An industrial-sized fridge hums in the background as Hannah Frankel, 28, gives a tour of her housing cooperative, pointing out the shared kitchen, pantry and meeting rooms.
“We consistently have a waitlist,” she says. “We consistently have a great demand.”
Frankel lives in La Reunion, a co-op in North Austin that houses nearly 40 residents who collectively have a say in how things are run. In 2013, she and others founded the co-op, which is overseen by a nonprofit, by purchasing a two-story 1960s-era apartment building.
Frankel says the co-op model allows La Reunion to charge low rent.
“We pay $880 rent for a two-bedroom with meals every night of the week and access to a stocked pantry,” she says. (Since we talked in May, that price has risen to $890.) A one-bedroom goes for $445 a month, in a city where the median one-bedroom rent comes to roughly $1,100 a month.
Austin City Council members voted unanimously Thursday to make housing cooperatives eligible for financial assistance from the city. Currently, the city operates affordable housing development assistance programs, such as the Down Payment Assistance Program. Funded with federal grants, this program allows first-time homebuyers to apply for a zero-interest loan up to $40,000.
“The intent here is to really ask our staff to look at cooperative housing, which is providing some great affordable housing for residents here in Austin, and to see how we can adapt our programs to really accommodate that model of housing,” says Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, who sponsored the item.
The ordinance also asks the city manager to explore ways to give residents living in a multifamily building about to be sold a chance to buy the building and form a co-op. The building would have to be on the city’s list of buildings repeatedly cited for code violations.
Tovo says she also saw this as an opportunity for the city to enable residents to preserve more aging multifamily, middle-density housing – often referred to as “missing middle.” This housing tends to be cheapest.
“We really as a municipality need to get serious about taking advantages of as many strategies as possible to really preserve our existing affordable housing,” she says. “And cooperative models could be a really welcome addition to that pool of strategies.”
When asked why she thinks it has taken the city until now to let co-ops apply for development help, Frankel says she thinks it's a lack of awareness about who lives in co-ops.
“I think most people weren’t aware of the model and that it did have such utility to provide such long-term, permanent affordable housing,” she says, adding that in her experience many people assume co-ops mostly house students. La Reunion residents range in age from 13 to 70.
“We really value diversity and see it as part of our mission as a nonprofit housing provider,” Frankel says.