A Land Without Lords
Cooperative housing awakens in Maine
by Chris Busby
“The primary and persistent perception of mankind is that everyone has an equal right to land. The opinion that private property in land is necessary to society is a comparatively modern idea, as artificial and as baseless as the divine right of kings. … History, research, and the observations of travelers prove that wherever human society has formed, the common right of people to use the earth has been recognized. Unrestricted individual ownership has never been freely adopted. It has always been born in war and conquest — and in the selfish use the cunning have made of law and superstition.”
— Henry George, Progress and Poverty, 1879
Imagine for a minute that you’re looking for a two-bedroom home in Portland. I’ve got two places for you to consider, both in the same neighborhood and equally well appointed.
The first is an apartment in a multi-unit building. The rent is $1,400, and you’ll have to fork over a security deposit plus the first and last months’ rent before you move in, which brings the total upfront cost to $4,200 (not including moving expenses). The lease is for one year and the usual rules apply. For example, you must get the landlord’s permission before you repaint a room, and that permission may be denied. More substantial alterations to the dwelling are forbidden. The landlord may decide for any number of perfectly legal reasons not to give you an option to renew the lease before the year is over, or he may offer you a new lease at a rent higher than you can afford.
If you’ve ever rented in Portland, where the lack of affordable housing is causing what city officials now consider a full-blown “crisis,” you don’t need much imagination to picture that scenario.
The other place I’d like to show you is also in a multi-unit building and costs $1,400 per month to occupy, but that’s not rent, because you won’t be a renter here. This is a housing co-op. Together with the other residents, you will own the building. There is no landlord, so there is no lease. Instead you’ll buy a share of the non-profit corporation that was formed to purchase and maintain the property. This is a limited-equity housing cooperative, so the purchase of a share is analogous to providing a security deposit and costs about the same. You can pay for your share in monthly installments over the course of the first year, so the upfront cost here is the first month’s occupancy fee (often called a “carrying charge”) plus the first installment on your share: $1,517.
When you move in, you’ll have the comfort of knowing that as the legal owner of this two-bedroom home, you can live here as long as you wish, so long as you pay the carrying charges and abide by the rules of the co-op — rules that you and your neighbors collaboratively determine. You’ll also meet annually with the other residents to decide how much the monthly carrying charge should be for the next year.
Two major factors that drive rent increases — rising rents at other properties in the area and the landlord’s desire to make a profit — are not factors here. The absence of those factors practically guarantees that your living expenses will be lower and more stable at the co-op than in an apartment. To the extent that you and your neighbors can work out ways to reduce maintenance costs (e.g., by making your building more energy efficient), your monthly housing expenses could even decease over time. And, of course, being the owner you’re free to paint, remodel, winterize and otherwise improve your home as you please.
The question at this point isn’t which place you’d choose — that’s obvious enough — but rather why this choice doesn’t exist in Portland.
Cooperative housing is not a new concept. In fact, if the history of housing is the yardstick, it’s the capitalistic conception of habitable land as a commodity bought and sold for profit that’s the new idea — and, judging by the miserable results of this experiment over the past few centuries, not a very good one. Co-ops are a modern manifestation of an ancient solution to the age-old problem of securing shelter, a community-minded approach to housing that fosters collaboration and erases exploitation.
Housing co-ops have existed in America since the 1870s. According to a history compiled by the National Cooperative Law Center, most co-ops established during the first several decades of the movement were organized by and for wealthy urbanites in cities like New York, Chicago and San Francisco, and most of those co-ops folded during the Great Depression. In the 1940s and ’50s, federal laws were changed to give co-op owners many of the same financial benefits enjoyed by conventional homeowners, like the ability to deduct property taxes and mortgage interest from personal income taxes. The movement revived in the post-war era, led in numerous cities by union organizers and activists responding to the same market pressures that have been squeezing renters in Portland for many years. Co-ops have since spread to the country, where efforts to convert mobile-home parks to resident ownership have had considerable success, most notably in New Hampshire, which has over 120 resident-owned communities.
In the supposedly “progressive” metropolis of Portland, in the midst of a housing “crisis” that’s said to threaten the viability of the entire settlement, the big debate lately in City Hall has been whether landlords should be required to give tenants a few more weeks’ notice before hiking the rent or kicking them to the curb. City leaders have also pondered proposals to form a toothless tenant-landlord commission and to launch an education campaign for renters who lack leases — an effort that would do little other than make such tenants more keenly aware of how frighteningly precarious their living situation really is.
