Yogi Berra once advised: “when you get to a Y in the road, take it.” So that’s exactly what Kay and I have done. Oh, you say—but how do you know where you will end up? We don’t, and of course, that’s exactly the point. Our Y in the road was the decision to relocate to Colorado and take residence in a brand-new sparkling co-operative. So, if you are not sure what life in a cooperative is about—neither are we, but we are going to share with you what we know in this essay.
First, the basics—a co-operative is not a condo nor an apartment complex, although it is close quarters living. You don’t buy or rent your living quarters—in our case 58 units in a three-story building. Rather, you become a member by purchasing a share in a mortgaged building. You are not an owner. Okay, I know that is difficult to grasp—think of it as an investment. Over time, your share will appreciate in value so that when the unit is sold, you will get a return larger than what you have invested.
Second, governance—who decides what? This is where a co-operative is distinctly different from a rental property or the purchase of a single-family residence or condo. There are two sets of “governors”. One is the developer who acts as a sometimes manager and at other times as the financial overseer. The developer is the guy or gal behind the curtain that makes sure the members do not engage, purposely or unwittingly, in illegal acts, such as discriminating the reselling of a unit because of race, creed, sex, or ethnicity. The developer is also the financial guru for making sure property insurance and taxes are in order.
The other “governor,” and this is the really exciting feature of co-op living, are the members who enter into a social contract with one another to oversee questions and issues regarding everyday life. This democratic arrangement (yes, voting and transparency) is key. Here are a few examples.
Should the co-op place restrictions on pets? What should be done about dog poop on the grounds? Should the co-op have a member library? If so, what books or periodicals should be included? And, who serves as a librarian? You get the idea?
Now, let’s delve a little more deeply into the possible ups and downs of life in a co-op. The ups are many and certainly begin with members caring about other members. This means helping out when they are ill or confused about something. It also means practicing the Golden Rule and treating members with respect and good will. Almost equally important, is the desire to foster a quality living environment, one in which the three musketeer’s motto “all for one, and one for all” is proudly practiced.
On the financial side, collective sharing creates economies for everyone. Our utility and media costs are much lower than they would be living in a comparable single-family residence. Then there is the day-to-day, month-to-month upkeep. In our 30-year-old single family home in Tampa, we practically paid out daily for a handy-man to fix this or that, an expense that we don’t have in the co-operative. Got a light bulb out? Fill out a work order. Got a washing machine on the blink? Write another work order. I don’t wish to leave the reader with the impression that this service is free as we do have a monthly charge. Yet, our experience to date certainly suggests that we are getting our money’s worth. Our bank account says so!
There are other amenity “ups” to consider. Our building has a subterranean heated garage, a room with weights and machines to keep your muscles in shape, a commons area for meetings and entertainment, and a wood working shop. No, we don’t have a pool or a jacuzzi or a pickle ball court like numerous retirement facilities throughout Florida. You do your own cooking. Co-op living is not assisted living, nor is there an employee whose sole task is to entertain you with inhouse activities (say, a sing along) or find a way to transport you to local events such as festivals.
One more collection of “ups” should be mentioned: social gatherings and happenings. So, are you a gamester—pinochle, canasta, poker player, board game enthusiast? Maybe or maybe not? How much canasta can you play without getting bored? Then let’s do something more mind bending such as taking a class in a life-long learning program. As you can see, the possibilities are only limited by your imagination.
Turning next to the “downside” – as in life, you rarely if ever are able to pick your neighbors. We have lived in many different houses, apartments, condos over the years and learned long ago to never make enemies of your neighbors. We mostly succeeded, but it only takes one instance to remind yourself why you want friends not enemies as neighbors. So, it is also true of co-operative living. Indeed, probably even more true since the residents are, well, how can you kindly put it, not youngsters anymore. The co-op stop may well be the last stop on the road of life for many members.
While “age” is embedded in co-op living (we are in over 55 restricted housing), old folks can be difficult friends who have unalterable beliefs about politics, religion, and more and are often walking pain boxes. Don is into pain management and takes two addictive pills daily to ward off back pain—egads!
And factions, oh my goodness, they just won’t fade away. And so, it is in CO-OP life. There’s always a collection, maybe many, of individuals who are determined to have it their way, yes, “my way or the highway.” They seem to thrive on divisiveness. The U.S. Constitutional Founders were so concerned about the “evil of factions” that they created a constitutional order that ensured factions, however inevitable, would be neutralized by the separation (checks and balances) and division of power (federalism). Alas, CO-OP living is not so easily brokered. Individualism and factions make it so.
So? Is co-operative life for you? Well, if you are a Florida resident you can find some co-op apartment buildings mostly in the southeast, but not many. Of course, there are a gaggle of different living complexes for retirees who want to lay and play in the sunshine or the waterways. Kay and I explored these many alternatives before heading West but found none attractive enough to stay put in Tampa Bay.
If you, dear reader, would like to know more about our experience and the financial side of coop investment, please give us a holler. We are still traveling down the Y-in the road and have not yet reached our mystery destination.
Yogi always knows what he’s talking about. Doesn’t he?
Don included his email address, but since OLLI Connects is accessible to the entire planet and not just OLLI members, we’ve left that out. Don probably gets enough spam as it is. If you want to connect with Don and don’t have his address, email email@example.com –Editor
Don Menzel is a past president of the American Society for Public Administration, author and international speaker on ethics reform. Before his move to Colorado, Don organized OLLI-USF’s China Special Interest Group. He also served as an OLLI-USF faculty member for over 10 years.