it’s very similar to a housing co-op coming up with its rules. It’s a starting point which perhaps it’s less antagonistic and it starts with some shared values. We have a couple of those opportunities we’re going to be working through.
Óscar: When it comes down to talking to property owners, it’s been a little challenging given that the market here is very competitive. We’re also going to have BART move in, there’s a lot of folks who really are interested in gentrifying the area. You drive around, you’ll see signs that say, pay cash for your two million dollar home. These are the things that we’re experiencing in the neighborhood, and it’s a little challenging because so far to this point, we’ve encountered homeowners who are interested in the current real estate market ideas of maximizing profit on the site.

The residents of Mayfair, including youth, elders, and neighbors, have come together to create the Community Vision Map of Mayfair. This map envisions a bright future for the neighborhood, including murals, cooperative businesses, cooperative childcare, accessible health clinics, libraries, outdoor space, and limited equity housing cooperatives. Paty Tapia-Colon, a local artist, compiled feedback from the community to create the Community Vision Map of Mayfair.

What concerns do property owners have, and how are their concerns addressed? ​​

Helen: For many families, the property they own is their sense of equity and wealth building and how to share that when perhaps it means less for their immediate family – and I think there’s some property owners who are just like, I have more and I don’t need to make as much money as possible and I think that there is more flexibility in those instances, than to ask say, a mom and pop landlord who is using this as their retirement to share, versus someone who’s like,. I actually have many properties and ‘I just want to do something differently.’ In an ideal world we’re able to ask for a lower price without it compromising the reality of our system where for many people it’s been their investment for a long time, so we have to balance that and that’s a really hard balance. We know it’s all rooted in all these systems that don’t work for our community. 

Final thoughts

Alex Coba

Communications Associate

As a proud California native from Stockton, Alex brings a wealth of experience and a versatile skill set. He has a solid communication background with a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism and Public Relations from California State University, Chico. Alex is adept at strategic communications and media relations, with experience gathering and sharing stories from his local communities that uplift the unique spirit and values of those places. He is excited to join Build It Green, where he can apply his talents to further BIG’s mission to help communities across California thrive.