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What the fate of Zoe Bayliss Cooperative means for affordable student housing

Photo: A historic exterior shot of Zoe Bayliss Cooperative. Photo via UW-Madison Libraries’ digital collections.

UW-Madison’s last student housing cooperative faces demolition in the midst of rising rents and increasingly difficult-to-navigate campus living.

UW-Madison students in search of affordable housing have occupied the stout Zoe Bayliss Cooperative building at the corner of West Johnson and North Park Streets since 1955. 

As the 2021-22 school year nears its end, next year’s occupants could be the co-op’s last. University officials plan to demolish the building and neighboring Susan Davis Hall to make way for a new building for the university’s College of Letters & Science. Construction is slated to begin in 2023. Chancellor Becky Blank announced plans for the 26,000 square foot building in October. The new Letters & Science building is estimated to cost $95 million, with a large chunk, $60 million, coming from state funding. The rest is being raised through private university donors. Alumni brothers Marv and Jeff Levy, who have a history of investing in campus sports and academic facilities, donated $20 million toward the project, and the building will be named after their parents, who were also alums. The soon-to-be-constructed Irving and Dorothy Levy Hall will turn the page on the oft-maligned brutalist maze known as the George L. Mosse Humanities Building.

Zoe Bayliss, 915 W. Johnson St., is the last student housing cooperative in the state of Wisconsin. Its residents are primarily women.

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“Myself, I came because it was affordable, but then also because I knew I liked living in a community setting,” says Zoe Bayliss President Angela Maloney, summing up the factors that have attracted most of the cooperative’s residents over the decades. 

Zoe Bayliss residents pay roughly $5,000 to live in the cooperative from August to May, or about $500 a month. This investment doesn’t just cover housing—the cooperative provides an onsite chef, a fully stocked fridge and pantry with food staples, and the ability to participate in a democratically run housing facility. Its governing structure includes a president, five officer positions, and an executive board comprised of former and current residents. 

It’s increasingly hard to find that kind of deal in Madison, whether within UW-Madison’s housing system or in the city’s rapidly gentrifying private rental market. UW-Madison’s dorm prices range from $6,500 per academic year for a shared triple-bed room to $9,200 for a single private room. These prices do not include UW-Madison dining options, a requirement for living in the dorms, which average $4,500 for an academic year.

Affordability is a mixed bag for students, as outlined in a 2020 UW-Madison Geography Department study. Respondents cited affordability as a priority, and 62.9 percent told researchers they were searching for rents in a range of $500 to $749. The study’s authors crunched the numbers on local market rents and found that “on average, an off-campus bedroom costs a student $938.23, but the majority of students are only willing to pay within the bracket of $500 – $749. Therefore, median value housing prices in Madison exceed that of student price range preferences.” The housing market is especially strenuous for low-income UW-Madison students.

Students who decide to live off-campus are torn between older housing stock often in need of repair or renovation and increasingly prevalent “luxury” housing. The same scenario plays out across Madison’s rental market as a whole, squeezing renters between rising rents and a low vacancy rate. Luxury monoliths such as The James and The Hub have popped up over the years, and in 2020, the developer behind these projects submitted plans for a Langdon Street Hub II, which promised VIP treatment for early student leasees, much to the chagrin of UW students. The City of Madison’s Plan Commission voted down the project in March 2021.

A displaced future

The Zoe Bayliss Co-op has offered an increasingly rare shelter from this tough rental market. Maloney, a junior studying international studies and nonprofit leadership, says Zoe Bayliss is unlike any other living situation on campus. 

Maloney says that if she could no longer live in Zoe Bayliss, she would be unable to afford to live on campus and would be forced to look for private housing in Madison. 

“The UW-Madison rental market is becoming very unaffordable for students,” Maloney says. “So it would be very difficult for me to find someplace that I could afford to live.”

Maloney says that many of Zoe Bayliss’ residents are international students who come to the university without the social connections or familiarity with Madison that would allow them to split a lease on the private market. She says current residents have expressed gratitude for the cooperative’s interconnectivity, something they lacked while living in the dorms and taking remote learning classes.

In a statement, Brendon Dybdahl, spokesperson for UW’s Division of University Housing, says that Zoe Bayliss has been aware of the looming demolition for several years and that the university has engaged with the cooperative to find new locations. 

Dybdahl says the university has offered to house the cooperative inside one of its current residence halls. Maloney says the cooperative is not open to this, because it would place limitations on the cooperative’s operations and independence.

The Division of University Housing has yet to set room and board rates for the 2023-24 school year. Dybdahl says that if the cooperative relocates inside of a conventional dorm, rental rates would be more than what cooperative members currently pay, but less than what other residence halls currently charge. Dybdahl says UW’s board and room rates historically increase about 2% to 4% each year to keep up with annual cost increases.

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When asked what options exist for low-income students looking for university housing, Dybdahl told Tone Madison that University Housing only oversees the UW-owned residence halls and graduate apartments, and can’t speak for the private market. 

“[University Housing works] closely with the Office of Student Financial Aid, which assists low-income students with finding aid packages that often include room and board costs for on-campus or off-campus housing,” says Dybdahl.

Dybdahl says the Bayliss cooperative is also welcome to explore privately managed spaces near campus.

“The hope is for the Co-op to secure a new home for their community well before the 2023-24 school year so that their program can remain vital,” says Dybdahl.

Leaving a mark on housing co-op history

The three-story building, named after the university’s late Assistant Dean of Women from 1928 to 1943, opened in the fall of 1955 with a beginning cohort of 50 students. A March 1956 issue of The Capital Times reported that in the face of increasing enrollments and a lack of funds to support affordable housing, the university was exploring cooperative housing models for students.

The Dave Schreiner House, a twin facility to Zoe Bayliss located at 123 N. Orchard Street, was formed in 1962 and lasted just six years as a cooperative until being converted into graduate student housing, still operating today.

According to the Division of University Housing, four student housing cooperatives were constructed in the 1950s. Today, Zoe Bayliss is the only one that remains. Susan Davis Hall, a neighboring residence hall also slated for demolition, was also once a cooperative.

Zoe Bayliss inspired the creation of the Madison Community Cooperative, a non-profit federation of housing cooperatives, says MCC Membership Director DaMontae January. (Zoe Bayliss, as a part of UW-Madison, is not itself part of MCC.)

Founded in 1968, MCC currently operates 11 houses across downtown and on the Near East Side. January says MCC’s main mission is to keep rents low, keep housing affordable, and provide a sense of community for its members and the cooperative community at large.

The housing cooperative approach can only do so much to insulate renters from the pressures of the housing market writ large. January says cooperatives looking to become fully independent by purchasing their property have seen increased property taxes and purchase prices in the Madison area. This price increase makes ownership—even for a group of multiple people—a hurdle.

January says that even remodeling older, affordably-priced homes can price people out, as renovations and updates to make properties suitable for a cooperative living are costly. 

As rents increase dramatically, Madisonians looking for affordable housing have to search farther and farther from the city’s central core. Housing cooperatives can follow suit, but only at the expense of a lot of the amenities that make cooperative living appealing.

“You’re now moving to the periphery of Madison,” says January, “so you’re no longer by convenient bus lines, your jobs, and things like that.”

While the fate of Zoe Bayliss is up in the air, January says the cooperative could come together with fellow cooperative housing units in the area to locate a new property, hold a fundraiser, or even approach city officials to slow or stop UW’s planned demolition of their building with a “strength in numbers” approach.

“One of the cooperative principles is cooperating with cooperatives,” January says. “So coming together with each other, seeking out assistance.” 

January says Zoe Bayliss is welcome to apply to become a member of MCC.

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