Ava Jindra can't take much more. An internal fight over the management of the Madison Community Cooperative, an organization that owns 11 housing co-ops, has left Jindra and many others feeling defeated.
"I'm terrified of checking my email every day just to see what terrible thing someone has said about me," says Jindra, MCC's coordinating officer. "It's been a psychologically horrible experience, and has prevented me from being productive."
Jindra isn't alone. Internal tensions between some members of MCC and its paid staff have sparked the staff to go on strike and residents of four of the co-ops to withhold rent.
The catalyst for the conflict was a fire last September that rendered Lothlorien co-op, the group's largest and most valuable property, uninhabitable. The MCC membership ultimately voted to rebuild rather than sell the property on the shore of Lake Mendota, but that decision was marred by controversy. Some members alleged that the staff inflated reconstruction estimates to encourage selling. The staff in turn accused pro-Lothlorien members and former residents of harassment and slander. The fight got ugly and personal.
Ultimately the MCC board of directors voted to not to renew one staff member's contract, effectively firing the person. Staff members contacted by Isthmus did not respond to requests for comment.
Enough members signed a petition to force a full membership vote on whether or not to renew the employee's contract. Votes from the roughly 200 residents in MCC's co-ops will be collected Dec. 28.
In the meantime, MCC staff -- including two remaining full-time coordinating workers and two contract maintenance workers -- went on strike Dec. 1. Other part-time staff members have either quit or are striking, in solidarity, according to membership officer Taylor Kestrel. Employee demands include the reinstatement of the staff member whose contract wasn't renewed as well as the resignation of several members of the board. They also want to ban members of the pro-Lothlorien contingent from the MCC staff offices.
At the same time, four houses -- Syntropy, Ambrosia, Sofia and Phoenix -- began withholding rent in solidarity with the staff. The houses are still collecting rent, but placing the funds in escrow until the conflict is resolved.
The rent strike is a symbolic gesture, and, for now, doesn't pose a serious threat to MCC's finances. Kestrel says it would take three or four months of continuous rent withholding before MCC would need to dip into its reserve funds.
Christian Hansen, a resident of Phoenix co-op, is participating in the rent action in support of the staff. He worries about how the situation will be resolved.
"It's difficult to see a resolution at this point because everything is just escalation, and I see that escalation as very one-sided," Hansen says. "Numerous, repeated allegations continue to be asserted by one side in this debate from outside the organization, and this needs stop. We need to get back to the business of rebuilding Lothlorien."
Lothlorien has been empty since the fire, and no repair work has been started, in part because of the conflict. MCC is currently seeking repair bids and getting new architectural drawings.
However, Tom Pierson, a former executive director of the North American Students of Cooperation, of which MCC is a member, blames the staff for inaction. "The fact that [Lothlorien] is still vacant is a major flag," he says. "This is clearly a failure on the staff level. There's a rat under that woodpile."
Members of the staff and board planned to meet with NASCO for advice on how to handle the conflict.
Although the issue has divided the MCC community, both sides have one thing in common -- the fight is wearing them out.
"The unfortunate thing is that the way that it has played out is that multiple parties have tried to reach out to the membership by distributing fliers," says Andy Bose, MCC's financial officer. "There has been factual information spread, rumors spread and emotionally impactful word choices. This has left the membership on all sides confused and quite frankly exhausted with the whole situation."
Bose, a former resident of Lothlorien, is one of the people that the staff is demanding resign.
Kestrel says the ongoing dispute has left many members confused. "People aren't super informed," Kestrel says. "One person says something, than another says the complete opposite. It's basically a flame war.”
MCC was formed in 1968 from eight independent housing co-operatives. It has had its ups and downs in four decades but in general has grown, providing residents both affordable housing and a more communal living experience. Many houses share food costs and rotate cooking duties for dinner. About 200 people now live in MCC houses.
It has become an integral part of Madison counterculture. And it recently began an experiment to help alleviate homelessness here. MCC teamed up with Briarpatch Youth Services to create a transitional living co-op for homeless teens, in a house near Sherman Avenue on the city's east side.