Fair Rent Portland, a new coalition of tenants, landlords and business owners, gathered signatures to put a referendum question on this November’s ballot that would limit rent increases to the rate of inflation (with some allowances for property tax increases and renovation costs). The initiative has some big loopholes — e.g., owners of buildings with fewer than six units would be exempt, as would be the owners of new developments of any size. But by effectively eliminating rent increases based on profiteering and speculation at older, larger housing projects, Fair Rent’s effort advances goals shared by the co-op movement. And according to organizer Jack O’Brien, the initiative is intended to be a short-term fix that lays the groundwork for more substantive changes in the future, including the development of housing co-ops in Portland. “Our goal is to make sure the unique people, culture, and economy are able to remain here precisely to invest in the long-term solutions, like cooperative housing,” O’Brien wrote in a statement provided to The Bollard.
Not surprisingly, the referendum effort unsettles those who make a living off renters. Brit Vitalius, a real-estate broker who serves as president of a regional landlord association and spokesman for Say No To Rent Control, a political action committee formed to oppose the citizens’ initiative, called it “reckless and extreme.” He told the Portland Press Herald the resulting ordinance would cause “immediate and lasting problems for the entire city, ultimately resulting in less safe housing, and a decline in neighborhoods….”
In a statement provided to the daily paper, O’Brien called the opposition’s PAC “an attempt by some of the wealthiest people in our city to continue to boost their profits at the expense of the large majority of residents, our small businesses, and their neighborhoods.”
So the class lines are being drawn, and the large majority of Portlanders (about 60 percent of all residents) who rent their homes are beginning to see the big picture: so long as the landlord-tenant relationship is profitable for property owners, the landed gentry will continue to put the screws to the working poor. There is no “free market” in real estate when the alternative to an unaffordable home is no home at all. The only real, lasting solution is to help commoners become the kings and queens of their own castles.
The barriers to homeownership are, first and foremost, financial: the need to save a large sum of money for a down payment, and mortgage lenders’ requirement that borrowers have a good credit score. Tenants burdened by unaffordable rents struggle to maintain enough money each month to cover debts and living expenses — nevermind stashing cash away for future investment — and every late payment on a car or a college loan or a medical bill does further damage to the would-be borrower’s credit rating. Thus the current rental market in the Portland area doesn’t just block the road to homeownership — it actively undercuts renters’ ability to become owners.
Cooperative housing offers a path out of that trap, a way to sidestep those financial obstacles and attain the domestic stability that’s the basis of success in life for adults and their children. Housing co-ops also benefit society as a whole. Owners tend to take more pride in their home than do renters; they improve and invest in their properties and neighborhoods. Co-ops give people the skills and experience to work together to solve problems. They build and strengthen the bonds of community in an era when technology and popular culture promote selfishness and isolation, which in turn spawn a host of other social ills, from drug abuse to corruption.
Like worker co-ops (see “The Lavender Revolution,” March 2017), housing co-ops appeal to people across the political spectrum. Lefties appreciate the ways they empower the poor. Conservatives prefer social policies, like cooperative housing, that emphasize personal responsibility over those that (at least in their view) foster dependency, like government programs that help people pay rent.
But let’s not kid ourselves. Housing co-ops challenge deeply ingrained social notions about who deserves to own a home, a question that’s entangled in classist and racist and sexist attitudes with roots reaching back into the Middle Ages. The modern profit-driven system of speculative real estate routinely creates housing crises in communities across America, but the interests who benefit from this system (lenders, landlords and developers) are very rich and, as a result, politically powerful (see, for example, the real-estate mogul who’s now President of the United States). If you think those interests don’t have an outsized influence on our local government, I’ll bet you haven’t read a newspaper in decades. We shouldn’t be surprised that even the leaders of liberal Portland can offer only limp resistance to the landlords who literally own the city.
To find examples of co-op housing in Maine, we must look elsewhere these days, to the blighted streets of Lewiston and the rural outskirts of Freeport — places where the people are taking matters into their own hands.
One of the cruel ironies of the rental market is that boom times are as bad as busts for working people seeking a decent home. In hot markets like Portland, high rents make it hard for blue-collar earners to live here. In a city like Lewiston, impoverished for decades by the flight of manufacturers to cheaper labor markets, the apartments are more affordable, but so many units have slipped into such squalid conditions that good housing options are almost as scarce.
