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Interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Logan Square Cooperative is handsome Chicago brick building on an oversized city lot with one 3-bedroom unit, one 2-bedroom unit, five 1-bedroom units, and one studio. The eight households each have their own residence with a kitchen, a living room, and bathroom, but the group shares a large backyard, multi-use spaces in the basement, and some utilities, to name a few.

They’ve chosen the cooperative model as a legal and governance structure. This means that the founders came together as a group to form a nonprofit corporation, and the corporation “owns” the property. As shareholders who invested in the corporation, they have a right to occupy their units.

Their co-op also uses a limited equity model to keep their units affordable far into the future, preserving a sliver of affordable housing in the quickly gentrifying Logan Square neighborhood of Chicago.

Audrey, JoLynn, Cory, and Mark represent four of the eight units. On a lovely fall day in 2017, they sat down and shared their story.

So, Audrey, JoLynn, Cory, and Mark — you were founding members back in 2001. What were your original motivations for considering a co-op?

Mark: Several of us were being displaced. In the last decade, Logan Square has gentrified rapidly, so a lot of artists and people who traditionally live in this neighborhood have been priced out. It was maybe Maureen who said her landlords were going to either increase the rent, or they were selling the building so she would have to move.

Audrey: My husband, Michael, kind of knew Judi and Maureen through some social justice work. This was forming and that’s how we came into the process.

Mark: We wanted to have an ownership situation.

And JoLynn, you joined a few years ago, what triggered your decision to consider this co-op?

JoLynn: I didn’t have to move — I owned a condominium in Rogers Park which had gone up in value and then dropped in value. But really I was looking to be in more of a community. In my condo situation some people were much more involved than others. Other people treated it very much like a rental situation, where they didn’t participate in any of the decision-making or any of the work. There was not a sense that if there was a conflict, there was a responsibility to solve it. It was: “If you don’t like it, too bad.”

Mark: And correct me if I’m wrong, JoLynn had been aware of us and come to our open houses, because she was interested in cooperative living.

JoLynn: Yes, I found the unit on the Cooperative Communities of Chicago website, and there were three co-ops that had openings at the same time. I visited each of them, applied here, and got accepted!

There are a lot of ways to share property among a trusted group — why the cooperative structure?

Audrey: Financially most people couldn’t afford a down payment on a condominium or a home. That seemed out of reach for us, but a membership in a co-op with shared responsibilities [seemed more reasonable].

Mark: I think because many of us were doing work in social justice, nonprofits, community organizing … the cooperative structure seemed like a very democratic way of ownership.

Audrey: Also the limited equity nature of the co-op was a way to live out some of those values around affordable housing and housing as a right for everyone. The building could remain affordable if we structured it right over time even after we are gone.

Can you define “limited equity” for those who may not know about it?

Mark: If you buy a building or condo now, you can sell it for whatever the market is willing to pay for it. So limited equity is saying that you are putting some sort of limit on the value of a property. The value of your building may double over time as your neighborhood gentrifies, but limited equity is just saying, no, this building can never be sold for more than X number of dollars. And there’s lots of different formulas around that.

Audrey: Also if you want to — which we all did when we first moved in — make improvements to your bathroom or to a kitchen, there’s a cap. We’ve decided on what the cap can be. You would get that back for the work you put in on top of your transfer value, even if you put in more than that cap.

It sounds like limited equity allows members to gain a reasonable amount of added value back from their investment, but prevents it from being exorbitant, something many developers are keen to exploit.

How else has living like this been beneficial over living among random neighbors?

Audrey: Shared responsibility around ownership. For example, we’re getting ready next spring to put on a new roof. If you owned your own property … I don’t know, it just seems easier to kind of plan around that. And for there to be shared responsibility around the decision-making and around the financing of things like that. It feels like it’s not so overwhelming. It’s kind of a shared responsibility.

It feels like it’s not so overwhelming. It’s kind of a shared responsibility.

Cory: Having all of my family in other states and being the only one in the Chicago outpost for my family, these folks have assumed, unknowingly or not, some role … being that they have expectations of me. I’m fortunate, and I’m really really happy to have these people. We work through things together.

We work through things together.

Each of you have your own unit and your own privacy. But how has a support network been helpful?

Mark: As you saw coming in, I enjoy having the benefits of fresh vegetables and herbs. When it comes in, it’s almost more than we can handle even with eight units. And I do not put very much or any effort into growing them. We fortunately have some members here who are very good gardeners.

JoLynn: Just the casual interactions — that we see each other, say hi. If you need something, you can feel comfortable asking somebody for something. You know everybody — there are no strangers.

