Even as rain is loosened from the winter sky, light seeps into the space on three sides, nourishing the dozens of plants that live within it. The plant room is Sarah Benton’s favorite part of the home, but half a year ago, Sarah Benton did not know about the Firehouse and what cooperative living entailed.
When Sarah and Shane Benton were preparing to move to Athens in August 2021, the couple could not find housing in the city that fit their budget. Both had accepted positions with Rural Action as AmeriCorps members, roles that allowed them to engage with their passion for environmental stewardship but also compensated them modestly for their work.
It wasn’t until a conversation with a fellow Rural Action employee and an Instagram direct message to the Firehouse Co-op that the couple felt they had found a feasible housing option.
For $470 per month, the Bentons could rent a room in the Firehouse Co-op on North Lancaster Street.
Housing cooperatives are not owned or controlled by landlords. Instead, they operate under a group equity homeownership model. At the Firehouse, residents make monthly payments to North American Students of Cooperation, the non-profit “co-op of co-ops” that owns the Firehouse property. Without profit-minded oversight, housing cooperatives are able to ask for rents that are often lower than market value.
The cooperative housing model was relatively unfamiliar to Sarah and Shane Benton, but they applied to live in the Firehouse regardless because of the cost.
“I was a little nervous at first just because I didn't know what to expect,” Shane Benton said.
After moving in, Sarah Benton saw principles of cooperative living manifest in the absence of a landlord at the Firehouse, as well as through impromptu conversations with housemates about everything from maintenance projects to board games.
“It's not any different really than having a roommate situation,” Sarah Benton said. “I think that that almost makes it better, because you're just like, ‘Oh, you're another person. And we're just gonna respect each other because we like share house and we're both members of this cooperative and this collective good.’”
The rental market locally, nationally
The Benton’s struggle to find affordable, appropriate housing mirrors a national phenomenon; high rent costs are straining tenants’ budgets and causing some to look for non-traditional options.
In 2019, average Americans spent approximately 20.3% of their monthly income on rent, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. That rate was noticeably higher in Athens; during the same year, the city’s residents spent 28.3% of their monthly income on rent.
Athens offers a number of traditional, government-subsidized, affordable housing options for low-income residents, though some groups, like the United Athens County Tenants, believe there are not enough. For Athens residents who do not qualify for government-subsidized housing, many residents have struggled finding rental properties with affordable prices, especially because of the effects of student housing on the local market.
“I think Athens runs into the same situation that a lot of other cities are experiencing, which is that we can't get change to happen quick enough to address affordability, both at the owner-occupied and at the renter level, at all price points, for all income and economic situations,” Paul Logue, the Athens city planner, said.
Cooperative housing endeavors like the Firehouse Co-op have the potential to alleviate the financial burden of high rent for some Athens residents. The co-op housing model offers members affordably-priced rooms, a role in maintaining the house and unique relationships with housemates.
What is the Firehouse Co-op?
The exterior of the Firehouse is coated in a thick layer of reddish-brown paint, making the three-story home stand out among surrounding tan buildings and seasonally parched yards. A strand of string lights is draped on the porch, next to a bird feeder and a few potted plants. Inside of the maroon North Lancaster Street house, eight residents are living cooperatively.
Each co-op member has a chore and a role within the house, duties that often align with individuals’ strengths. Shane Benton, who works with Rural Action’s zero waste program, has the chores of washing and putting away dishes, as well as taking recycling, trash and compost to the curb. His “big responsibilities” include serving as the house’s landscaper, taking care of the yard and planting garden beds, and assisting a fellow Firehouse resident with house maintenance projects.
“This thing works so cheaply because we all contribute a little bit,” Shane Benton said.
Long-term affordability with high start-up costs
The goal of making housing financially feasible for a broader population is reminiscent of early movements for housing cooperatives. In the early 1900s, immigrant associations and labor unions established housing co-ops in New York City to provide affordable housing for members, according to a 2019 article written by Anna Carlsson, who worked for the Harvard Law School Tenant Advocacy Project.
More than 75% of housing in Athens is rental properties, according to the City of Athens 2040 Comprehensive Plan, a decision-making guide for the city government. Traditional rentals are owned by landlords, who rent out units of their property to tenants with the intention of turning a profit. Conversely, housing cooperatives are owned directly by residents or by a non-profit organization like NASCO, operating under a limited, or group, equity homeownership model.
“Co-ops are permanently affordable if they're set up that way,” Brel Hutton-Okpalaeke, director of development services at NASCO, said.
Despite the long-term financial benefits of co-op housing, initial costs can be a barrier to the creation of new cooperatives.
“A co-op is not going to be able to buy a building with 3% down like a normal human would be able to buy a building,” Hutton-Okpalaeke said. “They're going to have to usually come up with like 25% down.”
Nonprofits and other organizations provide financial assistance to aid the startup of new housing cooperatives. As a “co-op of co-ops,” NASCO Properties is able to utilize its existing cooperative properties to purchase more properties that will be operated under the co-op model.
