This article was originally published by City Bureau, a nonprofit civic media organization based on the south side. Learn more and get involved at citybureau.org.
Cardboard boxes of food stacked across the kitchen might appear scattered to outsiders, but make sense to staff working in a building on East 71st Street in Chicago’s Chatham neighborhood.
The warehouse feel and gleam of stainless steel appliances fades from the kitchen when stepping through a doorway into a nearby room. Columns of unopened food boxes form an almost mazelike pathway toward the backroom, where a small table makes it a tight fit. The room is modest, but serves as a space for brainstorming, arguing, cracking jokes, and discussing the needs of the staff of ChiFresh Kitchen.
ChiFresh is a food-service contractor and worker cooperative that prioritizes hiring formerly incarcerated Black women. Founded in 2020, ChiFresh has become a valued resource in neighborhoods across the city, serving healthy meals to low-income communities in locations such as daycares and schools. Owner and president Kimberly Britt explained that, from allergies to portions to temperature control, one mistake has the potential to throw off the quality of the end product.
With the food business running smoothly, ChiFresh’s handful of owner-employees are in the process of organizing their own housing cooperative, which they believe will give them more control over their housing needs.
“Everybody wants three times the rent on your paycheck,” Britt said while reflecting on her own struggle to find housing. “Everybody wants to do a background check.”
For many renters in Chicago, the feeling of being powerless and at the mercy of property owners is all too familiar. An array of issues plague the housing market—rising rents, prices, gentrification, and displacement—and given that Chicago has a shortage of 120,000 affordable housing units, housing co-ops have once again emerged as viable options to help fill the gap.
A housing cooperative is a residential property that is owned and often managed by the people who live in the building. The members of the co-op do not pay rent to a traditional landlord and are jointly responsible for maintenance. Co-ops can make home ownership more accessible for lower-income residents.
While there is little legal resistance for those who wish to start a housing co-op in Chicago, there is an education gap because of the absence of a centralized place for information to assist aspiring co-ops along the way. So what does starting a housing cooperative entail? City Bureau met with folks establishing their own to discuss the joys, the struggles, and what they’re learning through the process.
As formerly incarcerated individuals, the ChiFresh worker-owners faced barriers to safe and affordable housing like cost, and credit and background checks, forcing them to live in areas that felt unsafe.
“It’s not really realistic for us to have a $2 million building that we work out of, but we’re living in the hood, where we get our cars stolen, our houses broken into, etcetera, etcetera,” Britt said.
“To live somewhere safe, it’s just, it costs you a lot,” agreed Edrinna Bryant, owner and chef of ChiFresh.
Like many people, the ChiFresh staff did not know what a housing cooperative was. Camille Kerr, consultant and founder of the worker ownership firm Upside Down Consulting, taught Britt and Bryant about the potential of cooperative models. ChiFresh had the vision of building a network of resources for people who were formerly incarcerated, and Kerr had the knowledge to help direct them.
“Being able to have someone who knew what a co-op was and just walking us through, we [were] able to plan this on our own and come up with our own ideas,” Bryant said.
“Once we put our vision together,” Britt said, “how could you say no? The whole world is claiming to be about reentry.”
Cooperative building isn’t linear, and without help from someone experienced in establishing one, it can be a difficult process to endure. ChiFresh is also receiving guidance from Jason Tompkins, a co-op resident and board member of NASCO Properties, an organization that primarily works with student housing cooperatives. “There is a learning curve if you really want to do this in a way that protects your sanity and, then really is able to keep it in the hands of the people,” he said, although he notes local resources like the Chicago Rehab Network can offer some assistance.
The first step when establishing a co-op is building a network of interested members. For most housing co-ops, this network of potential members will be from a certain community. For example, ChiFresh is centered around supporting formerly incarcerated Black women. The Pilsen Housing Cooperative prioritizes longtime Pilsen residents. However, different members can pull a co-op in many different directions.
Even the folks at ChiFresh disagreed on where to live. “How much peace would they get with the train going by every minute?” Britt, who sat at the far end of the table, asked as ChiFresh board members debated whether the co-op should be located next to a CTA train line.
Yittayih Zelalem, codirector of the Nathalie P. Voorhees Center for Neighborhood and Community Improvement at the University of Illinois Chicago, has worked on community development issues and affordable housing. He said the strength of the co-op members is vital to building a financial entity together. So things like membership dues, fundraising, inspecting properties, and deciding on rules and guidelines must be established as a collective.
Zelalem encourages people to think about living in a co-op as a long-term experience because people don’t often move into a co-op for only a year. “You’re going to be neighbors for years and years to come,” he said.
Agreeing on the rules
ChiFresh’s cooperative bylaws and guidelines hold members accountable. Britt said there’s no room for them to sway from or make exceptions to those agreed-upon rules.
“Because then that opens up Pandora’s box,” she said.
Unlike other emerging housing cooperatives, ChiFresh is approaching the process from a unique perspective. They’ve already established bylaws through their worker cooperative.
Renee Hatcher, a professor and the director of the Community, Enterprise, and Solidarity Economy Clinic at UIC Law School, works with a variety of collectives and cooperatives, including housing co-ops. She said establishing bylaws gives a co-op the opportunity to legally note priorities centered on its mission. So if a group wanted to create a housing co-op that provided affordable options for its members, they can include that language in their bylaws. Hatcher also advises that a legal expert looks over the bylaws as well.
“You can’t outright discriminate, but you can focus on certain communities,” she said.
