Rain drizzles as the soft chords of a guitar float from 1614 Tennessee St. One resident sways on the creaky porch swing, strumming his guitar. Inside the mural-covered walls of the house, people are normally laughing, painting or playing music, but now they’re about to discuss house business.
Joshua Diringer has been living at Olive House since May.
“It only works if you treat it like a group scenario. You can’t treat this like ‘I rent a room and that’s all I do,’” Diringer said. “If that’s your idea of cooperative learning, then that’s not going to work because it definitely takes somebody who wants to be involved in other people.”
Olive House is one of three houses under the nonprofit Peoples Owned and Operated Cooperative Housing.
In 1941, professors and students created the University of Kansas Housing Association — now POOCH — to maintain co-ops in the area, according to POOCH’s. But these eventually shut-down. In 1969, a University professor purchased the property and the co-ops reopened in the early 1970s.
In 2010, POOCH entered North American Students of Cooperation, an organization that helps co-ops.
Now, about 30 total residents of various ages live in POOCH’s three homes located on Kentucky and Tennessee Streets. Some are students, some are Kansas natives and some are just passing through. Regardless of who you are, POOCH provides affordable rent and food in exchange for cooperation. As listed in the mission statement, the co-ops aim to create “self-governance,” prevent oppression, and build a “sustainable and egalitarian community.”
Residents are expected to help around the house. They clean, cook and meet to manage house business. They talk out problems, vote on incoming residents and do their best to make sure everyone’s voice is heard.
“There are alternative ways to exist together outside of traditional capitalist, landlord/tenant relations,” staff manager Kincaid Dennett said. “And if we can cooperate, we can build something that is really cool for a lot of people who are usually left out of the conversation.”
Dennett discovered the co-ops at the age of 18 as a University student studying anthropology. After graduating in 2013, Dennett left Lawrence. They returned about two years later to visit, but after seeing the work their friends were doing in the co-ops, Dennett decided to return.
Several of their friends were working to make the co-ops a safe space for the LGBTQ+ community, hosting drag shows out of the house and “other fun stuff like that.” Seeing the potential the co-ops had, this past January, Dennett took a full-time staff position alongside University alumna Katie Easley.
“When the staff position became open, I wanted to participate in this and try to make it what it can be,” Dennett said
Over the years, the houses have seen many residents: artists, musicians, activists. While the co-ops are still filled with art, Dennett said now the houses are “queer as hell.”
“The culture of the house shifts to reflect the people who live there and I think that’s a really cool, dynamic way to live that’s reflected in almost everything that we do,” Dennett said.
Many residents are LGBTQ+. Pride flags hang inside the brightly-colored houses and sometimes on them. Dennett’s home, the Ad Astra house at 1033 Kentucky St., just repainted its rainbow staircase leading to the front porch.
According to Dennett, the co-ops have a strong “queer community,” especially Ad Astra house.
A lot of the residents are involved in activism, including food justice, LGBTQ+ issues, supporting other advocacy groups, and supporting an anti-oppression.
POOCH intern Sean Noriega is an example of that. Noriega event-plans for a transgender advocacy group in Kansas City, and they also organize events at the co-ops. They set up movie nights, benefits, punk shows and game nights to keep people close. Noriega even hosted an in-house clothing swap geared toward non-binary residents, so they could try on clothing in a safe environment.
“For everything that you have included and the support network, it’s a really good value,” Noriega said.
Renting a room costs roughly $450 a month depending on its size. But the costs also include several meals a week and utilities. With these amenities, Noriega estimates that the co-ops could be the cheapest place to live in Lawrence.
The Sunflower House is the oldest of the three co-ops, and it was originally two separate houses.
Mike Harreld arrived at the Sunflower House several weeks ago when rent-hikes drove him from his apartment. As a self-described “anti-capitalist, anti-sexist, anti-racist, socialist,” living in the co-op has brought him to a lot of individuals that share his values. With the co-ops, he hopes to start a tenant association in Lawrence to fight for affordable housing.
“We’re not in a society that encourages cooperation,” Harreld said. “We’re in a society that encourages us to be homo-economics out for our own rational self-interests.”
Before living in the co-op, Harreld was on his own. But now, he has a support group with his fellow residents who cook and eat dinner together, give each other rides, help move furniture and ask how someone’s week went.
“Part of it is the idea of a support network,” Harreld said. “Having people immediately available if something goes wrong. And I’ve been definitely been witnessing a lot of that around here. A lot of people supporting one another.”
But the co-ops still have their fair share of issues. People disagree, but they try to solve their problems with open communication, something Dennett hopes people take into life outside of cooperative living.
“Not only are you actively participating in an intentional community, you’re leaving and taking those practices out into the world with you,” Dennett said. “And I think that has the potential to create transformative spaces where you’re sharing the way that this different way of operating can be modeled in your day to day life.”