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Grand Forks group provided affordable housing option as state’s only housing co-op

Dexter and Betsy Perkins stand outside their rental property on 405 4th Street in downtown Grand Forks. (Luke Franke/Grand Forks Herald)

The eight-bedroom house just south of downtown Grand Forks was the only housing cooperative in North Dakota when it opened in 2010.

Now it stands empty with a “for rent” sign in the yard and the community garden beside it left fallow.

“It was a great, utopian idea,” said Nick Gideo, a former member of the co-op. “It became taken advantage of,” he said, referring to some members’ lack of responsibility.

UND graduate Caylan Larson, who spearheaded the project, realized a few years ago that 405 S. 4th St. was an ideal location for a co-op. A housing co-op is a business — often nonprofit — jointly owned and controlled by the people who live there. No landlords. No high monthly payments.

Larson did not have the money to buy the house, but he received financial backing from the owner Dexter Perkins, and in 2010, the co-op was born.

“We charged them interest on the property. Not much,” said Perkins. “We essentially acted as the banker.”

The plan was to eventually buy the house from Perkins. But the project fizzled when Larson and a couple of other key players moved out of town.

“What’s ironic is that now five years later, it’s even more necessary to have people governing their own living conditions under a housing co-op,” said Larson, alluding to the rising cost of housing.

A community

“I got in at a really great moment,” said Gideo, remembering the community meals they would cook together. “It seemed like this really great environment. That was the first, real living experience not inside this hermetically sealed environment.”

Housing cooperatives have existed in the U.S. since the early 20th century and sprang from a set of ideas called the Rochdale Cooperative Principles, which include open, voluntary membership; democratic governance; surplus belonging to members and cooperation between cooperatives.

According to the 2011 American Housing Survey, there were about 714,000 occupied cooperative housing units.

Jim Jones, formerly of North American Students of Cooperation, advised the Fourth Street co-op members in the group’s early years. He said people are attracted to co-ops for three reasons: cost, control and community.

Housing co-ops can be less costly than renting an apartment or living in a dorm. Co-op members also have more control over their living situation by making decisions — whether they be about maintenance or budgeting — as a collective. It also offers a sense of community.

“There’s so many people... that’s post-college, that hasn’t settled down... that has a hard time finding community,” Jones said.

But ever since the Fourth Street co-op went under, there are none in North Dakota, said Jones.

Another try?

Gideo said that after the key players at the co-op left, no one stepped up to the plate.

“It wasn’t at the point where it could exist on its own without someone as dedicated as Caylan,” he said.

The co-op should have done a better job of vetting members, he said.

Gideo believes that a co-op could work in North Dakota, he said.

“But it has to be under the pretense that it’s a business, and it should be run like a business,” he said. “It definitely needs a solid manager to keep it going.”

Jones, though he no longer works for NASCO, said he would be “happy” to help jumpstart another co-op in North Dakota.

“They should not be deterred by the one failure,” he said.

City Council Member Bret Weber, who is involved in affordable housing efforts through a community land trust, agreed.

“I don’t know that since we simply tried once and ultimately it didn’t work out means it’s a failure,” he said. “I think that many people who lived there found it to be a success and that it served them.”

Weber, whose ward includes the co-op, said that now is a “unique” time in Grand Forks when young people could benefit from a housing cooperative.

“We are having a bit of a bubble of young adults who are either coming to North Dakota or returning to North Dakota,” he said. “They’re looking for a sense of community and I think the housing co-op was definitely an effort to address (that).”