Housing Cooperatives and Environmental Sustainability

How Locally-Owned Housing Cooperatives Contribute to Environmental Sustainability

By Amanda Winstead

As the climate crisis continues to intensify, the need for more sustainable structures and eco-friendly solutions grows by the day. Unfortunately, many corporate landlords and real-estate conglomerates are using extreme climate disasters to their advantage.

In the wake of hurricanes and floods, for example, some corporate investors have swooped in to buy up single-family houses and then rent them out with only one thing in mind: profit. This leads to precarious housing situations and forces lower-income families to pay even more for rent.

Unfortunately, this leads to high levels of displacement, especially for Black, Brown, and other marginalized communities, worsening the climate crisis. Some are calling these greedy acts of financialization a form of environmental racism.

This is just one example of the many ways that corporate landlords are using their power over real estate markets to strip vulnerable populations of their basic human rights, which not only leads to a housing crisis, but to an environmental crisis as well.

The solution then, is to take the power away from private equity, real estate conglomerates, and corporate landlords and return it to everyday people who can make more humane decisions that benefit their communities and the environment. Locally-owned housing cooperatives encourage sharing of resources and have the autonomy to pursue more climate-conscious living.

This article will dive deeper into the problems caused by corporate landlords, what housing cooperatives are, and how things like co-housing and high-density housing can create the shift needed to better support environmental sustainability.

The Problem: Unethical and Unsustainable Corporate Landlord Practices

For years now, climate activists have been saying that for true change to occur, everyone needs to do their part to help combat climate change. And there are actually a large number of Americans that are trying to lower their carbon footprints, but the problem is that their efforts are being stymied by their landlords.

Studies show that roughly 20% of carbon emissions come from residential energy use, but most attempts to make American homes more sustainable are aimed at affluent homeowners. Meanwhile, one-third of the country’s households live in rented homes and apartments. And these individuals often do not have permission from their landlords to make sustainable upgrades.

Many tenants pay their own utility bills, so it makes sense that they would want to find ways to live more sustainably as it not only benefits the environment but it can lower their energy costs. Unfortunately, landlords are the ones who pay for installing and replacing HVAC systems and other appliances—and as such, they often seek to build and design their properties as cheaply as possible. In other words, they don’t care about the environment or energy efficiency, they just want to make money.

This leaves renters stuck with inefficient housing. Furthermore, as landlords continue to jack up rental prices, renters are forced to pay more attention to the monthly rental prices than actually being able to look for housing that is better for them and the environment.

In fact, corporate landlords have become so greedy now that they have almost entirely removed the human element when setting rental prices. A Texas-based real-estate software company called RealPage has developed a proprietary new algorithm that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to raise rents without any ethical or empathetic consideration for the actual humans that are renting these properties.

RealPage executives are boasting about their software, which enables landlords to push the highest possible rents on tenants. As such, numerous corporate landlords and real-estate conglomerates are all now using this software to increase their profits. But this is further contributing to the housing crisis and is leading to serious questions about ethics and if such practices should be legally allowed to continue.

Greystar, for example, one of the nation’s largest property management firms, uses RealPage to price thousands of apartments across the country, which is what has led to rental prices skyrocketing. But in using this software, the company has effectively removed the human element that normally would allow for bargaining with renters and being more considerate of what people can actually afford to pay.

In fact, as a way to encourage more landlords to use their software, RealPage claims that leasing agents have too much empathy, whereas computer-generated pricing will allow landlords to make as much money as possible by removing that human element.

In using this software, landlords can now collude with one another and indirectly coordinate pricing by influencing the data that the algorithm analyzes. This means no one has any room to worry about sustainability, because they are so focused on simply trying to find a place they can afford.

Housing Cooperatives and Environmental Sustainability: An urban garden
Photo by Steve Adams on Unsplash

The Solution: Locally Owned Housing Cooperatives

The problem with the above situation is that corporate landlords and large real-estate conglomerates essentially have a monopoly on the market. If no one steps up to take back control, these corporations will continue to wield their powers unethically.