The dismal living situation in Maine’s second-largest city appeared to reach a nadir in the spring of 2013, when on separate occasions two young boys individually set fire to abandoned structures on their own run-down block. The blazes spread to nearby apartment buildings and nearly 200 people lost their homes in a span of five days, the Sun Journal reported.
Then it got worse.
When city officials offered to facilitate the redevelopment of housing on the burnt-out lots by donating land, a group of landlords organized a referendum campaign to block the public subsidy. The campaign stirred up racist attitudes that have plagued Lewiston since significant numbers of African refugees began settling there in early 2001.
Local housing activist Craig Saddlemire was horrified by the referendum effort. He knew people who’d been displaced by the fires and were “homeless for months because their family couldn’t find a good place to live. They were sleeping in the high school gym and then going to class and then going to sleep in the gym again,” he said.
When Saddlemire confronted a group of signature-gatherers and pleaded with them to desist, “this local teacher walked up and said, ‘Well, I’m signing it because we’re overrun and things have got to stop.’” The comment “kind of terrified me,” Saddlemire said. “I don’t know what she’s teaching kids if that’s her reasoning. That [xenophobic] rhetoric was very strong during that time and still hasn’t gone away.”
Racist attitudes were accompanied by inter-class resentment that pitted the settled poor against the incoming poor — in the interest of the rich. “The argument goes that if you build affordable housing, poor people will come, and that poor people are the reason that our economy is dragging,” Saddlemire observed. “I think it’s wrong on pretty much every level, but that’s kind of the way it’s talked about.”
Beneath those “surface-level” arguments was plain old greed. The landlords behind the campaign figured “the less competition, the better,” Saddlemire said. “If they see the government putting money into really nice new buildings that people would rather live in than whatever condition their property is in, they don’t want to compete with that, so they have a personal incentive to oppose it.”
Lewiston voters approved the referendum in the fall of 2014, but a dogged developer named Phyllis St. Laurent, who’d stepped up to do a project there the previous year, eventually succeeded in building housing on the site of one of the fires. Pierce Place, which includes 29 new units of affordable housing and 33 renovated apartments, opened its doors this past spring.
A few blocks away, activists also strengthened their resolve to improve the neighborhood in the wake of the arsons and acrimony. In 2014 Saddlemire spearheaded the formation of Raise-Op, the second housing cooperative in Lewiston. Its predecessor, Faire-Op (a.k.a. Faire Bande A Part Housing Cooperative), was founded in 2007 by Saddlemire and a group of like-minded idealists who collectively purchased a three-unit building on Maple Street and managed it cooperatively.
The Faire-Op had its ups and downs — mostly minor domestic dramas that Saddlemire, a filmmaker and Bates College grad, re-created in a series of humorous educational videos, titled “My So-Called Housing Cooperative” (available on YouTube), that starred his housemates portraying one another. Members came and went with some frequency, as young adults are wont to do, but the co-op survived for seven years before being incorporated into Raise-Op, and the lessons Saddlemire learned there informed the formation of its successor. (One of those lessons: “Boundaries are important,” Saddlemire told the Sun Journal in 2014. “To live in a nice co-op, you don’t all have to be best friends. But you do have to figure out what your mutual self-interests are….”)
The first property Raise-Op acquired is next door to the former Faire-Op: a three-unit triple-decker at 79 Maple St. that had been owned by the same family for decades. “When folks reminisce about the glory days of downtown Lewiston, an important part of that story is that a lot of these apartment buildings were owned by folks that lived in the building and it was the rest of their family that lived [in the other apartments],” said Saddlemire. “So the financial interest and the quality-of-life interest were very aligned, and that’s why the buildings were in better shape. They weren’t co-ops, necessarily, but they were pretty similar in spirit to the way a co-op works.”
By 2014, the “glory days” were long gone and the building at 79 Maple wasn’t far behind. “The kids had inherited it and they were in a tough situation,” Saddlemire told me. “They couldn’t afford to keep operating it and they were going to walk away.” The lender, a local credit union, was preparing to foreclose. Raise-Op was able to intervene and work out a deal by which the co-op got the property for its tax-assessed value and the lender avoided a lengthy and costly legal process. Raise-Op renovated the building and accepted applications for member-ownership. It was soon fully occupied.
