This summer, I was fortunate enough to visit the UC Berkeley student housing co-operative in California. The BSC (Berkeley Student Cooperative) was established during the Great Depression in the 1930s and has now expanded to become the largest student housing cooperative in the US, with approximately 1300 tenants spread across 20 houses. I was deeply inspired by the scale of their operation, alongside the strong sense of community that existed amongst students and staff.
Upon arrival, I was greeted by Betsy – a member of the BSC Housing Staff. Betsy has been working with the BSC for over 30 years, having fallen in love with the principles of cooperation when she was a student at Berkeley. A witty, gritty and enthusiastic lady, I was soon mesmerised by Betsy’s knowledge of the housing crisis in Berkeley and the surrounding Bay Area. She informed me that students in the local area were paying $1,500 p/m (£1164.60) for a shared room and this would be considered ‘low rent’ by private-sector standards. I am still perplexed by this figure. Although the system of higher education in the US is undoubtedly broken, the BSC is combatting this by providing inexpensive board and lodging for students with limited resources. Betsy introduced me to students working 12-15 hours per week for the Main Office and BSC Central Food & Supplies (CFS), who were being paid $16/hour (£12.42/hour) in rent credit stipends. This would usually cover the cost of room and board, whilst also fulfilling their five-hours/week work-shift requirement. Wider access to education was one of the goals of the BSC’s founding members; from my short visit, it quickly became clear that this goal was being met.
A unique aspect of the BSC is their Co-op Food System, which provides all-you-can-eat food to members throughout the academic year. Every house elects a food or kitchen manager to convene with the CFS, who then orders food in bulk directly from farmers and wholesalers. Since there are so many members in each house, it is never a struggle to cover all of the cooking and cleaning duties. This also means cooperative members are always able to cook and eat together. When I asked her whether there were any political motivations behind the purchases made by the co-op, Betsy informed me that this is a subject often raised in meetings but the usual consensus is that affordability should be upheld as the top priority. Sometimes, they may purchase food deemed as less ‘ethical’ simply because it is cheaper to buy in bulk. They have boycotted some brands in the past, however. It is interesting to see how co-operatives negotiate these ties to a wider sphere of political influence.
After exploring the Head Office and CFS, Betsy guided me to a door with “WARNING You are now about to exit reality, do not be alarmed”, scrawled next to it’s handle. This was Casa Zimbabwe (‘Casa Z’ for short) and I was not prepared for the vibrant explosion of colour, creativity, and joy that was waiting for me behind that door. Noa, an undergrad who had been living there for 2 years, would be my guide on this journey. Constructed in the 1960s, Casa Z was the first BSC building designed specifically for use as a student co-operative and the house has an infamous countercultural history. I am first shown the large, communal kitchen, where house members are already busy cooking dinner. Then, Noa leads me through a maze of corridors, entirely covered by colourful murals, as she describes the unique culture of Casa Z. We pass a room that contains unwanted items of clothing, furniture, and books that have been left to circulate between house members. There is a multipurpose lounge, boasting a piano, pool table, and sound system. Adjacent to this is the courtyard and garden, complete with a geodesic dome and multiple vegetable plots. To me, this place feels like everything I could wish for from a university experience.
Noa points out her favourite art piece at Casa Z, dedicated to Toni Morrison, and reflects on the BSC’s commitment to eliminate all forms of prejudice and discrimination in housing. In 1987, residents petitioned to change the house name to reflect it’s large BME community and celebrate the end of white minority rule in Zimbabwe. I am told that Casa Z holds weekly ‘Z’ircles for BME students, self-identifying women and other minority groups to meet in a safe, non-judgemental space. Noa met her best friend at a women’s circle, after bonding over a shared experience. It is almost impossible to find spaces like this within privately rented accommodation or University-managed halls, yet they are essential for student wellbeing. Overall, I was struck by the agency that students living at the BSC had – they were taking back control of their time and resources whilst simultaneously resisting exploitation and a corrupt housing market.
I left the BSC with a huge smile on my face, fuelled by the knowledge that SEASALT is part of an ever-expanding network of dreamers and change-makers. We have been so inspired by our visits to other student co-operatives, as they provide us with a vision of what SEASALT could become. Right now, we are calling for our supporters to invest in Student Co-op Homes’ current share-offer and support our mission to break the cycle of high rents, that drive up student debts at the cost of our wellbeing!