Community | Housing

Cooperative Engagement

Qumbya Housing Cooperative expands its neighborhood presence into Bronzeville

Residents at Concord House sit down for a dinner of lentil stew (Katie Bart)

A typical Monday night at Concord House unfolds with a motley group of nearly twenty adults dishing up bowls of lentil stew in their Hyde Park home. A strong family dynamic is evident in the dining room, which is adorned with photos, calendars, and bulletin boards; a crowded bookshelf; and a central table, upon which rest six bunches of bananas, a carton of assorted hot sauces, and an oversized jar of some mystery vegetable, presumably pickled, labelled “DO NOT STIR.” Like many of the objects in the three-story home, these table items are communally shared among its residents, who are related not by blood but rather by chosen lifestyle: that of the housing cooperative.

A similar nightly routine has begun to take root four Green Line stops away, at Wells House, which sits near the corner of 41st Street and Michigan Avenue. Named for civil rights champion and former Bronzeville resident Ida B. Wells, it is the fourth and newest of Qumbya Housing Cooperative’s locations.

Committed to “affordable, community-oriented, group-equity housing,” Qumbya has presented an alternative to the traditional housing market since opening three Hyde Park communal living residences—Haymarket, Bowers, and Concord Houses—in the 1990s. When Qumbya purchased the fifteen-person Bronzeville home that has become Wells House last August, it expanded its South Side presence beyond Hyde Park for the first time.

Over the past months, as Wells’ interior has accrued comfortable furnishings and bulk containers of grains and other vegetarian staples, its new residents have begun to adjust to the home, as well as the at-times unconventional ethos of the co-op lifestyle.

“It’s a new beginning, new people, new house,” says Magnolia Diamond, one of the first members of Wells, who previously lived for a year and a half in Bowers House. Since the three-story house was refurbished, Diamond sees Wells increasing its involvement within the Bronzeville neighborhood. “I really want to do outreach,” Diamond said. “As a community, I think we should be not only for the people who are living in the house, but also for everyone around.”

Despite an established presence on the South Side, Qumbya and other co-ops remain enigmatic to many who do not participate in cooperative living. As Wells residents settle into their new home, they and other Qumbya members have begun to consider how this expansion affects their organizational identity and their role within the larger community. They see Qumbya’s expansion into Bronzeville as an opportunity to dispel skepticism about cooperative living, and, in its place, to extend an image of awareness and inclusion.

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Founded in 1988, Qumbya loosely resembles the cooperative housing model popularized in New York City’s Queens neighborhood of South Jamaica by the United Housing Foundation’s Rochdale Village. Rochdale in turn was named for one of the first co-ops set up in England in 1844. An example of an attempt at race integration at the height of the 1960s Civil Rights movement, Rochdale Village boasted a cooperatively owned pharmacy, groceries, eye care, and a power plant, as well as middle-income housing. At its height, the village provided residents with a democratic say in their own homes, and the opportunity to resist quotas and other discriminative practices that fed the segregation of American cities.

Throughout the 1960s, interest in the co-op propagated. Currently co-ops operate on seven key principles—Voluntary and Open Membership; Democratic Member Control; Member’s Economic Participation; Autonomy and Independence; Education, Training, and Information; Cooperation Among Cooperatives; and Concern for Community—as a basis for their own structure. The North American Students of Cooperation (NASCO), an umbrella nonprofit that connects and provides resources and education for and about co-ops, also adheres to these seven guiding principles. NASCO Properties owns Bowers and Concord, while Wells and Haymarket are owned by Lots in Common (LINC), an affiliate company. Each co-op manages its own members’ house dues and food costs, but members pay rent to Qumbya, which makes lease payments to NASCO Properties and LINC.

Despite its association with NASCO and its location in Hyde Park, Qumbya is not exclusively student-based. With its website banner proclaiming a standard of “Community. Democracy. Affordability,” Qumbya markets to any who might opt for its communal lifestyle for economic, social, or political reasons.

“To me, it seems that it’s important for people to have a say in the structures that affect their lives, and that the more of the structures like that there are, the better,” explained Michael Eugenio, six-year member of Bowers House and former NASCO Properties president. “Most of it is about building a fortified alternative economy that is respectful of and enabling to people in a way that is essentially alternative to capitalism. So a lot of it is about having groups that aren’t driven by a profit motive, and supporting other groups like that.”

Like the other Qumbya houses, Wells has implemented responsibilities for all its residents. These include cleaning, preparing shared vegetarian-friendly meals each night, attending weekly house meetings, and acting as a liaison on Qumbya’s board. As a result of such active participation, Diamond, as well as the other Qumbya members with whom I spoke, remarked that each of the four houses seems to foster its own unique culture. Over dinner, Concord members ascribed to their house the quality of introversion and a common affinity for board games. Others commented on house stereotypes, describing Bowers as the party house and Haymarket as “cozy.”

“I wanted to be in this house to help to create the culture of what we want to be as a group,” Diamond said. “Like, do you want to just say ‘hi’ at the Sunday meeting and that’s it, or do you want to build something for us and for others?”

Between Wells’s intentions to offer a comfortable living space for its residents and stay appropriately engaged with the surrounding community, Diamond worries that the house may struggle to strike a balance. Though Diamond herself is a proponent of outreach efforts, every decision made by the house must be voted and agreed upon democratically. It was only in the past week that somebody took up the position of outreach coordinator.