In the spring of 2016 Raise-Op acquired two more pieces of real estate: a nine-unit apartment building and an adjacent commercial property on Pierce Street, down the block from Pierce Place. The co-op uses the commercial building, a former bakery, for office and meeting space, and shares the property with the Somali Bantu Community Association of Lewiston-Auburn.
Renovation of the Pierce Street apartments was still in progress when I visited in June. Mustafa Hussein, a 33-year-old who lives with his brother-in-law at 79 Maple, was painting interiors with his friend Samatar Alin. Both young men are new to Maine and expressed gratitude for the opportunities Raise-Op is providing.
Stuart Brown, a 53-year-old retired paratrooper, is also grateful for the co-op. He and his wife Angie, 52, got married in the Pierce Street apartment building 15 years ago, when Angie’s mother lived there, and have resided there themselves for 10 years. “I had a house at one point. You know how life goes in America — don’t got it no more,” Stuart said with a resigned chuckle.
When the Browns moved to Lewiston around 2000, “it took us a year to find an apartment we were even happy with,” Stuart said. “That was after looking at apartments with puddles almost as big as the kitchen in the middle of the place — and they were showing it to us! I grew up in Florida. Down there they clean stuff up before they show it to ya.”
Lewiston landlords’ disregard for their properties sanctions a similar attitude among their tenants. “The only thing you can do to get evicted from a regular landlord in Lewiston is not paying your rent,” said Stuart. “I’ve seen people that destroy where they live, don’t care. I care about where I live, even if I rent it, and to be able to say I own a piece of it, even more so.”
Since Raise-Op acquired their building, the Browns have gone from bring renters to homeowners. Their monthly housing expenses have gone down and there are other perks. “When I turn on my hot water I got hot water — that’s new!” Stuart said. Turning to his wife, he added that “she got to pick the paint colors” in their home. “She’s 50 years old, she ain’t never been able to pick the paint colors before.”
“I love it!” Angie said. “No more white walls. I’m so happy. It makes a big difference.”
Like the hypothetical co-op described earlier, Raise-Op is a limited-equity housing cooperative, an arrangement that maintains affordability as units pass from owner to owner. In a market-rate co-op — like many co-ops in New York City, where this model is fairly common — the value of an ownership share can reach hundreds of thousands of dollars, a cost akin to what the unit would fetch if it were sold as a condominium.
Market-rate co-ops are like condo associations with a greater sense of shared purpose and mutual support. Their advantage over co-ops like Raise-Op is the ability of owners to accrue wealth in the form of equity as they pay for their share (often by paying off a bank loan) and improve their dwelling, or as the value of surrounding properties increases. Their disadvantage is that they’re out of reach for couples like the Browns. Raise-Op’s raison d’être is to give new Mainers like Hussein and locals like the Browns the power and pride of homeownership.
Stuart said he earns about $13,000 a year. He and Angie were able to pay for their share in monthly installments. The cost of a share for a two-bedroom home in a Raise-Op property is $762. Twenty percent of the share price is refunded to the owner at the end of the first year of occupancy. The remainder goes into a savings account for the owners, but Raise-Op can also use that sum like a security deposit if the living space is found to have been unduly damaged when the owners move out. (Raise-Op members can use Section 8 housing vouchers to help pay their monthly carrying charge, but vouchers cannot be applied toward the purchase of a share.)
When renovations to the Pierce Street apartment building are complete, Raise-Op will have a total of 15 homes. Interest in the co-op has been high. “Instead of a temporary place to stay, people want a home that they can customize to meet their needs, that they know is really a permanent home for them as long as they want it to be,” said Saddlemire, 34, who still lives in the former Faire-Op building on Maple Street. “Folks want to have more responsibility and stake in the property, and want to make the housing safe and also affordable.”
The residents of each Raise-Op property hold an annual meeting to set a budget for their building and review the past year’s finances. If there’s money left over at the end of the year, residents collectively decide what to do with it. Thus far, most of the extra revenue has been reinvested in the properties, but residents can also decide to use a portion to give themselves a refund.
Raise-Op gives residents the ability to be “part of something bigger than themselves, since we’re a very mission-oriented organization,” said Saddlemire. Stuart Brown has become a Raise-Op board member. The co-op’s board oversees the finances of all the properties and sets long-term goals for the organization. This has been a planning year, said Saddlemire, a time for the co-op to prepare for the next step, which includes looking at additional properties to acquire, potentially as soon as next year.
