MSU’s Co-op Culture

MSU’s Co-op Culture

By: Alec Parr

This article is part of the Summer 2021 Magazine Issue Series. Read the full issue here.

With a population of over 50,000, Michigan State University’s student body is diverse in its values, experiences, and ideals. However, student living only accommodates this diversity through a number of fraternity and sorority houses that sprawl on the outskirts of East Lansing. With these being the only popular option for community living, many students are vexed with seemingly limited options as they search for a home near campus. 

Most MSU students end up joining greek life with the goal of meeting new friends and finding a sense of companionship. But these houses are culturally limited, not to mention the barrage of fees required for membership. So, for those uninterested in ritualistic hazing or semi-formals, or who are just searching for something more affordable, the answer lies elsewhere: MSU’s Student Housing Cooperative

The SHC is an organization that oversees 15 homes spanning across East Lansing and into Michigan’s capital. This housing cooperative offers multiple facets of collective living with unique houses named after everything from jazz legends to Grecian myths. But the zany, individualistic mentality of these homes is not limited to house names and norms. Each member of an SHC co-op is both a resident and an owner of their house, which creates a synergistic living environment that affords residents the opportunity to maintain and control their own living space. 

This ownership and membership oversight is a unique approach to student living that feels fresh and inviting. The SHC is proud of their independence: “Because we own our own houses, we choose what we pay for rent each month,” their website says. And this is exactly the case. Instead of a member’s rent payment going towards a landlord’s pocket, these rates are set by members of the SHC and the co-ops, mimicking the reality and autonomy of home ownership. 

This power and self-governance also allows residents to enjoy an element of personal freedom in their living space. Homes within the SHC each hold reputations for certain values and events they hold over the years. Houses such as Vesta and Phoenix are known for their lively parties while Ferency is based heavily in intersectional feminism. These elements are able to vary so heavily because these homes hold as few as four members or as many as 30. These cultural differences can be drastic, but each house’s uniqueness is just as apparent in its residents. 

SHC co-ops are set apart from one another by their unique embrace of culture and community. Zack Sneed, a member of Phoenix house on Oakhill Avenue, said that this dynamic is essential in his home of nearly 29 members. “The feeling of belonging to a community and fostering the relationships and culture within that community is a highlight that I experience every day,” Sneed said. 

Cooperative living in such a big space doesn’t have to result in disorganization, even if houses hold nearly 30 people. Zoe Aho, Phoenix house’s Membership Officer, holds just one of the many positions required to keep the house in order. “Like the name, you will genuinely have a cooperative experience. We have fun, but we also understand that work must be done,” Aho said. “Everything the co-ops do is contributing to a healthy and inclusive environment, which is extremely important.” 

A strong community in these homes often yields astonishing results. Members of co-op homes can also pilot renovation projects and other house-centered activities to solidify the homey experience of SHC living. “I’ve seen members take initiative to renovate the attic, build a greenhouse and paint a few murals,” Aho said. “Phoenix has a culture that allows its members to improve the house at will.”

These efforts go far beyond repainting a room or reorganizing a common space. Marshall Clabeaux, an Americorps VISTA and Board Member for the SHC, is a member of Rivendell on Lansing’s West Genesee Street. Thanks to his handiwork with lithium-ion laptop batteries, Clabeaux was able to pioneer a carbon-neutral effort in his home by installing a 350W solar panel on Rivendell’s roof. 

“I appreciate the openness, honesty, and friendship of our house,” Clabeaux said. “We often play games, cards, watch movies, talk about life and the craziness of our pandemic times. It is comforting being in a community that cares about each other’s mental, physical and spiritual well-being.”

It is freedom like this that allows SHC homes to thrive. One of Aho’s favorite features of Phoenix is that they “can walk into [their] living room and have a group of friends already there,” and the same is true in some of the smaller homes as well. Clabeaux feels the same way about his home despite it being a third of the size as Phoenix. “Our house’s full capacity is eight bedrooms and currently has 10 people, but it is full of activist spirit and good home cooking,” Clabeaux said. 

However, large-community homes such as these have come to face a serious threat. As COVID-19 has run rampant for nearly a year, cooperative living in SHC homes have been forced to adapt. This challenge was faced in these houses with the help of the organization of SHC-wide committees, trust between housemates, and in-home legislation designed to keep housemates safe.

“Early on in the year, we formed a Phoenix COVID-subcommittee of several house officers,” Sneed said. “I believe that our COVID measures have been quite successful given that we are a house of 29 people and have had only one instance of an active case in the house during the past year.”

A common practice across the co-ops has been the implementation of community sanitation products for the entire house. This is coupled with a community mindset of safe habits for the betterment of all members, such as “encouraging people to wash their hands, not to go out to big parties, wearing masks when [they] come back from breaks and keeping one another updated if [they] have come in contact with COVID” as done in Aho’s house, Phoenix.

Bower, one of the co-ops farther from campus up on Whitehills Drive, regularly met during the summer of 2020 to address the COVID crisis and how it would pertain to the house. Rules such as limited guest visits, disinfecting protocols, and collective Spartan Spit contributions were instituted to make sure the house was safe for everyone. 

Megan Curtin, a member at Bower, joined the house in mid-August in the midst of COVID’s rampage. “Bower’s ‘Special Guest policy’ has limited our members to only bringing one ‘appointed’ guest over to our house in order to minimize the number of people coming and going,” Curtin said. “We are also putting pressure on members to avoid large gatherings or parties in our established house norms.”

Measures like these have kept SHC homes thriving during the global pandemic, a difficult feat considering the current challenges of communal living spaces. But isolated in-home events like Bower’s “themed party nights” have allowed the culture and community to thrive in these houses. But life in cooperative living survives under pandemic’s limitations because of the SHC’s ingrained roots of culture and community living. 

House parties, miscellaneous committee events, and interhouse recreation have been fueling SHC houses for years, and that sense of community is here to stay. There is a strong sense of kinship in each of these houses. If that sameness can withstand a pandemic, then it can withstand anything. For those who are interested, visit the SHC website for more information on how you can join a Student Housing Cooperative at MSU. 

Alec Parr is a junior studying professional and public writing. He works as a writing and communications intern at the College of Arts & Letters and acted as an editor for MSU’s VIM Magazine. When he is not at school or at work, Alec enjoys playing guitar, listening to all kinds of music, and spending time with his housemates at Bower, one of MSU’s student cooperative homes.