Arts & CultureCover Story

Continuing co-op culture: Inside Eugene’s historic student housing co-ops



Sun leaks in to the Janet Smith House’s living room, lighting dust particles and debris from maintenance work happening in the kitchen next door. A small white projector screen sits blank on a metal stand and there are pillows, instruments and other knick knacks scattered around the room. Just outside, a fridge with a sticker that reads “Meaty-Mcmeat-Face” quietly hums.

This is the room where most of the important housing decisions happen at the Janet Smith House, a cooperative living community on 18th and Alder. Members of the non-profit Students’ Cooperative Association in Eugene, including those who live at Janet Smith, the Lorax and the Campbell Club, make these decisions by consensus.

The Janet Smith house has separate refrigerators to accommodate the diets of its members. (Sarah Northrop/Emerald)

Other students might assume that the houses’ residents are hippies who throw large house shows all the time, or that the cheap rent ($433 for a single room, food and utilities) is the only reason worth living in a co-op. The Lorax and Campbell Club look like rustic castles on the outside, sometimes adding to this mystique. Co-op members say they see their houses as a respite from a sometimes harsh and difficult environment.

“For me, personally, honestly, I wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for the people in this house,” Mark Landon, a Janet Smith resident, said about the support the community has provided.

The setting sun beams on the rustic exterior of The Lorax. Members of Eugene’s Student Cooperative Association include those who live at the Lorax Manor, the Campbell Club and the Janet Smith house. (Sarah Northrop/Emerald)

Janet Smith members like Landon — specifically a slew of graduate students and non-traditional students — decide on everything from house quiet hours to accepting new members by reaching an agreement or consensus that everyone in the house can live with. Rather than have a vote on a specific rule or action with the majority winning, decisions must all be agreed upon.

For instance, the SCA board will have to decide to close one or two houses for a much-needed summer term renovation — a touchy subject among some house members because they would have to move out. Additionally, they’ve been losing money. According to the SCA’s nonprofit 990 tax documents, the organization reported financial losses from 2014 to 2016.

But the SCA, which has roots in Eugene dating back to the 1930s, is seeking to do more outreach in the UO community to change perceptions and increase students awareness of the co-ops.

In order to address the issues, the SCA says it plans to recruit more students by tabling at housing fairs and having more of a presence on campus, which is something it hasn’t done in recent years.

Most important decisions at the Janet Smith house happen during meetings in the living room. Everything is reached by consensus, where house members must all agree. (Sarah Northrop/Emerald)

For students who currently live in the co-ops, the houses are a place of intentional community — their members work a few hours a week to keep the community self-sufficient and thriving, and in return they have a ready-made community and a cheap place to live. Co-op members coordinate everything from house shows and events to shaping what the food budget is for the month.

Aakash Upraity, an environmental studies graduate student who lives at Janet Smith and served as its president last term, says one of his favorite parts of the decision making process is the hand gestures co-op members use. Besides the normal hand raise for voting or the raise of a fist to abstain, there are others, such as a jazz-hand style gesture to emphasize points made in discussion. With the 15 residents living there now, this is a way to value all voices, according to Upraity.

Susanna Payne-Passmore is a graduate student in the music school and a Janet Smith resident. They serve as the house’s treasurer and help coordinate the house’s food budget. (Sarah Northrop/Emerald)

Susanna Payne-Passmore, a graduate student in the music school and Janet Smith resident, serves as house treasurer and helps to coordinate the house’s food budget. They said that members of Janet Smith have a wide variety of dietary restrictions — from vegan diets to gluten sensitivities to an allergy to brassica (vegetables like cauliflower and broccoli), so they have to coordinate meals around those needs.

Landon helps cook meals and says he values the time he spends with other housemates when eating dinner. Dinner is at a set time everyday at Janet Smith. Its members sit down together and reflect on the day, naming their highs and lows, while eating meals such as rice and beans.

Janet Smith, because of its older residents, is sometimes known as the quiet house among SCA community members.The Campbell Club and Lorax Manor often have a younger and slightly larger membership population, and these two houses often hold more parties, house shows and events than Janet Smith.

Janet Smith house members are usually so engulfed in studying that they rarely hold events at the house. During the Emerald’s tour, Payne-Passmore repeatedly mentioned “thesis holes,” referencing graduate students’ deep studying.

The Janet Smith house is home to many graduate students. Inside its walls are a kitchen, living room, tool room, storage room, roof hatch and many bedrooms, as well as nooks where house members tend to study. (Sarah Northrop/Emerald)

But that doesn’t mean that Janet Smith’s members don’t have fun. On an upper floor of the house, a ladder leads to the roof where a little wooden deck covers the flat area. During the summer, its members like to watch the sunset there.

“People would be coming up here no matter what, so we decided to make it easier,” Payne-Passmore said.

Some members of Janet Smith have pets, and the walls are adorned with art prints, political posters and paintings of cherished house cat, Pichu. In the kitchen, a whiteboard is adorned with notes and Polaroids of the house’s current members.

Fifteen people live at Janet Smith right now, and the house is in disarray because of kitchen renovations, but still, its members say they enjoy living there, even when it becomes difficult with elbow-grease work abounding.

“I’m used to living in a functioning house, I guess,” Upraity said. “Which is why I definitely sought out a cooperative setting.”

While some students like Upraity live in co-ops because they don’t want to live alone, students like former SCA president Leni Ament and Payne-Passmore are drawn to cooperative living because it’s what they are used to. Ament grew up in Eugene and says she was drawn to the co-ops after living in the dorms for a year because she wanted a sense of involved community. She moved into the Lorax two years ago and just recently moved out.

A typical Janet Smith bedroom includes a bed and can be decorated and painted by the member that occupies it. (Sarah Northrop/Emerald)

Payne-Passmore was drawn to this specific living arrangement because it’s what they are used to. Payne-Passmore grew up Quaker, a religious community that uses consensus decision making, and when they came to Oregon to study music, they sought student co-ops because of the familiarity.

Everest Jarvik, who is moving from the Campbell Club to the Lorax, is a part time student at UO studying music technology. They have booked, organized and run shows at SCA houses and have found that living in an SCA house has not only provided a cheap place to live and a community, but an opportunity to acquire hands-on experience doing what they love.

Jarvik, who has lived in intentional communities their whole life, sought out the SCA after a bad experience with a roommate during their sophomore year. They walked past the Campbell Club and saw flyers for shows.

“Campus culture was starting to get me down a little bit,” Jarvik said of the time they found the Campbell Club. “Just like how many frats there are, a whole bunch of stuff like that.”

House membership still sometimes fluctuates due to turnover that happens normally in student populations, and the natural flow of people moving in and out with friends, according to Jarvik.

Other members of the SCA community say that despite the hard work and involvement it takes to live in the houses, the effort is generally worth the reward. The SCA houses, despite some contention between them at times, have served as intentional and supportive communities for those who live in them, food allergies and all. While some members of Janet Smith feel like the house serves a guiding role for the rest of the SCA, it still is worth being involved.

“I’m constantly so surprised at the amount of compassion, the amount of kindness, the amount of care my housemates have for me. I just often feel really alone in this world,” Landon said. “Knowing that I do have a family here is very amazing, just feeling like I am being a part of something bigger.”

 


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Sararosa Davies

Sararosa Davies

Sararosa Davies is the senior A&C editor at the Emerald. A former editor at the youth-run music blog Garage Music News, her written work has been featured in City Pages in Minneapolis, Eugene Weekly and Sirius XM's music blog. She's one of many Minnesotan transplants in Oregon.

Send her tips and questions at [email protected] or check out her work at www.sararosadavies.com