I asked Saddlemire what he expects will happen many years from now when the mortgages for the co-op’s properties are fully paid off — can residents expect a big reduction in their monthly carrying charges?
“The first co-op [Faire-Op] paid down a lot of its debt and then, rather than just lowering the carrying charges, they used those savings as seed money to grow the co-op,” said Saddlemire. “We definitely want to keep costs low for our members — and the members make up the majority of the board, so the decision is theirs — but the co-op does have a mission to grow.
“The point isn’t necessarily to use every resource to just make things as super-cheap as possible,” he added. “It’s to try to have a fair operating cost and then use the equity that we build to grow and benefit more folks or add services for the members.”
So with Raise-Op, residents get a home, a community of supportive neighbors, an array of services and a vital role in a larger social-justice cause. Not bad for $762 a month.
Mobile homes aren’t really mobile if, like the average trailer-park resident, you don’t have a lot of extra dough. The cost of relocating a single-wide trailer can easily reach $10,000, and double that for a double-wide, when all the associated expenses are factored in. So when the owner of the park decides to sell the land beneath your home, it can cause considerable financial stress — not to mention the emotional toll.
Actually, let’s mention the emotional toll.
In the 1990s, a 14-unit mobile-home park in Freeport was sold to L.L.Bean and vacated so the retail giant could make one of its parking lots bigger. Among those displaced was longtime resident Robert “Popeye” Whitmore.
The photo accompanying Whitmore’s obituary shows a meaty faced man of about 60 smoking a long black pipe. Popeye was a construction worker for 50 years who retired, reluctantly, at age 75. He knew more than most folks about parking lots. “Chances are, if you had your driveway or parking lot paved by Blue Rock [Industries] between the early 70’s and the mid 90’s, it was [Whitmore] that oversaw the grading of it,” his obit states. “He was very proud of his work. … He missed it very much and kept in touch with many of his close associates there. He was very proud of the inscribed watch he received for 20 years of service.”
Popeye’s second wife, Yvonne, passed away in 1991, and Whitmore was pushing 80 and in poor health himself when the sale of the park to L.L.Bean forced him to move a few years later. “‘Well, Yvonne died in this place and now I’m not gonna be able to,’” his son, Dale Whitmore, recalled him saying. “And I said, ‘Dad, you’re not gonna have to go to the nursing home.’”
“‘Oh yeah, you sons of bitches will put me in the nursing home,’” Popeye replied.
“‘No we won’t!’” Dale insisted. “And I didn’t.”
Dale, who’s 67 now, has 45 years in the construction trade under his belt, in addition to a stint in the military. He brought Popeye to live with him in a mobile-home park about five miles away, in the wooded hills north of Freeport Village. “I’m handicapped,” said Dale. “I’m usually on oxygen twenty-four/seven. I struggled sometimes with him, but he was able to pass away at home. But I know it bothered him a lot to move. … All the memories and everything.”
Popeye died in his sleep in 2012, at the age of 93. Two years after that, the future of Dale’s park became a matter of debate.
Wardtown Trailer Park was developed in 1972 by Brunswick businessman Wilfred Lajoie. In 1997 the Freeport Housing Trust bought the property from Lajoie, who was then in his late 70s (he died earlier this year, at 98). It’s fairly common these days for mobile-home parks to be sold by elderly owners who don’t have children interested in operating the business, said Wardtown resident Bill Hodgkins. Had the housing trust not stepped in, Wardtown could easily have become the 9th hole.
“This is a beautiful piece of property in a beautiful location,” said Hodgkins, who’s lived there with his wife Carol since the late ’90s. “Trust me, if somebody was coming along and looking to buy this piece of property, it wouldn’t be for a mobile-home park. This would become a golf course, or a hotel, or both, or a [residential] development” — like Champagne Lane, a new dead-end street down the road from Wardtown lined with large suburban-style single-family homes surrounded by treeless yards.
The Freeport Housing Trust was formed in the late 1980s, a decade during which retail development in Freeport Village displaced over 100 homes, according to a history on the organization’s website. By 2012, as a result of the trust’s work, “218 housing units [had been] taken out of the speculative housing market and made available at affordable rates,” the site boasts, adding: “None of these properties will ever fall into the hands of absentee speculators.”
