By Kevin Sullivan
Coming down West 4th Ave toward the corner of Adams Street, Tamara LeRoy greets a passerby as she comes upon a community where bike spokes are welded into the gates, the houses are green and purple and a sign with a giant leaf on it proclaims “East Blair Housing Cooperative: Member Owned & Operated.” For the residents of the Whiteaker neighborhood, that corner represents a different way of life. It represents community.
Unlike most cooperatives, East Blair has no landlord and no shared kitchen. Instead, each member of the co-op maintains ownership and each unit has its own kitchen. Inside the space, there are 22 units full of families and couples. A community room in the far corner of the co-op contains space where the residents hold meetings.
“For me, this is the perfect blend of having your own space and community living,” says Kimberly Roellig, a resident of East Blair for the last year and a half.
According to the East Blair website, after an intense saga with trying to get funds approved through the city, the once called “Project that could not be done,” was officially established on February 23, 1982. From the beginning, the founders of the community had one priority: make the cooperative as affordable as possible.
“For me, it’s dignified housing for people who otherwise couldn’t afford it,” says resident of ten months Nicole Medema. “People my age don’t think of owning a house or land. It’s just not an idea because it’s so expensive.”
According to the 2012 fair market rate of Lane County, a two bedroom unit should cost $806. A two bedroom unit within the East Blair Housing Cooperative is currently $595. East Blair proudly posts and boasts these statistics on a wall within the community.
“I think it’s the single greatest thing we could’ve done,” said Stuart Rush, a resident since September. “It’s cool that no one is getting rich off our need of somewhere to live.”
Co-op residents manage the community garden and take care of all maintenance issues within East Blair. Another section of the EBHC, called the “East Cluster,” is located just down the block. It contains five units and in the backyard there is a community beehive and chicken coop. During the mandatory meetings, residents use a consensus vote to solve problems.
Within the community room there are couches and chairs off to the side for when people gather for meetings. In one corner there are playthings and toys for the kids who live in the co-op. Behind a piano, the sounds of washing machines echo off the wall.
Although residents say these meetings are necessary to build community, a consensus system has drawbacks. Residents say that at times, things can get heated, especially if people feel strongly about something, no matter how minor of an issue it is.
“You don’t get to run it the way you want,” Fred Roellig says. “You have to compromise and you don’t get what you want and you have to be okay with that.”
Ultimately, residents say, the relationships are worth the long meetings.
“I really needed a place like the co-op for emotional support,” LeRoy says. LeRoy’s experience has been mostly positive, but as a single mother of three children, including three-year-old Lincoln, she says she gets frustrated with the consensus process, but as a member of the “East Cluster,” she enjoys her neighbors and is happy.
In 1996, the original rule to keep the co-op only available to those who qualified for low-income housing expired. Despite this, the co-op kept the mission statement the same up until last year. Now, the mission statement has been broadened to those who do not have access to decent housing. Because of this, some newer members are more financially stable than others.
“I’m a nurse and I’m able to work part-time and afford this place which isn’t the case for everyone here,” Kimberly Roellig says.
Though Kimberly works part time, and Fred works as a stay-at-home Dad, the Roelligs aren’t rich. In fact, Fred Roellig lived in a van during the summer time for 20 years.
“People might think that co-ops are about low-cost living or just a bunch of hippies…it’s such a political thing because we’re taking matters into our own hands and really changing the dichotomy,” Medema says.
Medema traveled around Central and South America for a few years. While there, she discovered that most people generally shared their belongings such as rakes, so that each person in the community didn’t have to own one. At East Blair, the dichotomy Medema is referring to is the real sense of community, something that she says is hard to find within the United States.
One of the residents with the most tenure has felt that sense of community begin to change. 15 years ago, a pregnant Jennifer “Ember” Woodruff was on the road heading to Minneapolis to set up a life for her soon-to-be born child when her car broke down in Eugene. Within three weeks, Woodruff had offers for places to live and eventually found herself in the EBHC.
Now, after 15 years of residency within the co-op, the long and dark haired Woodruff confidently explains that despite the low-income rule expiring in 1996, she has only seen the effects of it within the last eight years.
“That’s something that’s been challenging for me, is going from a predominantly low income co-op to one that’s not,” says Woodruff. “It’s challenging dealing with the unspoken class issue.”
Others, Like LeRoy, who have only been in the community for two years, have started seeing these effects only after the mission statement was revised.
“I haven’t noticed actual classism. What I’ve noticed is that there’s a reluctance to discuss classism,” says Melanie Sicotte, the business manager of the EBHC and the Student Cooperative Association.
Still, there are some within the community who are not aware of this ongoing discussion.
“There’s not very much drama or arguing. It’s been really good,” says co-op resident Kristin Rush. “It’s kind of an inviting environment I feel. I like seeing friends and people you know just wandering around. Makes you feel comfortable.”
The application process to be a resident of East Blair is very difficult and more often than not, applicants wait for months before getting word of acceptance or denial.
“Someone might get [removed] from the application process just because they rubbed somebody the wrong way,” said LeRoy.
Despite the drawbacks, residents within the co-op view this community feel as a huge advantage that other people within the Whiteaker neighborhood might not necessarily have.
“This place is cultivating the possibility and the awareness that a different structure is possible,” Medema says.
Kimberly Roellig looks out from her kitchen, past her living room and out into her backyard. Through the sliding glass door she can see the gate shaped like a bicycle that leads to the rest of the Whiteaker neighborhood. Roellig pours herself a cup of tea and contentedly takes a seat in the living room as her husband and son watch a movie upstairs.
Managing a different way of life
Melanie Sicotte, the business manager of the East Blair Housing Cooperative and the Student Cooperative Association, wasn’t expecting to be working for a co-op 18 years ago.
“I was looking for a part-time job and this thing called EBHC (didn’t say what it was) said they were looking for a bookkeeper, and I answered the ad,” Sicotte says.
On top of making sure that finances are in line and hosting discussions of whether or not to add more units to the community, Sicotte finds herself being the spokesperson for the cooperative.
“By default I’m the first person people meet, and, depending on what the business is, I pass it on to other people or handle it myself,” Sicotte says.
A lot of the original members of the East Blair Housing Cooperative have moved away by now, but as of July of 2012 the last original member still in the co-op died. Although there are no longer any of the first generation residents left within the gates of East Blair, the message remains the same.
“We’re doing everything we can to stay affordable,” Sicotte says.
The business manager says that one of her favorite parts about working for the EBHC is the process of deciding problems in a group setting and based on consensus.
The co-op just celebrated its 30th anniversary and despite Sicotte being there for the last eighteen, she has yet to grow tired of it.