Co-ops can help Colorado’s affordable housing crisis, advocates say

BOULDER — It was Charlie Huntington and Ylva Kroke’s turn to make dinner.

Hot pizzas fresh from the oven, salad, and eggplant pasta were dished up around a crowded kitchen table, where about a dozen people from all walks of life straggled in.

ABBA blasted from a record player. The front door was ajar, welcoming folks inside. Chatter filled the room as people debriefed on their days.

“There’s always someone wandering in,” Huntington said after a Denver Post reporter made cautious entry through the open door and was surprised to find none of the residents batted an eye at the stranger in their living room. “That’s what’s so great.”

The lively gathering wasn’t a party. It was a weekday night at the Chrysalis Cooperative in Boulder.

The co-op is one of four created under the Boulder Housing Coalition, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to establishing permanently affordable cooperative housing in Boulder County.

The Chrysalis co-op is a big, purple house in the heart of Boulder with seven bedrooms upstairs, four downstairs, one in the basement, an accessory dwelling unit and a shared kitchen, living room and eating space on the main floor.

As of last month, 12 people called Chrysalis home, but the co-op is more than a house with an abundance of roommates. The coalition’s co-ops are funded with grant assistance from the Boulder’s affordable housing program. Unlike a typical roommate situation, the co-ops come with rules, organization and oversight focusing on shared resources, communal decision-making, division of labor and educational opportunities like social justice trainings.

The establishment of legal housing cooperatives in Boulder was the result of decades-long activism beginning in the late 1990s. In 2017, the Boulder City Council passed an ordinance to allow cooperative housing under strict circumstances.

The ordinance imposes a limit of 12 to 15 residents depending on the density of the neighborhood, and must provide 200 square feet of living space per person. If the co-op is permanently affordable, like those with the Boulder Housing Coalition, they could be allowed to have higher occupancy limits if recommended by the city’s Planning Board after a public hearing.

Boulder now has five active, registered co-ops, according to city officials.

Lincoln Miller, executive director of Boulder Housing Coalition and one of Boulder’s original cooperative housing advocates, said the next goal is pushing for Colorado’s city and state governments to make it a less arduous process to establish co-ops, which Miller and other advocates view as crucial for addressing the state’s affordable housing crisis.

Miller was used to fielding objections to co-ops moving into neighborhoods — concerns about an inundation of cars taking up parking space, elevated noise levels or other nuisance complaints — but said that their regulations provide an oversight for house behavior that addresses such issues.

“Because we’re an organization, it’s easier to deal with us than with neighbors randomly living together,” Miller said. “If there’s a problem, we have the systems in place to handle it and we want to talk with you.”

With Gov. Jared Polis’ sprawling land-use bill — which would have blocked limits on how many unrelated people can live together, among other pro-density measures — dying Monday in the final hours of the 2023 legislative session, affordable housing advocates are looking to demystify Colorado’s housing cooperatives and educate the public about the alternative living situation.

“The basic idea is you’re living together like a family,” Miller said of co-ops. “You’re eating together and buying food together and you do chores that are set by the chore system to maintain the house and there’s a house meeting every week and you’re making decisions using a consensus decision-making model. If there is a conflict, we have professional mediation. You have to have a job, you have to income-qualify and you have to participate — come to the meetings and do the chores and cook and clean and be part of it.

“It’s not for everybody, and we get that.”

“So much more than cheap rent”

Nate Nickrent, 26, and Robin Amoruso, 30, optimized the tight quarters of their adjoining upstairs bedrooms in the Chrysalis house. The couple has managed to create a meditation space, a lounging area, a lofted bed for guests, their own sleeping area and some closet and storage space.

Amoruso, who works with toddlers at a daycare, and Nickrent, a medical assistant, couldn’t afford to live in Boulder without cooperative housing, they said.

Rent for a room at the Chrysalis ranges between $520 and $940, utilities included, plus $145 per month for shared groceries. The median rent for a one-bedroom property in Boulder County as of May 8 was $1,881, according to Zillow. In exchange for financial support from the city, the Boulder Housing Coalition requires nearly all of its residents to income- and asset-qualify.

No resident of the Chrysalis house can make more than $70,240 annually, and about half of the residents must make below $43,900, according to the co-op’s bylaws.

“But it’s about so much more than cheap rent,” Amoruso said.

If someone in the house isn’t feeling well, there are plenty of people around to offer medicine, Nickrent said. Some days, you get a meal cooked for you or your bathroom cleaned for you, depending on the chore schedule. The housing arrangement provides the chance to meet people from all backgrounds who you may not otherwise get the chance to know, Amoruso said.

