THE U.S. CENSUS BUREAU reported an annual rental population of nearly 31 percent in 2019. While there is an overwhelming number of homeowners in America, the rental population seems to be disproportionally concentrated in densely populated metropolitan areas and accounts for millions of households. Prices and availability have become major impediments to families seeking housing in our country. Profit motivated development of housing stock continues to exacerbate the problem. Those in the know understand well-run housing cooperatives are the most economical solution to this ever-growing problem.
Housing cooperatives have a unique advantage over other forms of housing. Simply put, membership is ownership. Unlike the rental option, a member in a housing cooperative can exercise and enjoy ownership privileges. Unfortunately, based on informal surveys of the National Association of Housing Cooperatives (NAHC) participating cooperatives, it is apparent that many cooperative members don’t actually share this perspective of ownership through their cooperative membership and therefore occupy just like a renter would although they are enjoying all the economic benefits the cooperative provides. These households have chosen to relinquish the control of their housing communities by failing to become engaged in the process of cooperative governance. In many cases, these members have complaints about how the community is run, using phrases that begin with the word, “They,” assuming governance is the job of a select few or that of management. However, individual member engagement is essential to the success of a housing cooperative.
Too often we hear reports of cooperatives that seem to have problems with finances, voting rights, membership transfer procedures, management conflicts and limited knowledge of the governing documents. These challenges result in an atmosphere of mistrust and suspicion and a lack of transparency. Cooperatives that find themselves at this place must take steps to right the ship. However, they must assess their operation to determine where the problems lie, then take the necessary steps to correct those issues. Here is a five-step approach cooperative members can adopt.
1] GET INVOLVED. It is a widely held misconception that one must be a board member in order to work in the cooperative and effect change. This is not true. The member should seek to volunteer on committees, find areas of interest and start new projects or volunteer to review work by others in the cooperative.
2 ] UNDERSTAND YOUR COOPERATIVE. Most cooperative members fail to read and understand the bylaws and other governing documents until there is a problem. Study your governing documents. Convene informal study sessions with other members. Involve management or your legal counsel if you have difficulty understanding key provisions. At every cooperative event have a session on governing documents to keep members up-to-date. Establish a committee charged with monitoring local laws that affect your cooperative and its governance structure. This committee will report quarterly with the aim of keeping your documents fresh and relevant.
3 ] UNDERSTAND THE SCOPE OF WORK OF YOUR PROFESSIONALS. All too common is the expectation that one of your hired professionals should have taken care of an item that was not included in their scope of work. Review your service contracts to test the scope of work against the needs of your cooperative. If you find gaps, amend those agreements. This work should be a collaborative effort between the cooperative and the professional. Everyone is better served when expectations are realistic and documented.
4 ] ASSIGN THE RIGHT PEOPLE. Committee assignments in the cooperative should fit the skill set of the volunteering member. The cooperative would benefit from having clear committee job descriptions. Get to know each member and their skills so you can achieve the most appropriate match. This task can be done through strong social interactions. Conversations with members will often reveal skills and interests that would have gone unnoticed.
5 ] MEASURE YOUR PROGRESS. Tasks that are measured regularly usually get completed. Evaluating the operations of the cooperative is critical. There should be tools in place to evaluate the effectiveness of each project, volunteer and professional. These evaluations should be structured to get the best out of each person, not as a punitive tool to highlight deficiencies. Find out what works best and do more of that.
The privileges of membership will be readily realized as your cooperative becomes more successful. Your community will become the most desired housing location in your area, and members will get the word out. Your waitlist will be filled with motivated applicants. The political and social effectiveness of your community will be realized by each member, and they will want to become engaged. When was the last time you experienced greater than 50 percent-member participation at your cooperative for an event that wasn’t a gripe session? You can turn that around. Start now.
Your cooperative offers you the opportunity to learn a great deal about what it takes to keep your cooperative afloat. It offers you the ability to learn how to be a contributor and leader in your community. It is a democratic experience where it counts, your home.
Fred Gibbs, NAHC President