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The co-op life isn't for everyone, but Chicago has its fair share

  • Cooperative housing in Chicago is different from the cookie-cutter situations that are more common. (Chicago Tribune Photo by Bill Hogan)
Cooperative housing in Chicago is different from the cookie-cutter situations…
February 11, 2014|By Rachel Cromidas, @rachelcromidas | RedEye

On a recent Sunday night, Peter Fugiel was cooking for 20 -- with the help of eight stovetop burners and an industrial fridge that might look more at home in a restaurant than an apartment.

Fugiel, 29, of Uptown, is a graduate student, not a professional chef, but every Sunday he plates his home-cooked meals -- a sweet potato gratin with quinoa salad and freshly baked bread, for example -- on a long dining room table for more than a dozen people. They are his housemates at Stone Soup Ashland House, the intentional community where he lives.

The Stone Soup Cooperative is one of a handful of intentional communities, or cooperatives, based in Chicago  where residents live in groups and share household chores, often  paying below-market rents. Some cooperatives are structured like college dorms, where each resident has a separate room but shares common rooms and appliances or bathrooms with multiple stalls.

The Chicago area has cooperatives formed around interests such as social justice, yoga, sustainability and vegetarian cooking. Some are designed specifically for students looking for an alternative to dorms, while others include people of all ages.

What most co-op residents have in common is a willingness to share chores  and use a consensus model to make decisions and resolve conflicts around their home -- all with people they may have only met a few times before moving in together. Monthly rent in a typical cooperative can range from $200 to $500 or more; Stone Soup Ashland charges about $525 a month, and that includes rent, food, and other shared expenses.

"Some people either think we're a frat, and it's just some sort of party-type environment, or they have fantasies of what it means to live with so many other people," Fugiel said. "My experience is it's none of those things. It's people who are social, and are interested in interacting with a lot of different kinds of people."

For a lifestyle modeled on mutual benefits and consensus, cooperatives are not for everyone. Consider the inevitable personality clashes, financial woes and struggles with landlords who may not understand how unrelated adults can live together long-term without turning into an episode of "The Real World."

The development of cooperatives in Chicago has been slow, in part due to murky city zoning laws that make it illegal for large groups of unrelated adults to live together in certain residences, according to Corrigan Nadon-Nichols, a director at the North American Students of Cooperation, which organizes cooperatives around the country, including Qumbya Housing Cooperative in Hyde Park, where he lives.

Members of Stone Soup Ashland House are experiencing some of those housing challenges firsthand this year as they work to secure a long-term lease from their landlord, after renting for 16 years.

It is not uncommon for co-ops to struggle to secure permanent residential space, and keep those spaces up to building codes. One of Qumbya's houses, for example, was forced to spend thousands of dollars on renovations when inspectors found the property was not meeting proper fire regulations.

But when it works, it really works, cooperative residents say.

"I personally find it easier to resolve conflict and to set boundaries and expectations in the co-op," Fugiel said. "People have different expectations about cleanliness, food, personal space. What's nice about the co-op is it's all very explicit. When you cook dinner, for example, you have to do the dishes by midnight."

Stone Soup has three locations around the city, and Ashland House, a former convent just north of Wilson Avenue, is one of the larger ones , with 18 members. To keep order among that many people, the group posts chore lists and bi-weekly meeting minutes around the three-story home, along with signs reminding people to pick up after themselves and keep noise down at night.

Science Meles, 30, a resident since 2012, said she chose to live in the cooperative in part because she thought the built-in community would benefit her three-year-old daughter.

"From social skills to vocabulary, to the way they enunciate, it really does have a big impact on them," she said.

Laila Korn, 39, who owns an individual unit in a housing cooperative in Little Village, said she appreciates living among friends, but wouldn't choose to live in the tight-knit, strict environment like Stone Soup, where everyone shares the same home.

"I am a bit of an introvert," she said. "I lived in a sorority in college, and that was enough."

But when she started looking into buying a home in 2005, she didn't like the idea of living in an impersonal condo building, surrounded by neighbors she didn't know.

So Korn, her husband, and a small group of close friends bought a building together in Little Village that they divided into six apartment units and run more like a traditional housing co-op, with each owning a share of the cooperative, which pays for the mortgage and other building expenses. When Korn wants to garden, barbecue or share a glass of wine with her neighbors, she does. When she doesn't, she can close the door to her unit and be alone.

With co-ops, "you can build your own model and you can write your own community, which is kind of cool," Korn said. "And it also feels a little pioneering, which is kind of strange because cooperatives have been around longer than condominiums."

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