In the summer of 2014 the burgeoning national movement to convert mobile-home parks to resident-ownership reached Wardtown. The Cooperative Development Institute — a nonprofit, based in Northampton, Mass., that promotes co-ops of many kinds and provides technical assistance for park conversions — sent advisers to Wardtown to discuss the idea. They asked Whitmore, who also served on the housing trust’s board, if he thought his neighbors would be interested in owning and running their park. “Nope,” he responded. “I don’t think it’ll fly, but you can try it.”
Members of about half the homes in the 60-unit park showed up to a meeting at the town library and, to Whitmore’s surprise, enough of them voted to explore the concept to warrant further investigation. Then an assessment of the property was done and residents realized, “Wow, there’s a lot wrong with this place,” Whitmore recalled.
Mobile-home parks are like little self-contained towns with their own road and water and sewage systems that are not maintained by the surrounding municipality. The need to undertake costly upgrades to older parks like Wardtown makes them especially susceptible to being sold for other uses. The housing trust’s board eventually agreed to sell the park to its residents for about half the original asking price in consideration of the fact the fledgling co-op would have to spend a roughly equal amount of money on infrastructure, like the new septic system it recently installed at a cost of about a quarter-million dollars.
Ownership and management of the park was officially transferred to the newly renamed Wardtown Mobile Home Cooperative in May of 2015.
The process of forming a co-op quite literally brought the Wardtown community together. The park originally comprised 28 pad sites for mobile homes. In the mid ’80s, Lajoie developed 32 more sites to the west of the initial development, separated by a swath of forest about 100 yards wide. A gravel road ran between the two parts of the park, but it was gated and locked. To get from the original park to what some residents there jokingly refer to as “the West Wing,” one had to drive about four miles on the town roads.
“There was no neighborhood, there was no together,” Bill Hodgkins said. “In fact, a lot of people who lived on one side didn’t even know the other side existed!”
One of the first things the co-op did was open that gate. Now residents of both sides of the park socialize, and work, together.
Bill Hodgkins, who’s 60, hadn’t felt this sense of neighborliness since he was a kid growing up near Woodford’s Corner in Portland in the ’60s and early ’70s. Back then, he said, “if my dad was out on his roof swingin’ a hammer or paintin’ or somethin’, the neighbors would all show up with their hammers. It was a real neighborhood. It was a place where everybody knew each other, watched out for everybody’s kids. That’s the kind of neighborhood that I grew up in. They don’t make ’em like that anymore.
“But since we converted to ownership here,” Hodgkins continued, “our rent here is unheard-of low, and we keep it that way by working together. If I’m out clearing some brush or cuttin’ some scrub trees, invariably a neighbor will show up with his gloves on, and to me that’s true community.”
Maine Sen. Susan Collins, who chairs the Senate Special Committee on Aging, recently sounded an alarm concerning what she calls an “epidemic” of isolation among the elderly. “Seniors who are isolated or lonely have a 45 percent greater risk of dying,” she wrote in an op-ed published in June by the Bangor Daily News. “For that older American, the common cold is dangerous and a fall in their home could be deadly,” she wrote.
Collins — or, more likely, a member of her staff — listed numerous initiatives aimed at countering the problem, like the installation of 1,500 park benches in New York City and the development of an “age-friendly business district” in Miami “to incentivize seniors to visit local shops.” Somehow the senator’s staff missed perhaps the most effective means of keeping seniors engaged in their community: giving them a shared interest, with their neighbors, in its future.
An elderly resident of Wardtown died of leukemia earlier this year, leaving his wife alone in their trailer. “Before we converted [to resident-ownership] there was no way his wife ever could have stayed here,” Bill Hodgkins said, “but she’s going to now, because her neighbors all around her take care of her, look in on her and make sure she’s got what she needs. We make sure her lawn stays mowed and her driveway stays clear and her trash gets out, her mail gets picked up, because she’s disabled herself. … That’s the kind of community thing that happens here that really doesn’t happen in your run-of-the-mill neighborhood, so the benefits here are amazing, absolutely amazing.”
The neighborliness that cooperatives encourage isn’t always appreciated — at least at first. Not long ago, Dale Whitmore realized he hadn’t seen an older woman who lives in the West Wing for a couple days. She was usually out walking every day or sitting in the sun in her yard, so Whitmore got worried and called the police to conduct a wellness check. “I said I could go peek in the windows, but if she’s alright she’ll think I’m a peepin’ Tom!” he recalled.
