In 1995 the director of the University of Colorado Environmental Center Will Toor tasked the then Co-op Coordinator Lincoln Miller with a mission to, “Create co-ops on campus and create co-ops off campus”. In order to create co-ops off campus Will and Lincoln created a non-profit called the Boulder Housing Coalition (BHC). In 1996 the Boulder Housing Coalition hosted the first annual co-op summit for about 20 people at the Brick House Co-op. One of them was Ben Lipman. Ben was the director of the Solstice Institute a 501(c)3 non-profit dedicated to creating sustainable community in Boulder. They agreed to sponsor the BHC and give us free office space. At the next Co-op Summit Jim Harrington got involved. Ben found a way to hire Jim as an Americorps: VISTA Volunteer.
Jim got 501(c)3 and Community Housing Development Organization status for the BHC, and the BHC president Cedar Barstow kept the organization moving forward. We went for two grants from the City to create affordable cooperatives but we were turned down.
In the mean time the student co-op project was moving forward. It got started by forming a student organization and a Working Group with campus administrators, students, housing staff and student government representatives. The group decided to run a student referendum that would ask each of the 25,000 students to give $2 per semester for 4 years, raising $100,000 a year for student co-ops. Around that time an old friend of Will’s from the Chicago co-ops came to the University of Colorado to study Business and Law. Tony Sanny moved into a new rental co-op with Lincoln called Limpopo and they began working on the co-op referendum together. In 1998 the referendum passed by a mere 200 votes and Tony took over as the new CU campus co-op coordinator. The Students for Co-op Housing now had $400,000 for co-ops, but still needed approval from the CU Board of Regents to actually collect the money and buy a co-op house to move into.
Birth of the Masala Cooperative
Separately, in 1994, nine Boulder residents collectively purchased 744 Marine Street and organized it into the Slovo Cooperative. By 1999, the Slovo residents had begun having children, and decided to sell the house. However, they wanted the house to remain a cooperative. Tony convinced a national co-op developer called NASCO Properties to buy 744 Marine Street from the Slovo Co-op and the new Masala Co-op was born. NASCO Properties (NP) used deferred interest loans, a line of credit from the national co-op bank and a $70,000 equity gift from Slovo to buy the house. The lack of a down payment meant they could only hold the house for 2 years. The CU Students for Cooperative Housing began to build administrative support for a plan to create a non-profit that would use the referendum money in combination with university loans to buy Masala from NASCO Properties and start the first student cooperative housing system in Colorado. The CU Student Government, the Treasurer of the University, the Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs, two members of the Board of Regents and all the top university financial brass supported the plan.
However, we still needed the support of the President’s Office in order to go before the Board of Regents for final approval. The lawyer for the President’s Office would not sign off on the plan. She favored a plan that would give complete control of the Co-op system to the University and take an additional 18 months to implement. We had already asked for a one year extension on the deferred loans and we could not extend them any further.
The year was 2001 and there were only 9 months left until NASCO Properties would be forced to sell the house to the highest bidder. Then the state debt crisis hit. Only University projects on the priority list could receive loans. Co-ops were not on the list and for all practical purposes the university co-op project was dead.
Later that same year the three participants at the Boulder Housing Coalition’s 6th Annual Co-op Summit were wondering what we were going to do to save Masala. Time was running out. We needed a plan B. Will Toor had since become the mayor of Boulder. He rode up on his bicycle and said, “Go for another city affordable housing grant.” The plan was for the BHC to go for a grant to buy Masala from NASCO Properties and create the first house in a community co-op federation. The whole house pitched in to help the BHC board.
All federations must begin with one house. In May of 2002 the Boulder Housing Coalition purchased Masala, the first permanently affordable rental cooperative in the state of Colorado. The 11 bedroom 4-plex located at 744 Marine Street was purchased with a $435,000 loan from Vectra bank and $102,000 in grant funds from the city of Boulder. The project also received a $70,000 equity contribution from the members of Slovo co-op, $2,500 in private donations and $2,000 from the Community Foundation. Talk about cooperation, over a seven year period it took the combined efforts of: The Boulder Housing Coalition, The Solstice Institute, NASCO & NASCO Properties, AmeriCorps: VISTA, The Fellowship for Intentional Communities, Kagawa Fund, The National Cooperative Bank, The National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials, The University of Colorado Student Environmental Center, The members of Slovo and Masala Cooperatives, Thistle Community Housing, The Enterprise Foundation, The Institute for Community Economics and numerous volunteers working for hundreds of hours just to give us this one shot. Since 2002 we have received ongoing technical support and consulting services from Thistle Community Housing. All of Thistle’s invaluable services have been provided at reduced cost or no cost. We continue to have the support of the Community Foundation.
Welcoming Chrysalis to the System
In 2004 the BHC purchased our second permanently affordable rental cooperative and created the first affordable co-op housing system in Colorado. The Chrysalis Cooperative had been in operation as a legal rental co-op for many years, occupying a 4 unit 13 bedroom house located near downtown, at 2127 16th street. The owner of the property decided that they wanted to sell it, and if the BHC had not gotten involved, Chrysalis would have likely ceased to exist as a community.
On November 19th 2004 the BHC used tax exempt bond financing anda $110,000 grant from the City of Boulder’s affordable housing program to refinance our current property, the Masala Co-op and purchase the Chrysalis Co-op, allowing the community to persist and evolve for many years to come.
A Long Dry Spell
Nearly a decade passed between acquiring Chrysalis and the creation of our third community. The City of Boulder’s strict occupancy limits, allowing no more than 3 or 4 unrelated people to live together in a single dwelling unit, the increasingly hot real estate market, and large minimum parking requirements made it very difficult to convert existing non-conforming properties into cooperative communities. Sadly the Cooperative Housing Unit land use that Will Toor and others had gotten added to Boulder’s zoning regulations proved unusable, because of excessive restrictions and conditions that were essentially impossible to satisfy, while still creating a functional cooperative household.
Instead We rebuilt our capital reserves, installed solar panels on our rooftops, and made energy efficiency and other improvements to our existing properties, all the while keeping an eye out for possible multi-unit buildings that we could re-purpose for community living.
Adding a Family Cooperative to Our Cooperative Family
Finally, in 2013 we caught a break. The city’s housing authority, Boulder Housing Partners, decided they wanted to sell a small underperforming property at the corner of 9th and North Street in North Boulder. The building never went on the open market. Instead, in April of 2013, with the support of the City and County of Boulder, the Boulder Housing Coalition bought its third property: a run-down 8-unit apartment complex called North Haven at the corner of 9th and North Streets in North Boulder. Over the course of 2013 the building was renovated and given a deep energy efficiency retrofit, transforming it into an efficient 26 member family oriented housing cooperative now called Ostara! We consolidated 6 of the apartment units into a single 18 bedroom “rooming house” with a large shared kitchen and dining room, and two shared living rooms. Two of the apartments were kept separate, and reserved for family occupancy. In the end we had once again doubled the membership of our co-op system!
The Future of Cooperative Housing in Boulder
The decade of difficulties between acquiring Chrysalis and creating North Haven made it clear to us that if cooperative housing is to be able to thrive in Boulder, existing laws around occupancy limits need to be changed. We believe the affordability, sustainability, and community benefits of cooperative housing are too great to allow these fear-based regulations to persist as they are. As a result, we are collaborating with other organizations including New Era Colorado, Boulder County 350, Our Home Colorado, the CU Students for Cooperative Housing, and the newly formed Boulder Community Housing Association (BoCHA) on a campaign called Make Boulder Home, seeking to enable more shared housing in Boulder, while doing our best to address the legitimate concerns of other community members.