Zoning limitations, possibilities for change
In Athens and other cities, zoning regulations also limit the development of new housing cooperatives.
“That's often a really major hurdle because zoning just functionally prevents co-ops from being started, often, legally, which then causes the model to not be able to be effectively used to deal with affordable housing concerns, even though it's a pretty well documented, functional way to do it,” Hutton-Okpalaeke said.
Zoning is not unchangeable, however. The 2040 Athens Comprehensive Plan includes discussion of expanding housing options. Acknowledging the role of cooperatives in affordable housing development, the plan proposes that Athens permit co-ops in all residential zones by amending the current zoning code.
Though he has not been approached by residents interested in forming a housing cooperative yet, Logue is open to advocating for revisions to the code if he sees the need arise.
“I don't know of anybody really pushing for it,” Logue said. “But I think it's interesting. I think it's worth exploring for sure.”
Living experience: How Firehouse members view cooperation
The Firehouse is filled with remnants of former Athens cooperators. An ornate, unicorn-shaped, ceramic clock sits on the house’s mantle, framed by pollinator wall art and a sign for the now-defunct ACME co-op. Current residents have added their mark to the house, too, painting rooms and making the space their own.
Without a landlord, Firehouse members have more autonomy to alter the house. However, they also must deal with maintenance independently.
The co-op often has money for maintenance factored into rent costs and its budget, Jacob Richard, Firehouse resident and treasurer, said. Because of the diversity of the Firehouse’s residents, repairs are often able to be made in-house as well.
Recently, co-op members noticed their water bill was getting higher. One of the roommates began to look at sink faucets and found that many were leaking.
“It's been really, really nice to have a different group of people to kind of compliment (each other),” Sarah Benton said. “Each of us has a different thing that we bring, and it’s all really important.”
Because each resident has a role in the house and a vested interest in the structure’s wellbeing, they all collaborate to maintain it. On Jan. 31, the home was inspected by the Athens City Office of Code Enforcement, who observed no violations.
“The home inspector (came) and walked through, and he's like, ‘man, I’ve inspected this house a number of times and it's looking great.’” Shane Benton said. “‘You guys are doing good stuff with it, it’s coming together really well.’ I was like ‘That feels good man,’ because we’ve been trying to spruce up things.”
Monthly house payments also contain a $20 charge for “Blammo”– a Seinfeld-inspired phrase – that Firehouse members use to purchase a shared supply of staple items for all to utilize. Paper towels, milk and peanut butter frequently are purchased for the Blammo supply. Firehouse residents can request specific items to be purchased with Blammo funds, too.
Sarah Benton, Shane Benton and Jacob Richard have lived in the Firehouse Co-op for less than a year and, along with their other housemates, are learning cooperative practices as they go. But, for the most part, people living at the Firehouse Co-op do not feel that cooperative housing is drastically different from other living arrangements.
“I would say that it's just like living normally — like, when I was in college at Miami, living with three of (my) friends — except that it's way cheaper because we're not trying to turn a profit,” Richard said. “It's nothing too out of the ordinary.”
Flexibility in the Firehouse
Unlike most student rentals, the Firehouse offers variation in the length and nature of members’ time at the co-op. There is no requirement for cooperators to sign a May-to-May lease, and rooms are available at a range of price points, attracting diverse residents to the Firehouse Co-op.
A smaller room is available for $380 per month and the largest room, much like a loft apartment, is priced at approximately $600 per month. The other rooms cost $470 a month.
“It’s affordable and I think that everyone's thankful to have that, but we also realize that ‘Hey, this works and exists because we all kind of cooperate together and work together,’” Shane Benton said. “We're all from different walks of life and look at things differently in the world, but when it comes to the house, we all have vested interest in maintaining it and keeping it in working order, so that we can continue to live here in a safe, affordable way.”
Many of the residents are Americorps members or otherwise employed in Athens County. One undergraduate student and one graduate student at Ohio University also live at the co-op. Members are currently making plans to open a room for an international student to rent short-term.
The future of co-op housing in Athens
Despite financial and social benefits, the co-op housing model is not widely prevalent in Athens or other U.S. towns. The Firehouse is the only housing cooperative in the city of Athens, but some residents still feel that its existence remains relatively unknown.
“I think that there might be a disconnect between the people who need the service … and the house itself,” Sarah Benton said.
The Firehouse envisions expanding community outreach, collaborating with OU student organizations and hosting a spring yard sale to publicize the co-op to a wider population. Although most current inhabitants of the Firehouse do not see themselves staying involved in the co-op long-term, they have gained appreciation for the cooperative model and believe it can serve as an affordable housing option in Athens.
“I absolutely do see it as a solution,” Shane Benton said. “And, I think that 50 years ago, people might have scoffed at it or been like ‘That's kind of weird,’ but I think that younger generations are a little more hip to it. There's more of this world community mentality. It's not as big of a deal to live with a group of friends or a group of people and a housing situation.”