For example, one of the first agreements in the bylaws of the Logan Square Cooperative is “to provide affordable, adequate, safe, and sanitary housing accommodations for persons of low- and moderate- income.” The co-op can also share information about openings at the space with potential members or organizations that align with the co-op’s mission.
That diversity in experience typically adds to a cooperative. Mark Smithivas, a resident of the Logan Square Cooperative, said a co-op can be as diverse as the group wants it to be. He said he wishes Logan Square had been more diverse in age and families. “We’re all getting older now, so we’re also less able to do a lot of physical tasks,” Smithivas said, referring to things like shoveling snow and general building maintenance.
But Hatcher said the first step for emerging housing cooperatives is forming a legal entity. That process is often broken down into two options: formally incorporating a business in the state or forming a nonprofit and applying for recognition by the Internal Revenue Service for tax exemption.
ChiFresh is an already established legal entity. And because of its success with fundraising and popularity and name recognition, funding the housing cooperative hasn’t been a huge struggle.
Hatcher warned that one of the most common mistakes is rushing to acquire property before establishing an entity.
Collective financial stability
Kerr said in addition to applying for loans, ChiFresh is also looking for grants to offset additional costs to make sure the housing cooperative is affordable.
“We probably got the funding lined up,” Britt said.
That’s not the case for all housing cooperatives. Dianne Hodges, a longtime resident of one of South Shore’s oldest Black-run housing cooperatives, the Genesis Cooperative, first moved there in 2009. As board president, she led refinancing efforts and successfully approached the Chicago Community Loan Fund, an organization that provides technical and financial assistance to development projects that benefit low- and moderate-income residents.
“It’s not easy to get anything from them,” Hodges said. “They push you . . . they make you have accountability,” she said, referencing the training they had to go through to get funding.
In March, the City of Chicago revealed a new pilot program aimed at preserving vulnerable properties in South Shore by granting money to housing co-ops and condos. The City’s Community Wealth Ecosystem Building (Community WEB) Program is allocating $15 million in grants to organizations that support entities like limited equity co-ops, a type of housing cooperative that limits how much a resident can resell their unit for. The idea is to maintain affordability.
But what makes a housing co-op unique is its ability to move as a collective. Maurice Williams, the vice president of economic development for the Chicago Community Loan Fund, said individual credit scores aren’t necessarily important when starting a co-op. What matters more is the group’s financial standing.
One of the first financial steps for a housing co-op is simply establishing a savings and checkings account as a collective. Those accounts should also include accountability measures, like making sure that one person can’t withdraw and limiting individual access to the funds.
Potential lenders will likely ask to see the group’s bylaws and funding structure. They’ll ask how much tenants will pay each month toward the loan, how much money has already been saved in the shared account, and how much the construction costs are. This information typically falls into what is called a pro forma document, which is essentially a financial blueprint or outline for a cooperative. It typically breaks down things like estimated expenses, annual revenue, and debt coverage.
ChiFresh will likely still be able to establish equity within the future building while getting a significant portion of their costs covered through grants, fundraising, and loans. Kerr said they’ve already started constructing a pro forma document, and the priority now is finding property to determine the final dollar amount of the housing cooperative.
“It all depends on the spot,” Kerr said.
Finding the right space
“We’re thinking about Bronzeville because that’s close,” Bryant said.
“You’re gonna make me raise lots of money for Bronzeville,” replied Kerr, illustrating the sometimes difficult discussions needed to reach a consensus. Purchasing property for a housing cooperative is similar to purchasing property as an individual, with the added challenge of making the decision jointly.
Finding the right building for a co-op goes beyond aesthetics like high ceilings or a big yard. It’s important to determine the quality of the space and uncover any hidden costs that could be detrimental to the co-op’s financial success.
“If you can see where a problem is, often it’s fixable. If you don’t know what the problem is, then it could be even a bigger problem than you think,” said Peter Landon, the founder of LBBA, a Chicago-based architectural practice that’s worked with housing cooperatives like the Pilsen Housing Cooperative. “You don’t want a money pit if you’re really trying to make it be affordable.”
He said co-op members must be realistic in determining what they can afford at the moment and may consider creating accounts like a replacement reserve, which are funds set aside to eventually pay for costly repairs. Zelalem said establishing reserve funds into those accounts is vital to the strength-building of the cooperative.
It’s important to factor additional costs like maintenance into the budget and consider city zoning ordinance laws and permit requirements required for any work needed. The city offers an online calculator to help estimate permit building fees. Tompkins said it could take up to two and a half years to move into a space.
Making it happen
Establishing a housing cooperative creates a snowball effect of learning, leading to a vast pool of new legal, housing, and interpersonal knowledge.
It’s easy to nonchalantly discuss the desire to create group housing and picture what that might look like, but ChiFresh worker-owners said it takes more than a shared vision to make this happen—it’s a combined willingness and effort that’s taken them this far.
“[During our weekly meetings] we was strategizing and coming up with plans and what will work, we had different ideas, different targets, and everybody was just really putting forward like their own personal experience,” Bryant said.
The ChiFresh worker cooperative and soon-to-be housing cooperative has experienced challenges individually and as a group, but is now creating its own path in a system that structurally blocks housing options. While it isn’t easy, there’s joy in the freedom they are finding.
“We are in the beginning stages, we’re excited about it,” Britt said. “And we gon’ make this happen. Like we made ChiFresh.”
Annabel Rocha and Jhaylin Benson are 2022 Fall Civic Reporting Fellows. Jerrel Floyd is City Bureau’s engagement reporter covering economic development and segregation in Chicago. You can reach him with tips at Jerrel@citybureau.org. Learn more and get involved at citybureau.org.
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