In the past, Qumbya houses have enacted community engagement—in accordance with two tenets of Rochdale-style cooperatives, Education, Training, and Information, and Concern for Community—of their own accord. Concord members, for example, talked about fostering close connections with their neighbors through offering open invitations to communal dinners, regularly volunteering with winter snow-shoveling, and participating in service opportunities at the nearby church. The development processes for other NASCO co-ops in Chicago have involved meeting with aldermen, local businesses, and community organizations, as well as talking to residents, attending community meetings and church services, and distributing flyers.

Although Wells has been slow to implement similar practices, individual members are stepping up to the helm. Qumbya transplant and longtime South Side resident Bernadette Steele volunteered to take on the newly constructed position at Wells House of interim outreach coordinator. The role requires her to regularly attend Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy (CAPS) meetings, Bronzeville Chamber of Commerce functions, and other neighborhood-wide forums, or otherwise secure a proxy in her place. Steele accepted the responsibility with the hope of dispelling common myths about co-ops.

“It is important in the sense that communal living is one of those things that people either know nothing about, or what they do know about it is based on some old information,” she said. “People have a negative view of communal living in the 1960s, and drug use and illicit things going on, and some people think when you have a bunch of unrelated people living in a house, it’s some sort of cult. So that has to be mediated. And to do that is by getting out in the community, and putting different faces to it so that people can put a name to Wells House.”

Other challenges that Wells members hope to overcome through building positive neighborhood relationships involve zoning restrictions and the requirement of legal permits to carry out any further developments, such as their idea of planting a community garden in the adjacent lot.

Wells is not the first to face these tests; outside of Qumbya, at least five other co-ops or intentional communities currently thrive on the South Side, providing examples of the diverse means through which co-ops may benefit their residents and neighborhood at large. Some of these, such as Genesis Cooperative, an African-American-operated co-op in South Shore, and Su Casa, a Catholic Worker House in Back of the Yards, target specific demographics with empowerment-focused aims.

Amelia Lorenz, a founding member of the intentional community Hesed, located in Pilsen/Little Village, explained that she and a group of friends from McCormick Seminary formed the co-op with a “vision for our community that it would be a supportive place for people who are often in careers that serve in some way but can take a lot out of the people that are in them or don’t pay very much.” Most of their residents, she says, are nurses, social workers, teachers, or otherwise committed to service.

“A big part of our growing edge,” said Lorenz, “is learning how to tap into the community…Those of us who were not Spanish speakers coming into the house have taken it upon ourselves to learn Spanish….One of the members here is on the board of the park that’s just north of us, a couple of the members here are involved in the community garden that’s out back in the alley, and then there are things that we try to turn up for as a house, like cleaning up trash a couple of times a year as we can.”

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Magnolia Diamond, one of the first members of Wells House (Katie Bart)

Magnolia Diamond, one of the first members of Wells House (Katie Bart)

The structure and recruitment system at Qumbya may not always lend itself to the kind of openness that the new members of Wells are striving for. “The [co-op] project is an inward-focused project,” Concord resident Sam Law says. “The only time it would make sense outwardly is if the people inside the co-op have a collective sense of something they want to change in the world or if they need to fill vacancies.” Normally, though, house vacancies fill quickly through word of mouth. As a result, most of Qumbya’s current residents had some prior experience with co-ops before joining.

The co-ops tend to attract graduate students, post-graduates, and various other university affiliates. “I think that that kind of student, dorm-style scene with a cooperative structure is something that is still somewhat inaccessible,” Eugenio admits. “The types of people who know about or are familiar with the structure of that institution are people who have been a lot around campus cultures, and unfortunately campuses are not entirely accessible places, either.”

Many of Wells’ members, however, hope that the opening of Wells will mark a shift toward expanding the accessibility of co-ops to include more nonstudents and more who are new to communal living.

Though the commitment Qumbya mandates is not for everyone, the group equity model that it follows allows for a competitive price of housing, varying from $360 to $600 a month. For Steele—who first became acquainted with communal living while residing in the University of Chicago’s International House—Wells’ affordable rates and convenient proximity to downtown have provided her with support during a period of instability.

“I’d known about Qumbya for several years, but the timing had never worked out. But I recently became unemployed, so I needed to find a cheaper place to live,” she said. “I was happy to see that there was [a co-op] that wasn’t in Hyde Park…Wells House is near the train station, and it’s near the King Drive bus and the State Street bus, so transportation’s easy.”

In addition to affordability and self-sufficiency, co-op life contains a built-in social web, making it not only attractive to twentysomethings transitioning to a new city environment, but also to single mothers and post-retirement-age individuals—both demographics that have benefitted from the Qumbya co-ops over the years, members said.

Diamond sees co-op living as a rare opportunity for self-growth. “It’s teaching you how to cooperate and how to be tolerant and how to communicate your needs. It’s a very, very different logic. You don’t have such opportunities when you are living alone.”

Diamond and other Wells residents hope that knowledge of these advantages will assuage concerns that cooperative housing organizations will encourage gentrification in their neighborhood or elsewhere. Eugenio says Qumbya should focus on “just being able to be a resource in conjunction with the community, as opposed to coming into a community following the flow of the lowest common denominator.”

As members work on developing this balance, co-ops on the South Side and elsewhere continue to catalyze a shift in the way society defines a home.

“That’s what [co-ops] should be about,” said Diamond. “Not only comfortable living and food, but also community.”

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