Caelynn Christoff began to feel at home when her housemates slathered their living room walls with a paint aptly dubbed “Cheese Puff.”
She’d preferred another bright but non-orange paint color, but Behr’s Cheese Puff prevailed in a house vote. The act of coming together to paint the living room helped them bond, communicate and collaborate. That moment, now a year ago, came mere months into the tenure of the Ingram Co-op, one of 11 legal co-ops in Boulder and one of four owned by the Boulder Housing Coalition, a nonprofit that creates cooperative housing and helps guide applicants through the process.
“I lost the vote, and that’s part of living in a community,” Christoff said. “Once it was up, I was really happy.”
Ingram Co-op gave Christoff, a sixth generation Boulderite, an affordable way to return to Boulder and settle in the neighborhood to which her parents brought her home from the hospital when she was born, Martin Acres, as well as find a tight-knit community focused on sustainability.
Cooperative housing, advocates say, is a sliver of Boulder’s affordable housing pie, as well as a tool to battle the growing epidemic of social isolation.
Once labeled by a former councilman as “the most closely watched houses in the city of Boulder,” co-ops are not without their critics. The bruising, emotional debate over the co-op ordinance two years ago illuminated contrasting opinions about how a city — and neighbors — should define a home.
In the years since its passage, it also has provided an example of the creative ways in which the city can address its affordable housing crisis. In the fourth quarter of last year, the average rent for all types of apartments in Boulder and Broomfield counties was $1,589.36, while a recent inventory found the median sales price for single-family homes in Boulder County to be $610,000. Co-op residents — both in permanently affordable and market rate co-ops — interviewed for this article reported paying well under $1,000 per month, often including food and other living expenses.
Approval of ordinance
After a yearlong process that included four public hearings, thousands of comments and emotionally charged moments, city council in the early hours of Jan. 4, 2017, approved the co-op ordinance in a 7-2 vote.
The vote came as a relief to people who were already living in or planned to live in co-ops, and their supporters. But it came amid threats of referendums, which never materialized, by people who opposed them.
Boulder now has 11 legal co-ops, three of which were established prior to the new ordinance and fall under legal conforming uses, and another eight that the city licensed in 2017 and 2018.
Councilman Sam Weaver, one of the seven who voted for the regulation, said he thought the ordinance sparked such controversy because neighborhood groups feared that it — and the accessory dwelling unit regulation that followed later — served as the first step in the undoing of single-family home zoning in Boulder.
“I think the neighborhood groups saw it as the first step in rezoning all single-family neighborhoods to be more developer-centric,” Weaver said. “I didn’t see it that way, and I still don’t. I think we were careful with both the co-op and the ADU ordinances to make sure that they were legitimately for the purposes that people advocate for them. I think it’s turned out that way.”
Lincoln Miller, on the other hand, said the ordinance was the latest in a seemingly never-ending list of projects opposed by powerful neighborhood groups who believe any inconveniences they might face outweigh the affordability such projects provide to people in the community.
“It’s very difficult to get something done that’s politically progressive in Boulder,” said Miller, the executive director of the Boulder Housing Coalition. “I know that people like to think that we’re a very progressive community, but the reality is that we’re not. We’re, on average, a very conservative community in many ways, especially when it comes to housing and affordable housing.
“For every project, every single project, there’s a lineup of people that want to stop that project from happening.”
One strategy in toolbox
The fears people had about co-ops, most said, have not been borne out. The city’s Code Compliance Department has received no complaints, according to a city spokeswoman. City staff have investigated and sanctioned one co-op for a short-term rental operation.
More than a half-dozen neighbors of co-ops and previously outspoken critics declined to comment or did not return requests for comment. However, those who agreed to speak said often the biggest complaints now are over parking and pets.
Leonard May, a member of citizen advocacy group PLAN-Boulder County but speaking for himself, said those are the most common issues at the co-op he lives near, but he noted those are not issues specific to co-ops. Rather, he said, he would like to see the city move away from a neighbor-based complaint system because of the way it pits neighbors against one another.
“My feeling is that the neighbor has been responsive,” May said. “It arises periodically and we tell them and they take measures. That’s a workable system.”
Bennett Scharf has owned a home in Martin Acres since 1990 and is the treasurer for the neighborhood association. He said he expects his neighborhood to remain low-density residential as it was when he moved in. The neighborhood has braced against developers, he said, and he felt the co-op ordinance was forced upon them.
“I look at this as a covenant that the city provided,” he said. “We have this unspoken, unwritten agreement with the city that we expect it to stay that way.”
He sees the current council with its slow growth majority as an improvement, and he hasn’t heard recent complaints from neighbors about the co-op.
“I’m pretty happy now,” he said. “I know I have to accept change, so I just want it to be controlled and slow.”