The cops found the woman in her trailer, safe and sound and pissed off that they were there. “At first she pitched a fit,” Bill Hodgkins said, but when Whitmore explained that he’d called the police out of concern for her, “she almost started to cry,” Hodgkins added. “‘Wow, that’s so sweet of you!’” she told Dale.
Membership in the cooperative is not required of Wardtown residents, but only three households haven’t joined. Non-members pay a slightly higher rent, but cooperative management has helped keep costs down for everyone: the current monthly site fee is $280.
As happened with Raise-Op, Wardtown has attracted a lot of interest from people who want more of a sense of ownership in their home. “When people apply to come in here we make it very clear that they’re not applying to be tenants,” Bill Hodgkins said. “This isn’t a tenant relationship — you’re an owner. You’re gonna own one sixtieth of every tree and every blade of grass and every piece of tar on the road, and every freakin’ problem that goes on in here — you’re gonna be one sixtieth of it!” he added with a laugh.
The residents of Wardtown aren’t all pulling weeds together and singing “Kumbaya.” “Like everywhere else, it’s the eighty-twenty rule,” said Hodgkins, a self-employed network engineer. “Twenty percent of the people do eighty percent of the work. But it is getting better.”
When the resident-owners do have to work together to fix their park’s infrastructure, “everybody looks at the bottom line,” Hodgkins added, “but we look at it with the future in mind and not the finances in mind.
“A landlord does too many things as cheaply and as quickly and as Band-Aid-like as he possibly can to keep his income at a maximum,” Hodgkins continued. “When we fix a road or we do something at the well house, we do it with an eye toward the future. We don’t want to have to do this again. We don’t want to put a Band-Aid on it. … If we’re gonna bother to dig a hole and fix a water pipe, we do it right!”
These days, the biggest barrier to expanding cooperative housing in Maine is the simple fact that most people don’t know what it is. “I talk to a lot of people” about Raise-Op, Stuart Brown told me. “I don’t get many educated people to talk to. A lot of them got weird ideas of what a co-op is. Someone has convinced a lot of people that where people congregate together to do somethin’ in conjunction with each other, that they’re communist or somethin’.
“There ain’t nobody suckin’ profit out of here,” Brown added. “We’re doin’ great.”
Housing co-ops are often confused with communes or cults or “intentional living communities,” many of which operate on similar principles of shared ownership and collaborative management. The Dreamship Cooperative, an intentional living community in Portland’s Parkside neighborhood, has been functioning successfully since January 2010, but it caters to a specific type of resident: sober adults involved or interested in the arts and ecology, and individuals for whom the prospect of attending biweekly house meetings is not a nightmare scenario.
As Saddlemire discovered during the days of the Faire-Op, boundaries are important to maintain even in cooperative settings. And if participation in meetings and co-op social events is a requirement, rather than a choice, a lot of people will choose not to get involved regardless of the financial benefits.
Long before he became Deputy Director of the Maine State Housing Authority, Peter Merrill was Executive Director of the National Association of Housing Cooperatives, in Washington, D.C. In the early ’80s, Portlanders were nearly as wary of gentrification as they are today. When the city decided to sell the Shailer and Emerson schools on Munjoy Hill, neighbors balked at the idea of the public properties being sold to a private developer who’d most likely convert them into condos. The solution: cooperative housing.
Merrill didn’t live in the neighborhood, but his experience with co-ops led him to work with the group struggling to turn the schools into cooperatives. Merrill said that, to his surprise, when the classrooms were finally converted to residences, most of the people involved in the co-op effort weren’t interested in actually living there, and the people who did move in weren’t particularly passionate about co-ops. They were just “renting a nice apartment,” he said.
There were structures in place to give residents control over the housing complex’s management and to prevent its sale to a private developer, but the co-op concept never took hold. Today the former schools are part of the Munjoy Commons affordable-housing project managed by Avesta Housing.
Demand for cooperative housing has to come from the bottom up, not the top down, said Merrill (who was speaking for himself, not in his role at the Authority). “We could decide as policymakers in Augusta or as policymakers in Portland that we wanted to create all these structures to encourage and incentivize [co-ops], but that doesn’t necessarily mean that will happen,” he said.
Cooperative housing often becomes an attractive option to people only when they realize it’s the only way for them to keep the home they already have. Merrill used the hypothetical example of a 20-unit apartment building whose owner was preparing to “condo it out and cash it out and make a big killing.” The tenants there “clearly … have a vested interest” in working together to keep their roofs over their heads. “That is where you could create a successful co-op,” he said. “Then the tenants would have the incentive to have the meetings, to do the management and to preserve their existing home that they like, and maybe improve it, as opposed to having you and me and five or six people at City Hall say, ‘Gosh, I think co-ops are the right answer for everybody.’”
