Katherine Millersdaughter recently went from being a partnered, stay-at-home mother of two girls to a newly single mom trying to support herself and her family on the salary of a part-time instructor at the University of Colorado.

Yet she's been able to stay in her old neighborhood and keep her daughters in their old school by securing a spot in North Haven, the third and largest cooperative housing site of the Boulder Housing Coalition.

"My kids love it here," Millersdaughter said. "It's the proverbial village that it takes to raise a family."

Located at the corner of Ninth and North streets in the Mapleton Hill neighborhood, the building that opened as North Haven in October used to consist of eight two-bedroom apartments operated by Boulder Housing Partners.

Boulder Housing Coalition, a nonprofit, community housing-development organization with many of the capabilities of a housing authority, bought and converted the building into a 22-bedroom cooperative house that includes two, two-bedroom apartments reserved for families and another 18 bedrooms arranged around a large common area.

The 26 residents range in age from four to 65 and include three single mothers with their children. The affordable rent combined with the bulk buying power of the co-op means residents can live within walking distance of downtown on $12,000 a year. Organizers said they easily could have filled the co-op four times over.

Advocates for cooperative housing say communal living has the potential to meet many of Boulder's stated goals on affordable housing, alternative transportation and carbon emissions. And the city has supported cooperative housing with substantial grants to Boulder Housing Coalition for each of its three co-ops -- North Haven, Masala and Chrysalis.

Yet city regulations make it difficult or even impossible to develop more of this kind of housing, advocates say. There's not a single co-op in Boulder currently operating under the city's cooperative housing ordinance, although there are believed to be several dozen organized under rules governing boarding houses. Others simply operate illegally.

The biggest culprit is Boulder's occupancy ordinance, which says that no more than three unrelated people can live together in a house or apartment. But parking and setback requirements also limit the ability to develop more cooperative housing.

Advocates hope a new City Council, with several members who campaigned on finding flexible solutions to the city's housing challenges, will take a fresh look at the city's rules and regulations and find a way to make it easier to build more cooperative housing.

"Folks in Boulder say we want our community to be affordable and sustainable, but policy-wise, there are some positions that make that harder to accomplish," said Sabrina Sideris, board president of the Boulder Housing Coalition.

Sideris moved out of Masala earlier this year after living there for six years because her girlfriend runs a business from home, a difficult fit with the sometimes frenetic life in a co-op.

'I was afraid of solitude'

But Sideris remains passionate about expanding access to cooperative housing in Boulder.

When people live separately, it increases their costs and their impact on the environment, she said. Eight apartments means eight leaky sinks, eight toilets, eight refrigerators.

Co-op residents share facilities, meaning a larger number of people can use fewer appliances, less energy and less water. They can share pots and pans and tools, and they can also pool their resources to buy food in bulk.

The rent at North Haven is $550 a month for a room, but much deeper cost savings occur for food and utilities.

The residents of co-op housing include some graduate students, but also artists, writers, people working in the nonprofit sector and people starting their own businesses.

Co-op housing provides a way for members of the creative class who don't come from wealth to live in and contribute to Boulder, Sideris said.

It also meets emotional needs that residents say would be hard to meet elsewhere.

Living at North Haven provides Millersdaughter with much-needed adult company.

"I wanted the community," she said. "I wanted the big family dinners. I wanted the voices. I was afraid of solitude."

Millersdaughter has one of the two two-bedroom apartments that stand apart from the main building, but she frequently joins the rest of the community for dinner, and her children are in and out of the common room.

Zane Selvans, a coalition board member who lives at Masala, 744 Marine St., an 11-bedroom co-op in a historic home, said he's enough of an introvert that it takes a lot of energy to seek out social interaction outside his home. Living at Masala prevents him from becoming too isolated, he said.

Ellie Haberl, a graduate student in education at the University of Colorado, lived "in community" for a summer in Scotland and felt cared for and able to care for others in a way she had not in other living situations.

She had just moved to Boulder to begin a Ph.D. program, and she wanted a community around her. She found it in North Haven.

"I know that's an important part of happiness for me," she said.

Haberl describes the advantages and challenges as being one and the same.

"Whatever you're working on in yourself, living in community brings that up and gives you a chance to heal it," she said.

But she's quick to add that co-op living isn't all about self-improvement. It's also "just a really fun, joyful, playful environment."

Breaking bread

On a recent Thursday evening, several residents of North Haven worked together in a large kitchen to make dinner for the entire house. There was red sauce, pasta, spaghetti squash, salad, black beans and pesto.

The co-op buys many products in bulk, but also makes weekly trips to the Boulder Farmers' Market. Pooling their resources means the residents buy local, organic food while staying within their budget.

