What actually is a student housing coop? According the Student Coop Homes, the UK national umbrella organization, it is a collective and affordable form of housing that students manage and control themselves. Housing coops improve students living conditions and wellbeing, and also give them valuable skills and experiences. Many similar definitions can be found from other organizations, so in this post I will do something a bit different: I will briefly describe the main features of a student housing coops through a snapshot (or more accurately 15 photos) of SEASALT (which stands for South-East Students Autonomously Living Together). SEASALT is the Sussex and Brighton universities student housing coop established in 2018, which with the help of the Brighton and Hove Community Land Trust bought a house in Moulsecoomb in 2021 that has been the home for students since then. As part of a recent photo project, photographer Tammi Nowell and I visited SEASALT earlier this year.
Student Control of Housing
Most important, living in a coop puts students in control of their own housing. Rather than having to pay exorbitant rent for sub-standard housing to a landlord, coops enable students to live in affordable, healthy and sustainable homes that are inclusive spaces of wellbeing and mutual aid. Because it is difficult for groups of students to outright own their homes, they are usually bought by supporting organizations like the Land Trust or Student Coop Homes and leased to students on a long-term basis. But other than that, students are in charge and with that comes a lot of responsibilities: students have to manage all aspects of coop living, from finding new residents which happens often due to the transitory nature of student life, to making sure everybody pays rent on time and that this is enough to pay the mortgage and maintenance, to carrying out maintenance, to fulfilling legal and tax requirements as a legally registered entity. Undertaking this work teaches students lots of practical skills, which has been recognized by many of the coop residents I have interviewed as an important aspect of coop living.
While in many private student rentals, common space gets converted into extra bedrooms to maximize landlords' incomes, coops work hard to create welcoming shared spaces for members to spend time and do activities together. SEASALT has a large, light-filled kitchen which is the heart of the house, where regular coop meetings take place. There is also a garden where the students sometimes have gatherings with their neighbors - an important aspect of coops is to work against the stereotype of students as awful tenants who wreck communites and neighborhoods. Being in control of their physical space also means that students can decorate their house as they want to. SEASALT's colorful rooms are a stark contrast to the institutional beige and many 'don't do' signs that Tammi and I found in conventional student accommodations. The first residents of the coop created a Jackson Pollock style hallway and also worked with contractors and the Land Trust to make the downstairs bathroom and hallway wheel-chair accessible. As in any shared living space, students also create policies and rules by which to live together.
As I described in a previous blog post, the student housing coop movement in the UK was born during the 2010 national mobilizations against tuition fee increases. Student activism has been part of the movement's DNA from the beginning. This means that coops are political spaces, which at SEASALT can be glimpsed from signs around the house. Coop activism also translates into networking with other cooperatives, with SEASALT co-hosting the recent National Gathering of the student housing coop movement. This networking often extends to other activist groups, for example the Friday night dinners at the Birmingham Student Housing coop that became known as activist gatherings, and the basement of the Edinburgh Student Housing coop serves as a community space for neighborhood groups.
There are many other features of student housing coops, but these three stand out from my research to date.