Of course, residents can’t collectively buy their property if they don’t have the opportunity, or the financial resources, to even make a bid. Paul Bradley, the founding president of ROC USA, a nonprofit that facilitates the conversions of mobile-home parks to resident-ownership, said state laws that give tenants the first option to purchase the land they live on when it goes up for sale have made a big difference.
Maine’s Legislature has considered such bills in the past, but some of the most ardent opponents of the legislation have been residents of a mobile-home park in Scarborough, many of whom are elderly or disabled. They arrive in Augusta by bus, Merrill said, and have testified, “with tears in their eyes,” that “they do not want to be responsible for shoveling their own driveway.”
Bill Hodgkins, of Wardtown, has heard those concerns too — many of his park’s residents are also older and struggle with health problems. “There’s a lot of fear involved,” Hodgkins said. “They don’t really quite get that you, as a homeowner, [are] not on the hook for this place if it goes belly up.”
Generally speaking, the residents of a mobile-home park or multi-unit apartment building have more than enough money to collectively finance their homes or land — after all, their rent is already keeping the investment viable. What they lack is the skill or willingness to work together and, often, the collateral to convince lenders that they’re a safe bet. Luckily, both those impediments can be overcome.
Wardtown’s financing arrangement requires the community to continue to receive technical assistance from CDI, which makes sure the park’s board is stable and functioning from year to year even as residents come and go. Raise-Op has made a similar effort to institutionalize its practices so the management and financial structures will continue to function even if, or after, leaders like Saddlemire move on.
Saddlemire recalled the experience he and the first Faire-Op crew had when they walked into a bank to discuss financing the purchase of 75 Maple St. “They wouldn’t even let us sit down,” he said. “They had heard something about the idea, but before they invited us to sit down they just said, ‘Who’s gonna guarantee the loan?’ We just kind of looked at each other, and it was like, if no one’s gonna guarantee the loan, then there’s nothing to talk about.”
“We have yet to get any financing from a conventional bank,” Saddlemire said. Instead, Raise-Op has worked with community-development financial institutions like the Cooperative Fund of New England and Coastal Enterprises, Inc. (CEI) to arrange financing. The residents of Wardtown turned to the Maine State Housing Authority and the Brunswick-based Genesis Community Loan Fund to finance their purchase.
There’s no shortage of public money that could be devoted to helping people become homeowners via co-ops. The problem is political, not financial.
In the preface to a 2017 report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, titled “Out of Reach: The High Cost of Housing,” Congressman Keith Ellison, a Democrat from Minnesota who serves as deputy chairman of the Democratic National Committee, notes that Congress annually spends “about $200 billion to help house American families,” but “[a] full three-fourths of these resources go to help subsidize the homes of the richest families through the mortgage interest deduction and other homeownership tax benefits.
“This means that we provide more housing assistance to help the richest 7 million households — who earn more than $200,000 a year — than to help the 55 million households that earn less than $50,000 each year,” Ellison continued, “even though these families are far more likely to struggle to keep a roof over their head.”
Government housing aid has been focused on providing rent subsidies or financing the construction of affordable rental housing — noble efforts when the immediate need is to help homeless people get off the street. But as Saddlemire points out, “if we just put money into that and we don’t address who owns the properties and where the equity is going, then we can potentially just be pouring a lot of water into a bucket with a hole in the bottom.
“In our community, what we’ve seen is a milking model for a lot of these buildings,” he continued. “Landlords that own them just drain the value out of them. They might be accepting Section 8 money or they might be accepting General Assistance money … but then they put minimal investment into the building. They’re really externalizing their business risk to the [housing] asset and to the bodies of the people in it who have to deal with the stress, or the lack of heat, or the lead poisoning. Then [landlords] might take that profit they made and go invest it in the stock market or buy a home in Florida, and that’s value that our community has lost.
“Housing is like a vessel that money moves through,” Saddlemire explained. “If you don’t address where it’s moving to, then that can be a lot of government money that we lose. … What the co-op does is grab [that money] and put it in the buildings or return it to our residents, but either way we’re investing it in the quality of life of the neighborhood, which is what needs to happen if we’re gonna see things change.”