For several years, five housing co-ops under the Santa Barbara Student Housing Cooperative umbrella have existed to provide affordable housing and a sense of community for students in the college town of Isla Vista.
The group operates five co-op houses in total, each with its own cultures and histories: Manley, Biko, Merton, Newman and Dolores. Some of these houses offer opportunities for residents of marginalized communities to live together; others offer spaces of community for those with similar interests and passions.
The Nexus interviewed members of every house with the exception of Manley. Named after Steven Manley, a former UC Santa Barbara student who passed away battling a brush wildfire near Santa Maria, the Manley House on Embarcadero del Norte houses 17 members and was the first communal house in I.V.
Housing co-op residents live in a community of mutual understanding of individual financial needs, with rents and other additional charges being adjusted based on the needs and financial needs of each member of the cooperative.
Breaking down housing co-op living
The housing cooperative Santa Barbara Student Housing Cooperative (SBSHC) is a nonprofit organization led by a board of directors that manages the co-op houses in Isla Vista. Tasks for the board — made up of elected co-op members — include creating a fiscal yearly budget and communicating news and other information to co-op members, among others.
“These individuals work together on these projects in representation of their house or pushing these things in directions they need to go for the greater benefit of the community,” fourth-year anthropology and Spanish double major, SBSHC Board of Directors President and Merton resident Joshua Richardson said.
Prospective co-op members are accepted off of a waitlist system that is primarily handled by staff members in the membership and outreach committee under SBSHC to eliminate individual member bias in the selection process. The first tier of prioritization goes to applicants who have previously lived in one of the co-op houses; the order of selection is then based on seniority, or how many quarters applicants have attended university in the county.
The monthly living costs at SBSHC co-op houses are distinct from independent apartment complexes in Isla Vista, with costs roughly breaking down to room charges, food sharing programs, collective utility costs and a resiliency fund.
Room charges depend on each co-op house, and the food sharing costs are also dependent on the frequency of communal dinners at each house — or if they have any at all. Members can exempt themselves from this charge if they do not want to participate.
The money paid by the co-op members for food sharing is sent to SBSHC, who then deposit said money into separate trust accounts for each house to spend on food and communal dinners.
The resiliency fund — to which every member pays $6 monthly — is a mutual aid program under SBSHC that is saved under the cooperative in case co-op members apply for financial assistance and are in need of a rent reduction. Members can opt out of this charge if they request to do so.
Richardson emphasized that the costs paid by the co-op members also partially goes back to them through various avenues like a member initiative grants, which compensates members for service and labor they complete for their respective houses.
Richardson said that though these costs do exist for the co-op members, they can be negotiated based on the needs of the co-op community.
Rent and utilities — though typically fixed due to fixed mortgage rates of each co-op house — can also fluctuate depending on usage rates and other factors. Richardson emphasized that maintenance costs are exponentially increasing for each co-op house.
Named after Bantu Stephen Biko — a South African anti-apartheid activist — the Biko House is a co-op house on Sueno Road for students of color, focused on racial equality and social justice.
“Our whole mission statement or existence is after social justice and just creating a safer space for people of color,” fourth-year communication and film and media studies double major and Biko House resident Liliana Linan said. “A lot of people who do live at Biko have had more negative experiences in the past living with people they can’t relate to or [experienced] microaggressions.”
Biko houses 18 members, who share 12 bedrooms and six bathrooms. The complex itself is a singular house, with three floors, a communal kitchen and dining and living spaces.
Biko is distinct from the other housing co-ops this academic year in the number of events it hosted, to which Linan said it ultimately comes down to providing space for community building.
“We’ve always tried to open up our own space for the community — I actually found out about Biko because there was an open-mic event,” she said. “One of the house positions is garage manager, so they’re the ones that go through planning all of that and scheduling all that.”
Named after labor activist and Chicanx civil rights movement leader Dolores Huerta, the Dolores House on Sabado Tarde Road is for vegetarian or vegan students who strive for environmental sustainability in food consumption and other initiatives. The complex houses nine bedrooms and three bathrooms.
“[There’s an] extreme focus on locality, so all of our food is purchased from the farmers’ market, all of our grains are bulk ordered from the I.V. Food Cooperative so we’re supporting local farmers,” UCSB graduate and Dolores resident Anthony Barbero said.
The 15-member house follows strict sustainable food practices and hosts a complex gray water system in alignment with its mission, from composting to members growing their own food.
“We compost our food scraps and make really high quality compost for our garden, where we produce tons of food, a lot of native plants that support pollinators and hummingbirds,” Barbero said. “When the rains came, you could see that the neighbor’s yard was completely flooded out but we had such rich soils that we could absorb that water.”
“People care about the land and the house here, more than they would if they were just renting it because we are technically the owners of this house,” he continued. “It really feels good to be in a place where people care.”
Named after Catholic priest and interfaith advocate Thomas Merton, the Merton House is for students of all faiths to encourage interfaith dialogue and cooperation.
Merton, on Camino Pescadero, houses 18 members who occupy 12 bedrooms in the complex, with a communal kitchen, living space and large bathroom. The building also has the SBSHC Central Office, board and meeting rooms, a mini library and an auditorium.
Merton resident Richardson stressed the large physical size of Merton, speaking to the breadth of historical resources available at Merton for members and visitors to read up on social justice topics and amount of space for communal activity.
“We have a library where we’ve got a ton of books with resources on maintenance, a bunch of books on social justice, gender, identity, politics and a bunch of religious texts,” they said. “It really has a position to be a place for not only students of the co-op community but the greater student community in Isla Vista.”
Touting nine separate apartments, Newman House on Madrid Road is the housing co-op for students in the LGBTQIA+ community. The house is distinct from the other co-ops in its private space allocated for its members, as each member can be housed in a separate unit and interact with the complex’s communal spaces as desired.
“I found out about Newman when looking for housing before the fall that I would move in and my dad sent me a link to it and said, ‘This one is gay,’” fourth-year political science major Chloe Challinor said. “Just the inclusivity aspect of it was fun, and I liked the idea of it being an apartment complex, but also a community.”
Challinor emphasized that they value Newman creating a designated space for LGBTQIA+ people to exist with peace and without interference, stressing this to be important in any larger community like I.V.
“I know a lot of people here who don’t necessarily have the most accepting families … and any designated space for queer peace is beneficial to the greater good,” she said. “I also think it’s a good place to think of your queerness in respect to your community and others.”
Who is best suited for the I.V. housing co-op community?
Richardson emphasized the importance of “sweat equity” at housing co-ops, saying that all members are expected to take on service positions and be active and engaged with the co-op community.
“I think it’s really oriented for individuals who are looking to work with other people, who are motivated, who are up for accepting additional responsibilities within their house and within the greater community,” they said.
Barbero recommends Dolores to anyone interested in talking about social justice, politics and generally want to be in a passionate community.
“I recommend it for people who like to be around people who like to talk about radical politics, social justice, food justice, environmental justice, that kind of stuff is huge in the culture here,” he said.
Challinor said that students would learn about the different housing co-ops available in I.V., as it is often an overlooked housing option in the college town.
“It’s just something that a lot of people don’t consider or don’t know exists until they happen to find it,” they said.
Linan expressed gratitude for the relationships she formed at Biko and hopes that other prospective members of the I.V. housing co-ops can have the same experience.
“I love Biko so much, I love everything about it,” she said. “No one is just everyone who lives there, literally some of my closest friends and friends for life.”
A version of this article appeared on p. 3 of the April 27, 2023, print edition of the Daily Nexus.