MSU Alternative Housing Creates Model for Collaborative Living


Eager to leave regimented college dormitory life, Chris Matus entered the MSU cooperative housing system as a sophomore after meeting older student co-op residents.

“Initially I kind of wandered in for social reasons. I thought it would be a lot of fun to live with the people I was meeting and . . . you know, the parties, etc,” says Matus, an MSU graduate and former president of the 12-house MSU Student Housing Cooperative (SHC). “But I realized there was more to it. Like having control of your environment and working as a group to decide how you want to live.”

Student based co-ops—non-profit, self-governed living facilities owned and managed by multiple residents—have been around since the turn of the century. But it wasn’t until the progressive push of the 1960s that they became a staple of many college towns, including East Lansing.

The perks are inexpensive rent, fun community atmosphere and the freedom for students to make their own decisions on how and by what means they want to live. With rent ranging from $300 to $450 a month plus a small utility fee, co-ops are huge draws for students looking for inexpensive housing.

The trade off is that residents may have anywhere from six to 23 roommates, depending on the house. It begs the question: “Is it really worth it?”

For those who are interested in a community lifestyle, maintaining historic buildings and working toward a sustainable lifestyle, the answer is yes.

History and Democracy

In 1969, six East Lansing housing cooperatives joined together, creating the democratically run SHC federation. Since then, SHC has purchased or acquired six other houses in East Lansing.

Newly elected SHC president, Charles Roltsch, and vice-president of education, Alex Ticu, live in the aptly named Phoenix Housing Cooperative at 239 Oakhill Drive.

The former fraternity house was badly debilitated when the SHC bought it. After a $70,000 investment in historic preservation, it was transformed—like its mythical bird namesake—into one of the most beautiful homes in the co-op, with 29 member and stoic white pillars flanking the front porch.

While enjoying a package of ice-pops provided by their co-op meal plan, Roltsch and Ticu break down the tasks involved with their positions.  

“I’m basically in charge of running board meetings, dealing with voting issues, and distributing the corporate budget once it’s been decided on,” says Roltsch.

Grinning as he finishes off his fourth or fifth ice-pop, Ticu explains his role as editor of The Pine Press, the SHC’s bi-weekly publication. “I compile submissions from co-op members and distribute them. It’s full of stories and announcements about all kinds of things relating to the co-op and otherwise.”   

Sustainability

It’s hard to miss the large garden that creeps around the side entrance of the Vlach-Bower Cooperative on White Hills Drive.

“It’s pretty amazing,” says Chris Matus. “They have a full organic vegetable garden where they’re attempting to grow all their own food, and maintain an entire outdoor compost system. It shows the potential we have when the right people work together.”
 
“Sustainable living has always been important to the cooperative ideal, but the motivation to limit resource consumption is different from house to house,” says Matus. Many co-ops strive for economic and environmental sustainability, and vegetable gardens are common on properties with yard space.
 
Sustainable transportation is another hot topic, and with fuel costs skyrocketing, bicycling is incredibly popular. At Vesta Housing Cooperative at 505 M.A.C. Avenue, rows and rows of bicycles hang from the ceiling of the foyer and living room.

“Where we live, everything is close. It just makes sense,” says Matus. “When it’s nice out, everyone rides to classes, parties, etcetera.” There is even a designated spot for “house bikes,” provided for those who don’t have their own bike.

Economic sustainability is also visible with house meal plans. “We have a ‘three meals a week plus amenities’ plan that averages $40 a month,” Roltsch explains. “Each member signs up with a team to cook a meal for the whole co-op one night a month.”

The meals plans save money, as does buying food locally and in bulk. “A lot of our food comes from the East Lansing Food Co-op, but we also buy in bulk for the dinners. With so many people using the kitchen and eating together, it’s very rare that anything goes to waste, and there is always something to snack on,” Ticu says.

The houses also use Renewable Energy Certificates (REC), or green credits, for their utilities.

“It’s an agreement with the power company to distribute a specific amount of energy from a green source (i.e., a wind farm or solar power) in exchange for us buying green credits from them,” says Roltsch.

Community

Residents often say they join housing co-ops because they provide social and personal freedom that typical student housing lacks.
 
“They are a good half-way step between being in dorms and living on your own,” Matus says. “It gives a sense of community and a social network without the strict structure of a dormitory. It smoothes the transition.”

Ticu and Roltsch agree. “I really liked the idea of communal ownership and responsibility. Everyone has to do their part but it’s very independent,” says Ticu. “My roommate and I decided one day to paint our room, and we didn’t have to ask a landlord or get clearance from anyone. We just did it.”

“The people who live here are so diverse, it’s really fun to watch and be a part of something with your roommates,” Rotsch adds. “You don’t get that in a dorm—everyone’s doors were always closed. Here, there’s always something going on.”

The SHC doesn’t have plans to expand, at least not right now, but will continue to promote sustainable living.

“Our houses always need to be filled and we feel pretty comfortable at the level we’re at,” Roltsch maintains. “It’s fun to be able to watch all the diverse people I live with interact with each other and learn about one another. And when I leave, I’ll always have people to visit and a couch to crash on anywhere in the country. That’s pretty awesome.”


Allie Gruner lives in Lansing and has written for college radio and creative writing publications.  

Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.



Photos:

Chris Matus at the Vesta House

House jobs list

The Ferency House

Charles Roltsch at the MSU Student Housing Co-op Office

The bulletin board with Co-Oper of the Month and newsletters

All Photographs © Dave Trumpie

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