Before the meal, the residents gather in a circle, hold hands, welcome their guests -- including a Daily Camera reporter and photographer -- and express their gratitude.

Each resident commits to six hours of work per week, and a labor steward helps organize the tasks. There are weekly meetings to talk about how things are working.

Ethan Cowan, North Haven's representative on the Boulder Housing Coalition board, said the house inherited a lot of good ideas and experience from Masala and Chrysalis, but the community also is working to develop its own values and processes around work, living together and resolving differences.

Lincoln Miller, executive director of the Boulder Housing Coalition and its only paid employee, said he hopes Boulder looks at its cooperative housing ordinance, at the occupancy limit and at how the code treats density. Density creates opportunities for affordable living, for alternative transportation and for deep carbon reductions.

"A Boulder of 100,000 people is not sustainable," Miller said. "And the PLAN-Boulder folks need to rethink where they are coming from. They want to keep Boulder the way it is, which means a Boulder that is more and more rich and white."

Boulder's cooperative housing ordinance envisions houses that are jointly owned by six to eight people, depending on the lot size. It's a conditional use that requires the approval of the city manager and regular renewals of the permit.

Co-ops owned jointly by the residents are known as "equity" co-ops, as opposed to rental co-ops.

Currently, there is not a single cooperative house in Boulder as defined by city code.

Boulder Housing Coalition's co-ops, which are rental co-ops, were approved as boarding houses under the city code.

City Planner Charles Ferro said it doesn't seem that rental co-ops were even part of the discussion in the mid-'90s when the cooperative housing ordinance was brought forward.

The idea at the time was that owning a share in an equity co-op would provide a more affordable entry into home ownership for some people.

'Too many restrictions'

Will Toor, a former Boulder mayor and Boulder County commissioner who was involved in developing the cooperative housing ordinance, said he now believes focusing on equity co-ops was a mistake.

Toor lived in the co-op that would eventually become Masala until 1999. The building had been carved up into four separate units, each of which could house up to four people, allowing a large number of people to live there in a fashion that would not have been allowed under current code. The house was then converted back into a single home for 12 to 14 residents.

The co-op was an equity co-op, so that was the model that advocates put forward.

But without the opportunity to experience co-op living first, few people were interested in forming new co-ops that would require coming up with a down payment, said Selvans, the coalition board member who lives at Masala.

Getting the opportunity to live in a rental co-op could pave the way for more equity co-ops, but first the city needs to expand opportunities for people to live in communal environments, he said.

Toor also believes co-ops should have simply been an allowed use in many residential zones and that co-op permits should not have been set to expire.

"It turned out in practice to have too many restrictions to be workable," he said.

City planners, perhaps unsurprisingly, have a different view of how well the city's code is working. They said they feel good that they were able to find solutions that allowed the coalition to develop Chrysalis and North Haven while still following city code. They're open to working with the coalition again.

And they have done additional training with frontline staff about how group living quarters might be developed so that applicants don't get shot down right away, before more creative solutions are explored.

But overall, Boulder doesn't get many requests to develop cooperative housing.

Ferro, the city planner, said Boulder can't just waive parking and other requirements because residents of cooperative housing tend to be environmentally minded.

"Ownership changes over time, and if they ended up selling to a different operator who had a different ethos, we need to make sure we're not going to put any neighborhood at risk in the future," he said.

Any changes to make the code more flexible should be part of a broader policy discussion, he said.

That discussion is not currently happening, but it could.

'Very significant demand'

Several current City Council members repeatedly have said they would like the code to be more flexible when it comes to cooperative housing, and newly elected Councilwoman Mary Young, a former Planning Board member, made a point of highlighting cooperative housing as an affordable and environmentally sustainable alternative during her campaign.

The city is looking to develop a comprehensive housing strategy, and cooperative housing is one option among many that will be evaluated during that process.

The City Council also could choose to direct the planning staff to look at cooperative housing independently from that initiative.

Jeff Yegian, acting manager of the city's housing division, said he recognizes the opportunity presented by cooperative housing.

"They very clearly have demonstrated a very significant demand for the housing opportunities they offer," he said of the coalition. "How deep that demand is remains to be seen. If there is room for two or three more properties, that is something the city would likely support.

"If it were 40 or 50 properties, that could make a significant impact on affordable housing."

As for density, Millersdaughter said neighbors who worry about the impacts of so many people in a single home should understand that people who live in cooperative housing have made a commitment to take care of the property and the community.

"Instead of bringing mess and disorder and annoyance, we're bringing intention and creativity and a commitment to order and cleanliness," she said. "We're providing a space where isolation and alienation no longer exist."

Contact Camera Staff Writer Erica Meltzer at 303-473-1355, meltzere@dailycamera.com or twitter.com/meltzere.