Mark: We have a fairly sizable bike collection including some orphaned ones, so we’ve made some of them guest bikes. If anyone comes over that needs a bike they can grab one.

Audrey: We share our washers and dryers. We share recycling. There’s a small kitchen appliance lending library. If there’s something that you don’t want or can be reused, it’s put in a central place. All those elements of community, like sharing resources.

How else do you benefit from living this way which you couldn’t achieve if you were renting or owning a condo/home as an individual?

Audrey: Knowing who other people are in the building and that sense of safety. I like knowing when I hear activity above me at three in the morning, that’s probably Mark coming back from his rideshare, or hearing the kids, or just knowing who the people are.

Mark: I remember early on a man had climbed over the fence and had gotten in. I had no idea, but another member noticed and approached him in a non-threatening way and he ran off and jumped this other fence. But the reason why it sticks in my mind is there’s always someone watching out. Whether it’s something like that or even a UPS/Fedex package being left, somebody will grab it for you. We have another member here who monitors police and emergency scanners on a regular basis. So if there’s police on our block, he’ll know what’s going on.

Audrey: A couple of summers ago, we’re on the first floor, and we heard this woman screaming “Let me alone, let me alone!” We look out and saw this guy and this young woman. I ran out our front door in my t-shirt and barefoot and then Michael my husband, he ran out too. And neither one of us brought keys. So the police were called and everything happened, and then we realized that we couldn’t get back into our apartment. Since we didn’t want to ring doorbells, Michael climbed up the back and went up to one of the members and knocked on their window. They saw it was him, were able to let him in, and we were able to get into our unit.

What kind of memories/activities do you share as a group?

Cory: We’ve gathered offsite on occasion and gone camping a couple of times. So it’s elements of community that just emerge in expected ways. Soon we’ll be carving pumpkins.

Mark: I can also add, in terms of memorable, both of my kids were born here, so that’s always something that I’ll remember. Over the years we’ve had other kids who’ve lived here. So when they come back and visit, it’s nice.

It’s clear that the benefits are numerous and they are invaluable to everyone in your group.

Let’s talk about what groups can expect along the way if they decide to design their own version of what you have.

To start off, how many people were initially interested or involved in the founding of your co-op?

Audrey: We had people interested who had been living in Rogers Park and near Uptown who also were experiencing rent increases. A lot of people came and went.

Mark: But that whole process of looking at twenty-four buildings, and having people come and go — that was a full year. We closed on this building in August of 2001.

Audrey: Yeah, and even before then, people had been meeting and talking. We met probably every week or every other week, very regularly. Looking at buildings — that felt like it was almost every weekend, almost every Sunday. Every week there was a meeting or looking at a building.

Many groups are looking to recruit people or find their core group. But how do you find people you can trust to go in on this huge decision? In fact, it’s very similar to starting a business together. Can you talk about how trust plays a role?

Mark: In the beginning we didn’t really know each other that well, but I think the process of meeting every week helps build up that trust — that everybody has good intentions.

Audrey: But I think everybody knew somebody. There was some connection. So Gary and Judi knew Kelly. Maureen knew Nina and then Nina brought in David. And JoLynn had come to open houses. There were connections, and once we had a building and you had something to show people when they came — that was a pretty big selling point.

Mark: It speaks to the very beginning when we drafted these Principles of Unity. Everyone that came into the fold had some sort of connection with that — worked in a nonprofit, social justice. If it’s just random people, then you might have more difficulty establishing that trust. So maybe the advice is what principles of unity can you all agree upon? That process might build some trust.

What principles of unity can you all agree upon? That process might build some trust.

Audrey: Also within our interview process, we’re asking questions about what kind of experience people have had in the past with consensus, or being a part of a group, or what kind of skills do people think they would bring. We look at people’s finances — are people financially stable, or would they have a plan if they lost their job, etc. I think all those help to reinforce trust as well.

Making decisions alone is easy, but much harder as a group. This is arguably the biggest difference people who are used to renting or privately owning will face. What have you learned about group decision-making?

Mark: To me it’s the whole consensus decision making. I think we experience it every day. In other living situations, you either own your own place so you can make all the decisions. Or in condo situation, it’s probably just majority rule. Here we just have to find the space to have some dialogue. It does become like a family. I find that family dynamics often come into play around things. Over the years, I’ve found that people have different ideas about aesthetics, so even discussions about what color to paint the windows, what to plant in the garden can become lengthy discussions. So I think it’s really made us focus on communication and empathy.

