Housing Co-ops Are a Great Way to Save Money (but There’s a Catch)

Maura Barry-Garland poses with her dog at the housing cooperative she lives in with 12 roommates. Photo courtesy Maura Barry-Garland
Maura Barry-Garland poses with her dog at the housing cooperative she lives in with 12 roommates. Photo courtesy Maura Barry-Garland

Rent is the largest monthly expense for many Americans, often devouring more than a third of their take-home income. With affordable housing options dwindling, many people are looking for ways to reduce housing costs. One of the last types of affordable housing available comes in the form of housing cooperatives.

I chose to live in a housing cooperative so I could cover all my expenses while on an AmeriCorps stipend. The benefits of living in a cooperative weren’t just financial, though. By living in a cooperative, I’ve also helped the environment and improved my social life.

What is Cooperative Living?

A housing cooperative is a unique residential setup where each member lives in a room in a shared house and votes on issues, such as allowing new members to join. Co-ops also give members a chance to create their own community because they participate in events and govern their own residence democratically.

Housing cooperatives have existed in America since at least the 19th century and are present across the nation. Some target specific interest groups, like vegetarians, artists or environmentalists, while others are open to anyone interested.

Rules of a Cooperative

Living in a cooperative isn’t all that different from renting a room anywhere else. Members sign leases and make monthly payments to cover their room, utilities and shared pantry or household items. The main difference is that cooperative members are responsible for attending house meetings and doing chores.

Some housing cooperatives have rules about who can become a member. For example, some allow families with children, while others are adult-only. There are cooperatives just for students and others just for seniors. Many, but not all, allow pets.

Members in a cooperative divvy up household tasks, so everyone helps keep the house clean and functioning. At my cooperative, chores are randomly assigned every three months, and members hold each other accountable for completing their tasks. As a result, my house is a lot neater than one would expect from a building shared by 13 people, three dogs and four cats.

How My Housing Cooperative Saves Me $4,560 Per Year

Barry-Garland pays only $500 a month for her bedroom, her share of utilities, and ingredients for a weekly household meal and shared household supplies in her housing cooperative. Photo courtesy Maura Barry-Garland

Barry-Garland pays only $500 a month for her bedroom, her share of utilities, and ingredients for a weekly household meal and shared household supplies in her housing cooperative. Photo courtesy Maura Barry-Garland

Thanks to my housing cooperative, I reduced my yearly expenses by a quarter while forming strong friendships.

Rent and Utilities Fell Dramatically

Fair market rent in Austin, Texas is nearly $1,000 per month for a one-bedroom apartment, and $1,200 for a two-bedroom unit. Because I chose to live in a housing cooperative, I pay only $500 a month for my bedroom, my share of utilities, ingredients for a weekly household meal and shared household supplies, like toilet paper and laundry detergent.

Living in a cooperative saves money because shared kitchens and bathrooms lead to lower rent. On top of that, the cost of keeping the house cool in the summer and warm in the winter is split many more ways, decreasing each resident’s burden.

If I didn’t live in a cooperative, I’d probably share a three- or four-bedroom apartment, but even that would cost around $150 more per month than I pay now. My friends who live in more traditional housing in Texas spend upward of $100 a month for utilities. Add to that the $20 a month on household supplies I would spend if I lived alone, and my savings on housing from living in a cooperative are $270 per month.

A More Affordable Grocery Budget

Not only do housing cooperatives help their members save on rent and utilities, they also help save on food. I save $30 a month on groceries because my $500 monthly payment includes a weekly house meal, which a different resident plans and cooks each week. It often produces leftovers for multiple days.

I Cut Down on My Shopping

I also find I do less shopping since moving into my cooperative. The free pile at my house, which is where residents can give away old clothing, furniture and other belongings, helps keep me out of stores.

Not only have I not spent any money on clothes since I moved in, but I also received a free bookshelf, mattress and couch through my roommates and their friends. I’ve never been a big shopper, but these free items easily save me another $30 a month.

There is Always Someone Around

Perhaps the greatest perk of cooperative living for me is being part of a community. I always have someone around to chat with in the kitchen, and my roommates with nighttime work schedules play with my dog while I’m at work during the day.

I have my own room so I can retreat into my own space when I need it, but I always have friends to spend time with when I want to be social. My ability to satisfy my urge to socialize at home with my 12 roommates has helped me spend less money at restaurants and bars, saving me about $50 every month.

Drawbacks of the Cooperative Lifestyle

As with all living arrangements, cooperative living isn’t for everyone. If you’re someone who needs a lot of quiet time or gets annoyed by waiting to use the kitchen or bathroom, then living with a bunch of people might wear you out. I find that having my own room provides me with enough me space, but I know some people want more space to themselves.

If you’re someone who tends to put off cleaning when you’re particularly busy, then cooperative living might not be the best choice for you, as many randomly assign chores. People who live alone aren’t making anyone other than themselves suffer if they put off taking out the trash for a week, but in a cooperative, you have to think of your roommates.

How to Join a Cooperative

A cooperative exists to fit nearly every set of interests. If you’re interested in finding a housing cooperative near you, you can search the National Association of Housing Cooperatives website or just Google your city name and “housing cooperative.”

Different cooperatives have different interview processes, but most will want you to attend some co-op events and meet the members. Depending on the size of the cooperative, it may not have frequent openings, so it’s a good idea to reach out to several if you are interested.

Maura Barry-Garland is a graduate student who was living in Austin, Texas and working for a social services program at the time of writing of this piece.