Perennial Co-op’s founders sought a diverse, affordable, family-oriented neighborhood.
Gabrielle Hinahara has lived at Ambrosia Co-op for three years. While she’s loved the communal living experience Madison Community Cooperative houses offer, Hinahara wants something a little more settled.
“Right now in Madison, most of the co-op housing is downtown, and there tends to be a lot of students and pretty quick turnover,” Hinahara says. So she and a handful of friends have decided to branch off and form Perennial Co-op at the corner of Lake Point Drive and Hoboken Road on the city’s south side.
The group is hoping to take cooperative living to the next level, Hinahara says. “We were looking to...really be rooted in a neighborhood and have long-term members.”
Housing cooperatives are well established in Madison. In 1968, members of several independent co-ops came together to form Madison Community Cooperative (MCC), which now includes 11 houses. But when it comes to housing, one size does not fit all.
The members establishing Perennial hope to expand the model into something they can grow and mature with. Mark Norton, who has lived at Ambrosia for five years, says he values the MCC community and all he has learned from it. Now he wants to settle down without giving up the communal lifestyle.
“I want to be in the community and the house the way a single family would be almost,” Norton says. “Where it’s like you are a homeowner and you live with your family and know people in the neighborhood and are involved and want to do it positively, but instead of being a single family, we are coming together to be a nontraditional family.”
The Perennial Co-op family started with four members of Ambrosia Co-op. Norton, Hinahara, Nicole Norris and Nate Durgin would occasionally talk about starting a new co-op. When the four went backpacking in the Smoky Mountains in March 2015, they had a conversation that launched them into action.
They talked about how they could never see themselves living in single-family homes and about all the things they loved about living in an MCC co-op. But they also talked about what they would like to be different.
“After that trip it all sort of came together,” Hinahara says. The group — which has grown to 10 people — chose the south side because it wanted a neighborhood that is diverse, family-oriented, near downtown and affordable.
Durgin, an AmeriCorps employee, had worked in the neighborhood with Growing Power and the Bridge Lake Point Waunona Neighborhood Center. “There was more going on on the south side that we wanted to get involved with,” Hinahara says.
While touring the community center, the four noticed a vacant home across the street that had been carved up into apartments. Peeking in the windows, they became intrigued.
Norton tracked down the property owner to see if he was interested in selling. The owner had bought the house in a foreclosure sale and was eager to help the group. But getting approval from the city took much longer, Hinahara says. They were required to get a conditional-use permit, which took about three months.
The owner was willing to wait, Hinahara says. “We weren’t changing the occupancy or anything on the exterior. Literally, all we were changing was instead of [having] four separate units, we would all be living together. Because of that it was a very expensive and complicated process,” she says.
Hinahara was frustrated by the red tape. “I felt like we have had to educate everybody we are working with on what the heck a co-op is,” Hinahara says.
The group had contemplated establishing the house through MCC but decided to go solo instead, says Norton. “We wanted to come together and live together, but if we had done it in MCC we would have to give up a lot of control to their ways of doing things.”
Hinahara says working with MCC would have made financing easier, but with 10 people able to contribute to the 20% down payment for the building, they were able to do it on their own.
MCC co-president Glyphia Doulas has lived in Madison co-ops since 2005. She says the independent co-ops that came together to form MCC did so to expand the movement. She’s happy to see another independent co-op forming.
She also sees MCC as a training ground for people who want to start their own co-ops, since they can learn the ropes from “staff people who are engaged to do certain necessary functions of the co-op.”
Perennial’s members are still working on the house, with hopes to move in by mid-September. While they were talking to an Isthmus reporter in front of the house, a woman pulled up in her car to welcome them to the neighborhood.
“Something like that has happened every single day we have been working here,” Hinahara says. “Different people have been stopping by and saying they are excited to see people who are excited to live here and fix this place up. A lot of people have been asking what a co-op is.”
Member Amy Stoddard says the building is between two very different neighborhoods. Just a few blocks down the street are lakefront properties owned by middle- and upper-class residents, while across the street is low-income housing. The street is also the boundary between two neighborhood associations.
“Something that I think is very exciting is the opportunity that we have, because we kind of reside in both worlds or cross some of those boundaries,” Stoddard says. “I hope to incorporate and soften that edge and the cultural boundaries between these different groups.”
The group also hopes to foster strong relationships with the neighborhood and empower everyone to make improvements and even start their own co-ops.
Durgin says he’s committed to the project — and the community — for the long haul.
“For most of human history people have lived in groups where they build relationships over their entire lives and stay close to them in villages and tribes,” he says. “Over time, with the development of our modern civilization, people have become a lot more isolated, and the nuclear family became a thing.”
Durgin says his time in MCC has made him realize how much more can be accomplished when a group shares food, emotional support, child care and house maintenance. “People working together and supporting each other can get a lot done and live really good lives through that power of community,” Durgin adds. “If a group of people are committed to being intentional and supporting each other, it can lower a lot of the stresses of modern life.”