Luckily, housing cooperatives and housing co-ops are starting to pop up around the world, and working to not only take back control but are aiming to tackle climate change as well.

What Are Housing Cooperatives?

Cooperative housing, also referred to as co-housing, is a movement founded on intentional community living. While housing cooperatives have been around for decades, they are garnering more attention now with the recent increase in climate activism and the desperate need for more affordable and sustainable living.

Instead of one corporation or private equity owning entire properties, housing cooperatives seek to give control back to communities by giving each individual or member a share in the co-op. These co-ops can be created in a couple of different ways.

Founders of co-ops will sometimes buy a large swath of land and then build multiple housing units on the property. Or, they will purchase multiple houses that already exist in a neighborhood and those houses will become a part of the cooperative. Co-ops can even be apartment or townhome complexes.

No matter what the co-op looks like or what kinds of properties are part of the co-op, the guiding principle is that all members of the co-op have a share in the community and how it is run. Furthermore, this kind of intentional living not only allows the co-op to provide more affordable prices to those who want to join, but it also allows them to make more human decisions with regard to how the community operates.

Most co-ops are centered around intentional living that benefits the community and the environment. For example, many of these co-ops will share common spaces where the members can work together to support one another and share their values. This includes shared gardens, kitchens, workshops, and even meeting spaces.

This type of intentional living could also include the implementation of other new technologies in the community to help counter the climate crisis. For example, a community may decide to install a level two electric vehicle (EV) charging station, which can charge EVs faster than a factory-level charge, for everyone to use.

These examples illustrate just some of the ways that housing cooperatives can share resources, which allows for more sustainable living. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of these communities are specifically built with the environment in mind to encourage and promote more green living.

How Co-housing and High-Density Housing Can Benefit the Environment

There are numerous ways that co-housing communities can and do contribute to more sustainable living. For example, many co-ops will run on sewage water recycling systems and tanks that store rainwater. They will also often use sources of distributed renewable energy, such as rooftop solar panels, to help the community reduce its energy costs. Using distributed renewable energy can help entire communities where co-ops are located by creating more resilient electronic grids.

Some co-housing communities attempt to live off-grid as much as possible, meaning they seek to be entirely self-sustaining so as not to rely on outside resources that contribute to carbon emissions. Some co-ops grow their own food, for example, and keep their own livestock, such as cows, sheep, and chickens.

These communities will also often have strict rules with regard to the general consumption of resources. For example, some of these communities lean away from the use of electronics and encourage members to reduce, reuse, and recycle as much as possible. This enables them to not only live more sustainably but also allows the community to provide more affordable housing.

High-density housing is another form of cooperative living that can benefit communities and help protect the land. Populations are expanding at an alarming rate, which leads to housing being built that takes up more space and uses up more land and resources.

High-density co-housing, however, can solve this solution but creating complexes that use up less space. As everyone in the community works to support one another anyway, there is no need for everyone in the co-op to have large areas of private space. Instead, everyone shares space, which allows for fewer resources and less land to be used up.

High-density co-housing, especially those that exist in more urban areas, can help save essential ecosystems, improve energy efficiency, and can cut down on carbon emissions by enabling people to walk and use public transportation more often.

Final Thoughts

In addition to many of the benefits already mentioned, some housing co-ops are also pooling their resources to invest in research to further discover more climate-friendly living options. As a whole, co-operatives are pioneering climate-friendly alternatives through intentional community living, which could have a significant impact on how people live in the future. This will hopefully inspire more sustainable apartment living and take control away from unethical corporations and give it back to local communities who will make better decisions for their people and the environment.

About the Author

Amanda Winstead is a writer focusing on many topics including technology and digital marketing. Along with writing she enjoys traveling, reading, working out, and going to concerts. If you want to follow her writing journey, or even just say hi you can find her on Twitter.