Last Saturday founding members of the Spartan Housing Cooperative, more commonly known as the MSU Student Co-ops, gathered for a 50th-anniversary reunion. The question on everyone’s mind: “Are we voting on anything today?”
“Seriously though, that is such a co-op thing,” quipped executive director Holly Jo Sparks, who is going into her 10th year as co-op organization’s leader. About 15 people had RSVPed, but Sparks expected far more. “It’s just like that with co-op people,” she said, “You try to sit down in a restaurant with four or five people and all of a sudden you run into someone, then three more. Then, you’re pushing tables together.”
She was right: About 40 attended, crowding into a pavilion outside Potter Park Zoo.
Addressing them, Sparks recalled hearing Grace Lee Boggs, a late author and social activist, speak about the “critical and often overlooked potential of young people to change the world.” Sparks spoke about how making decisions together about seemingly mundane things like home repair or dishes is an exercise that changes its participants and teaches people to work together. She remarked on the intensity of living in shared space. Her lesson was that learning to live with other people you don’t know at all is challenging, but it promotes skills that apply to the rest of adult life.
The co-op’s current president, Clay Griffith, always wanted to live in a co-op. Griffith’s interest in cooperative living stemmed from a passion for social justice and a desire to “be a revolutionary” that began as far back as middle school. While researching “Movement houses,” or places where “intentional” living and political organizing took place, Griffith became interested in living in a student co-op. “I just thought, ‘When I get to college, that’s when my life is going to start.”
Other current “co-operators” Ester Lee and Rowan Price are in graduate programs, both choosing to live in shared housing after positive experiences during their undergraduate degrees. Lee described cooperative housing as a “small-scale experiment” that teaches important skills like conflict resolution, facilitation, and home ownership and repair. After school, she is interested in translating her experience into the realm of cooperative finance. Price described how co-ops bring together an interesting diversity of people and spoke fondly of sharing the history of the houses across generations.
Ingham County Treasurer Alan Fox was the first student ever elected to the East Lansing City Council in 1977. A former “co-op kid,” Fox spoke at the reunion the reunion about changes to East Lansing and Greater Lansing over the past 50 years and the need to address our area’s housing crisis. “We are 40,000 housing units short of what’s needed, and we’re only building about 1,500 per year.” Fox stressed that alternative models to single-family housing are crucial.
Jim Jones, one of the co-op organization’s founders, had returned from a four-year stint in the Peace Corps in 1971 to find a nation completely changed by the “Summer of Love,” Woodstock, and the mass protests for feminism and LGBTQ rights. Unable to find a teaching job, he enrolled in graduate school at age 29 and lived in the co-ops as a way to avoid social isolation.
Back then, houses like Montie, Elsworth (now the David Bowie Memorial Coop) and Hedrick were loosely organized through an organization called the Inter-Cooperative Council. There was also a 45-member women’s co-op called Ulrey on Abbot Road, named for the “godfather” of East Lansing cooperative housing, Orion Ulrey. At the time, these houses had radical differences along political and cultural divides. Jones remembers that in 1971, Montie House was “a very conservative place filled with fraternity types. They thought we were the dirty hippies and the activists,” while Hedrick House was a middle-of-the-road community known for its longevity. Jones referred to his friend Phil Bazzo as the “technician,” saying that Bazzo understood the paperwork required to get the houses incorporated and get through the jargon and red tape. Bazzo noted that it was Jones’ kindness and maturity that were the driving forces in making it all work together.
One of the primary goals of Spartan Housing Cooperative in 1971 was to purchase housing for the Ulrey women and to provide a financial base to expand ownership. Jones described cooperative housing as an alternative ecosystem of home ownership that, even and especially today, offers hope to the consumer.
Having worked nationally with the North American Students of Cooperation, Jones has seen co-ops all over the country. Still, he noted that Spartan is one of the most innovative and special cooperative communities, attributing this to the Midwestern roots of so many at Michigan State University. “People here don’t want to just talk about things, you actually want to get things done.”
After some good natured jokes about land contracts, plumbing and the nature of meetings, Jones ended his speech by reading aloud an excerpt from the 1972 SHC Annual Report:
“This year has been…….Eventful. Since our last Annual Meeting we’ve had 4 Presidents, 4 Treasurers, 2 Secretaries and ½ Business Manager. We’ve had fights, threatened withdrawals, traumas, and lost opportunities. Bus somehow we’ve survived, and even grown… And most, important of all, we have become a little more aware of our power to cooperatively control our lives... I think that many people have learned this year how much simple cooperation can accomplish, and how much division can destroy. Call this the educational function of cooperatives. It’s our greatest asset.”
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