Widgets Magazine


Grad co-op for Stanford

A co-operative house was a crash-landing. After I got toppled from my residential advisor gig for inviting freshmen to my frat party, Penn Housing Co-op founded by my Quaker friend was my only option.

The co-op and I did not get along. Although I shared its progressive politics, I was too Gangnam Style and dreaded weekly chores. As my homeland South Korea witnessed phenomenal economic growth under dictatorship, I had little patience for interminable discussions towards consensus. So I moved to a less structured community called “Happy House,” with fewer meetings and more parties.

I sojourned there for two years with six friends and a cat named Marmalade. Although our quaint row house was as gross as our livers on hangover mornings and we often received threatening emails from our landlord for late rent, I learned much more about management and governance from living in co-ops than in dorms. I also paid half of what I had paid on campus for a beautiful room twice as big with a classical faux fireplace and Victorian wooden blinds. We painted walls, planted flowers, hung hammocks and installed a rock-climbing wall.

When I moved into a graduate studio in Escondido Village last year, it felt like regression to freshman year. Although Stanford housing had tried to inject vitality into sanatorium corridors by hanging faded landscape pictures, the common space remained barren. Whereas I had inherited a rich menagerie of furniture and artworks from my friends who had occupied Happy House before me, my studio was bare without any trace of life or history.

Although many graduate dorms on campus are august at least from outside, graduate students should not be limited in their choice of housing. Whereas undergraduates can choose from seven flavors of co-ops — including Synergy, which hosts annual Dionysian fertility festivals in addition to baking bread and brewing beer — prohibitive Silicon Valley rent confines grad students to the monoculture of university-sanctioned dorms and apartments.

At our hipper doppelganger Berkeley, over 10 percent of the 1,250 students living in co-ops are graduate students. As there is no landlord and the budget is collectively set by the student-run board of the Berkeley Student Cooperative founded in 1933, residents pay only about $800 a month for room and board. Two of their 17 co-op houses only accept graduate students.

Not only do co-ops save money for string-budget students, but they can also serve as laboratories of social innovation. Without the trailblazing hippies who experimented with communal living, unicorns of sharing economy such as Airbnb and Uber might not exist. If Sergey and Larry had not downloaded the principles of the Burning Man Festival into the DNA of Google, Google might have been evil. Hong Kong became the Pearl of Asia not through technological innovation, but through the social innovation of liberal British laws and norms.

Twentieth-century history shows that Utopian social engineering at the national level often causes more havoc than good. Nevertheless, social reorganization at housing-level can be a more fun and sustainable way to tread on earth. Recent popping up of co-housing communities with shared cooking and dining areas in Sonoma and Mountain View also illustrates that communes are becoming a commercially viable option for developers.

We already have some grad students nesting in Palo Alto co-ops, such as the Dead houses founded by a Grateful Dead aficionado who slashed the rent to $750/month. At Bubbaland, founded in the 1970s, residents (including one toddler) host weekly potlucks and salon-style discussions, engage in green practices such as reuse of laundry water and donate a bagful of bread from a local bakery to a nearby retirement home.

Before his retirement, Leland declared in his grant of endowment to Stanford that it would be the duty of the Trustees: “to have taught in the University… the right and advantages of association and co-operation.” As recently as a decade ago, there were graduate students living in on-campus co-ops. If enough of us clamor for the extension of Stanford Housing’s generous subsidy to encompass co-ops, perhaps some of us can embody our founder’s ideals before we become yuppies.


Contact J.Y. Lee at junyoub.lee9041 ‘at’ gmail.com. 

  • Evan Warner

    Anecdotal evidence suggests to me that there are a lot of graduate students in the same boat; perhaps it is time for a group of us to start pushing more formally. Although the undergraduate co-ops have historically been open to graduate students (as residents, as you say, and somewhat more recently as nonresident members) my sense is that this openness has diminished even over the past two or three years. Long-term, I think this corresponds to an overall increase in bureaucratic oversight from Residential Education.

    Anyway, there are two ways forward – integration with undergraduate co-ops or creation of a graduate co-op de novo – and both would be difficult.

    I would be interested in hearing from people who might be interested in testing the waters, and from people more knowledgeable than I about previous efforts in this direction

    Evan Warner, math dept.

    ebwarner at stanford.edu