“It feels like the way humans were meant to live,” Nickrent said. “Sharing resources and working together to keep things running smoothly.”

“We had this opportunity for co-ops to become legal”

While Nickrent and Amoruso hung out upstairs, Huntington and Kroke cleaned up the post-dinner mess in their well-stocked kitchen.

Though people can buy individual food items if they want, a monthly grocery bill keeps the fridge and pantry stocked with foods everyone can eat. The house buys staple items like lentils and flour in bulk, and big jars of spices line the walls waiting to be drafted for dinner plans.

Huntington, 33, has lived in Chrysalis for almost three years. The University of Denver graduate student said he sought out co-op life because he realized living alone was not beneficial for his mental health. With a bedroom right off the shared living room, Huntington said he’s free to jump into social settings whenever it feels right. He enjoys running into people and chatting on his way to get a snack.

Huntington said his Ph.D. stipend isn’t much, but with the $800 a month he pays in rent, he’s been able to sock away money for retirement at a rate some of his peers aren’t able to.

While Huntington wiped crumbs off the kitchen counter, a Boulder Housing Coalition board meeting was underway in the Chrysalis living room. The monthly meetings rotate among co-op houses and feature representatives from the various coalition co-ops along with board members and cooperative housing community advocates.

During the mid-April meeting, the board circled up on the Chrysalis’ hodgepodge of mismatched furniture — a crowded shoe rack sat next to a bulk lentil container near the front door — to discuss whether the organization would officially endorse the then-pending land-use bill as it made its way through the legislature.

Sarah Wells, a housing coalition board member who founded and lives in Denver’s Queen City Cooperative, was supportive of the endorsement.

The Queen City Cooperative has two houses, one in Capitol Hill and another in Athmar Park. Wells and her partner bought the Capitol Hill house together in 2015 with the vision of transforming it into cooperative housing.

Wells helped advocate for years for Denver to increase the number of unrelated people allowed to live together. In 2021, the city increased the number from two to five, which Wells said is still not enough to address the city’s affordable housing crisis. Since Denver doesn’t have a formalized co-op process like Boulder, it’s not clear how many are operating in the city.

“Co-ops will thrive in large houses that have many, many bedrooms, so maybe we have an eight- or nine-bedroom house and the audacity to house one person per bedroom and we’re not blood-related to each other,” Wells said. “That’s not allowed. At the same time, household sizes are shrinking throughout Denver, so we have one or two people rattling around in these big houses. It’s really sad to me. We had this opportunity for co-ops to become legal throughout the state, and we couldn’t get there.”

“We need to help people”

Even with Boulder’s co-op ordinance, Miller said the bureaucracy around setting up a co-op in that city is so cumbersome that it’s prohibitive for the average person to navigate.

“We can do it because we’re a nonprofit and we’re professionals and we helped craft the language of the ordinance,” Miller said. “We help groups use it, but even still, it’s difficult, so that’s a huge burden.”

Eli Urken, the housing investment manager with the city of Boulder, said the Boulder Housing Coalition is “a great partner for securing affordable housing” and one of several initiatives the city supports to address housing.

Boulder has given more than $1.9 million to the coalition over the past 21 years and funded 53 rooming units — bedrooms — in the coalition’s housing.

The desire for cooperative housing is there, Wells said. The last vacancy in the Queen City Cooperative drew 55 applicants.

Queen City operates differently than the Boulder Housing Coalition. At Queen City, residents share equity and ownership of the house itself.

Figuring out the legal components of making that dream a reality took about six years and was such an intense process that Wells left her nonprofit career for a job in real estate, and now teaches people about cooperative housing and how to get started.

“If cooperatives were legal, we could seek out city and state funding, and it’s a solution that could really reach across the aisle because it uses existing infrastructure, it’s a way to preserve historic homes that are too big for most families now, and it could house a lot of people if we could just get over this hurdle over blood relationships, which is outrageous.”

Maggie Lea, who manages strategic programs and partnerships for the Neighborhood Development Collaborative, consisting of 20 metro Denver organizations dedicated to affordable housing, is in the beginning stages of developing a cooperative real estate workshop to educate people on the benefits of co-ops and how they work.

In addition to showing people in power the possibilities of cooperative housing, Lea said it’s important to reach the marginalized people who could most benefit from the housing situation.

“Many of these folks — lower income, Black and brown folks, immigrants — are just doing what they can to provide for their families and live and work in their communities and don’t have time to think about becoming an owner and what does it mean and how to establish a governance structure and then how to get the capital in place,” Lea said. “It’s a comprehensive process, and we need to help people.”

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