The ordinance was drafted strictly enough that only those truly committed are able to launch co-ops, advocates and council members said, and outlines an exhaustive and expensive application process. The city’s cooperative licensing fee is $645, but co-op members say roughly the full process costs more than $1,000 including the time completing one consumes.
Several council members said they have not received complaints in the intervening years, and co-op residents said they strive to be good neighbors — honoring parking restrictions, tending to gardens and lawns and hosting community events for their neighborhoods.
Councilwoman Lisa Morzel, who voted against the ordinance because she took issue with the public process and felt it was skewed against people who had concerns about co-ops, said she nevertheless supports co-ops.
“I hope everybody has come through the co-op process and recognizes it’s OK and that co-ops are just one of many tools in our toolbox for housing solutions,” she said.
For people who were already living in co-ops, the ordinance also provided a reprieve from the threat of eviction.
“The sense of confidence and less fear is a real shift that I’ve felt,” said Savannah Kruger, who has lived at the Folsom Funny Farm Co-op for four years.
The biggest challenges co-ops now face are navigating a stringent application process and finding affordable real estate.
“The biggest challenge with making co-ops under the ordinance is the market itself,” Miller said. “Every day the cost of land is going up, and it’s running away from us. Every day it’s harder to buy a new co-op. That’s the real challenge.”
However, co-op residents said, the homes they create are worth the challenges.
‘You live in abundance’
Boulder’s co-ops have grown slowly, but advocates say they have provided affordability, sustainability, skill building and community to their residents.
“I think it’s pretty clear that Boulder wants managed growth,” said Eric Budd, a Boulder Housing Coalition board member. “That means whenever we change anything, there’s a lot of process, there’s a lot of regulation, and the steps are very incremental. That is typically what I expect going forward, but I do think that the success we see from housing cooperatives so far shows that taking those steps can really bring some progress on housing to the community in a way that enhances the community overall.”
Residents find community not only within their homes, but also through a network of other non-residential co-ops that allow them to share in a herd of goats and purchase food in bulk.
“You live in abundance in a really different kind of way than if we were living alone,” said Emma Thomas, who lives at the Picklebric Co-op.
Residents often share dinners, hash out matters in house meetings and divvy up household chores — including accounting and food ordering.
On a recent Saturday, as the sun fought to cut through a layer of clouds, Ingram Co-op residents were joined by Boulder Housing Coalition board members and other co-op residents to tackle their lawn in a quarterly work day. They’d inherited a yard filled with lava rock, so their first task was to corral the ashy red rocks into corners of the lawn and cart away the overflow.
Then, they set to the task of unfurling rolls of sod, installing planter boxes and outlining what will become an herb and flower garden in the front yard. Music played through a speaker propped on the edge of the lawn, and they came together for lunch that several of them prepared as the others labored in the yard.
Several housemates had chopped fresh vegetables, scooped lentils from a 24-quart tub to turn into soup, prepared a fresh salad, browned flatbreads in a pan and mixed fresh batches of lemonade and limeade.
In the front yard, Malik Salsberry alternated between a shovel and a pickaxe, sinking them into the earth to create a hollow for a boulder, which would guide water through a future herb bed. He’s an AmeriCorps Vista volunteer serving at Community Food Share and living at Ingram Co-op. AmeriCorps Vista is a national service program.
He’s the house’s garden steward, who will be responsible for weeding, mowing, groundskeeping and planting an oasis of San Marzano tomatoes, a variety of roasting and slicing peppers, eggplant, cucumber and radishes, as well as the herb bed and various fruit trees.
Salsberry said that beyond the community he’s found here, he also is proud to be contributing to a culture and home that will outlast his time living there.
“We won’t necessarily get the best cherry harvest or the best lilac blooms,” Salsberry said, as he continued to carve a hole for the boulder. “Our soil probably won’t be as good as it will be in 10 years, when it’s really worked, but the fact we’re able to give this foundation for the house and for future housemates is really reassuring for the future.”
WHY House, Table Mesa neighborhood, 7-person occupancy
The Beet Collective, Martin Acres neighborhood, 10-person occupancy
Ash Co-op, Newlands neighborhood, 12-person occupancy
Harmony House, Arapahoe Ridge neighborhood, 12-person occupancy
Folsom Funny Farm, north-central Boulder, 11-person occupancy
Picklebric, Lower Chautauqua neighborhood, 12-person occupancy
Rad-ish, Martin Acres neighborhood, 10-person occupancy
Ingram Court Community Housing, Martin Acres neighborhood, 12-person occupancy
Established prior to new ordinance:
Chrysalis, Whittier neighborhood, 16-person occupancy
Masala, Lower Arapahoe neighborhood, 16-person occupancy
Ostara, North Boulder Park neighborhood, 26-person occupancy