Audrey: Also just the value of compromise — being able to ask “Is this really important? Is this what i want to live and die by?” It might be a function of age too, where you start thinking, “Can I just let this go because it’s important to someone else?” That might not be the case if you’re living on your own — everything is as you would like it. But when you’re sharing resources with other people, you come some kind of peace with being ok to compromise.

If you’re living on your own — everything is as you would like it. But when you’re sharing resources with other people, you come some kind of peace with being ok to compromise.

Well, considering all the benefits you mentioned, investing in a solid structure for communication and decision-making seems worthwhile, given all you’re gaining.

Was there anything you didn’t expect but learned over time or along the way?

Audrey: I’ve been kind of surprised by thinking we were going to be best friends. I had visualized more of a commune than a co-op. But instead the more important [realization] is you have to be able to come together to make the big decisions that are about this really precious asset that you all own together. Quibbling about where the compost goes, or big decisions regarding the roof or refinancing — you need to be a group that can put aside whatever personal issues to come together to make those big decisions about the asset that you own together. That’s something that I’ve come to understand.

What were the biggest obstacles you faced as a group, and how did you overcome them?

Mark: Anytime there is turnover it creates some stress.

Audrey: But only half of the units have turned over. The east side of the building still has the same four.

Mark: We’ve been fortunate that things have been very stable now. But there was a time when we really needed an interest prospect list. One time we had member who had to leave suddenly for family reasons, and so we were caught in a lurch. We were fortunate to be able to rent it out, and the co-op took over that unit until we found a buyer.

Audrey: We do have, when there’s an opening, an interview process and, not background checks, but references. So we do have a process.

Mark: And we tap into our network: “Who do we know? Who has ever expressed interest or come to our open houses?”

Audrey: We’re also pretty good at putting up the flip-chart paper and saying “Do we want to rent or not?” and laying out the pros and cons. At this point we also have resources — like access to professionals skills that we might need to give us advice or feedback. Mandel Legal Aid as a matter a fact has been very helpful to us over the years, such as looking at our bylaws and occupancy agreement.

What kind of practical advice do you have for groups who are ready to start?

Audrey: At the beginning there are two things. One, everybody wrote down their ideal situation. But as we looked at all these buildings, there were some people for whom, for example, a fireplace was the thing that they could not live without. So maybe they left the group. You really want to be prepared to adjust expectations.

You also need one or two people in the group who are kind of zealots about it. I hope that Judi won’t be offended by that term. But you have to have a couple of people who just will not let it go at the beginning. Whether you’ve got 6 people and 4 people drop out, you just keep going until you have the group. And you just keep looking at buildings. And you just keep in touch with people. It would’ve been very easy for people to say “Oh boy, I just can’t go out another Sunday and look at buildings.” But you knew Judi was going out. You really need a driver — a champion.

You have to have a couple of people who just will not let it go at the beginning.

Mark: Also I’d give this advice to all the new groups: Try and find someone in your group who is a numbers person or a number cruncher because at some point you’re going to have to look at spreadsheets. Someone has to be the treasurer — someone who can keep the books, calculate the interest payments. Bob is our current treasurer, but Judi has also crunched a lot of the numbers. She works with Excel daily.

Audrey: You have to have governance to manage all the things you’re going to have to do around your organization.

And the other thing is, there was a lot that needed to done with this building before we moved in. So I think groups need to decide what their benchmark or tolerance is regarding living in a construction zone before you move-in. For instance, how many Saturdays do you want to spend pulling up kitchen tile or living with having your bathrooms remodeled?

It sounds like for a while, things happen in low-gear and action steps might not be crystal clear during the planning stages. Did finding a building help make things more real, especially for the people who might’ve been previously hesitant?

Mark: Yes, that’s why I tell these new groups — focus on the building because nothing sharpens the mind like “Here’s a building and now we need to get a hold of it.” Because otherwise you could spend forever on the “people” side of it.

Audrey: We had five units identified for people, so we had three for which we needed to find members.

Mark: We worked hard getting a four or six unit building. So when we found this one [an eight-unit building] we said, “Now we need two more members at least.”

So what are the dream plans for the future of the Logan Square Cooperative?

JoLynn: Do more energy independent upgrades.

Mark: Purchase a second building.

JoLynn: Acquiring other property would help to get more variety of unit size, because right now we don’t have space for a family. They’re mostly one and two bedrooms.

Audrey: We’d also like some guest space at some point. We have a couple of people who work from home, so better work space and then the energy improvements. I think we just want to keep making improvements on the building — things that make our life even more pleasant than it already is.


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