Among the mansion-like sororities that line M.A.C. Avenue, Orion Cooperative looks just like any other house. Students are usually seen chatting on the front porch — which is adorned by large white columns — or tending to the small gardens found in the yard.
Orion is a cooperative house that operates within Michigan State’s Student Housing Cooperative, or MSU SHC. It’s described on its website as “a non-profit, autonomous organization providing an affordable off-campus housing option to students and the Greater Lansing community.”
The registered student organization is made up of 17 houses, which are home to more than 240 members, and operates independently from the university.
Inside a co-op
Upon entering the Orion Co-Op house, psychology senior Lauren Dix held a large cat in her arms. The walls behind her were covered in brightly-colored murals that decorate most of the house’s interior.
Residents — and their pets — are seen mingling or working on homework in one of the many common areas. For Dix and her housemates, this is business as usual.
“You realize that you really like your alone time, or you don’t,” Dix said. “You can choose to be alone or you can choose to be a part of things. There’s always things going on ... people want to go out and do this or that, but you always have somebody that you can talk to.”
While this constant state of togetherness can foster a fun, happy environment, it can also — understandably — lead to occasional conflict. When these conflicts arise, Dix said members of the house work together to tackle the issue without sacrificing civility.
“I’ve also learned to use effective communication. Obviously, when you put 24 people together, there’s going to be different opinions (and) there’s going to be different ideologies on certain things. But it’s a cooperative for a reason,” she said. “You’re here with the notion to know that you’re going to be cooperative, but for some people that may be a different definition than others.”
As for the issue of house duties and responsibilities, Dix said everybody pitches in.
Chores are allocated equally between the members every week, and each house has their own way of implementing this system.
Emma Albrecht, a packaging senior living in the Phoenix Co-Op house, thinks this unique structure works better for some people than it does for others.
“The main thing that comes along with living in a house within the SHC is that cooperative element of it,” Albrecht said. “You do have to understand that when you sign up to live in one of those houses, you are going to have to be working cooperatively with your housemates. It’s not like a traditional apartment where if your roommate doesn’t do the dishes, you just bicker at each other and eventually the dishes get done.”
If members don’t do the dishes in a co-op, Albrecht said they get fined $10 — and whoever ends up doing them receives that fine.
“Stuff like that, where it can work really well for you, but it also understandably can get expensive if you aren’t in a space where you can be cooperative,” she said.
This concept can be quite daunting for people who have never lived in a house, not to mention those who are not used to doing chores.
Those core values of togetherness and cooperation are of utmost importance to the SHC, and all members of a house must be committed to upholding these ideals, Albrecht said.
She said equality is the driving force of most of the co-ops on campus, and the members are dedicated to maintaining this.
“Everything is done together. No one member of the house is above any other, we are all equal. Any decisions that are made in the house that will effect everyone are made on a vote basis,” she said. “For example, if we wanted to take part of our budget to buy something different than what we usually do, we would have to all vote on it as a house. So everything is done on an equal basis.
Types of co-ops
The 17 houses within the SHC are Apollo, Beal, Bower, Bowie, Ferency, Harambee, Hedrick, Howland, Miles Davis, New Community (also known as NewComm), Orion, Phoenix, Raft Hill, Rivendell, Shire, Toad Lane and Vesta.
The smallest of these houses are Toad Lane and Shire, which are each home to only five members. The largest is Phoenix, which has 29 members.
Sophomore environmental engineering Jac Stelly, a current member of Phoenix, said there are many opportunities to socialize with members of other houses. Most parties and social events held at the houses are open to all active members of the SHC.
“I think (the community aspect) varies house to house. I know some co-ops are a little bit less involved and don’t really throw or really go to parties,” Stelly said. “(Phoenix) is a house where we’re always super welcoming to anyone that’s happy to come, usually it is co-op people. Usually, every weekend one co-op or the other is having something, and you’re always welcome ... It’s a pretty cool thing.”
Historically, co-ops have been a place for students from all backgrounds to come together and live in a community setting. This creates an environment where all kinds of individuals can express themselves freely and without judgement, Stelly said.
“A lot of people do have the same ways of thinking about things and the same kind of priorities. But, there’s a big range of characters, and this is an environment that lets people be different characters. It’s a little bit more independent, which is good too,” he said. “That freedom is just a different kind of freedom. This is an environment where you really have an opportunity to express yourself as a different character.”
Misconceptions about co-ops
Albrecht said many students are not fully aware of what kind of people live in co-ops, or what co-ops are all about.
“Some people describe (co-ops) as just frats for hippies. Like, co-ed frats for hippies,” Albrecht said. “But, I think the main reason why that gets resisted is because it is a little bit more than that. You do have to be really cooperative. We don’t have cooks, we don’t have people that come and clean our house and take care of our lawn — that’s all on you.”
Too often, the somewhat warped viewpoints many students have of co-ops can lead to misunderstandings and can contribute to tension between members of the SHC and other student groups, she said.
“Right now, college common culture is Greek life,” she said. “It’s more about the fact that we don’t follow that status quo. People don’t understand us, and I don’t blame them for the assumptions they make. I don’t take it personally. It is frustrating that there is tension and people don’t understand what we’re about, but I also understand that it’s not a personal attack on us, it’s just a misunderstanding.”
How to join a co-op
So, how does one go about joining a co-op?
It isn’t as hard as some might think. The process allows prospective members to tour houses they are interested in so they can get a feel for the environment and dynamic of the house, as well as its members.
“We want to empower our members to be able to say no, and to be able to say who they want to live with,” Albrecht said. “For me, I want my housemates to feel empowered to stand up for themselves if there is something going on. We want to make sure everyone is comfortable, that’s really the most important thing for us.”
Many would describe living in a co-op as being a part of a family. This is a large factor that draws people to the co-op lifestyle, and it continues on long after graduation, Orion resident Mike Zandstra said.
Zandstra is a graduate student who has lived in the co-op for two years. He said alumni often stay connected with the house and its members by paying visits or sending keepsakes that remind them of their old home.
“When you move in to Orion, specifically, you’re a member for life. So, you’re always welcome back to the house. We stay in contact with a lot of alumni, it’s cool,” Zandstra said. “Everyone who’s lived in the house, we all have a history. The house itself has a history that connects all of us.”
While the cooperative lifestyle might not be a good fit for everyone, Dix said it is a great option for students seeking affordable housing and a community full of open-minded individuals who are passionate about working together to create a balanced, peaceful and fulfilling environment. This, Dix said, is what makes co-op living so wonderful.
“It’s not just simply a place to live, it’s a place to have a life,” she said. “You’re not just living for a roof over your head — you’re living here for the people, the culture and to be a part of the house.”