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Boulder Housing Coalition Brings Back Parts of the ‘old Boulder’ with Communal Living

Boulder Housing Coalition Brings Back Parts of the ‘old Boulder’ with Communal Living


Wizards of modern housing 

On the corner of 9th and North Street in Downtown Boulder sits a strange-looking house. While some of its residents describe its twisting halls as reminiscent of Hogwarts, the house is home not to wizards, but a wide range of Boulder residents.

The house is called Ostara and currently hosts about 20 residents ranging from 15 to 55 years old. If you arrive around dinner time, you may find a few of them cooking in a communal kitchen. Arrive a few minutes later, and one of the chefs will be walking the twisted halls, ringing the dinner bell, inviting everyone to sit around the large kitchen table and share a meal.

While the house is made up of everyone from a monk, to a music teacher, to several university students and at least one child, the dinner table conversation is reminiscent of one you may have had with your friends. They debate the merits of sitcoms like Community, The Office, and Parks and Recreation over bowls of homemade curry and spring rolls.

Ostara is one of four houses owned by Boulder Housing Coalition, a Boulder non-profit that works to decrease housing insecurity in Boulder County.

Started in 1995 by Lincoln Miller, who is now the executive director of the organization, BHC was created to “protect the spark of what makes Boulder special.” Each year, the organization houses about 65 people in addition to a few cats and dogs.

With eclectic names like Chrysalis, Mango Manor, Masala, and Ostara, the houses center around economic, social, and environmental sustainability. Rent lies anywhere between $600 to $1,000 a month, depending on the room, with Ostara offering a couple two two-bedroom apartments for $1,355 a month. Residents also contribute about $150 a month to a shared food fund, allowing them to stock a fridge in the communal kitchen.

As a non-profit, the organization works hard to keep rent low, manage conflict, and center equity and sustainability in its practices. Part of the way they do this is by having members of each house sit on the board of directors.

“So they are making all of the big picture decisions about the organization, a big one being budget,” said Lily Kapiloff, director of development for BHC. “They are literally approving the budget each year for how low can we keep rent, how much should we allot for emergency maintenance, how much should we spend on trainings, and mediators and things – all of that is coming from the residents.”

Lily has worked for BHC for three years but lived at Ostara for even longer. After four and a half years as a resident, she recently moved out in August 2023. She may have moved to a co-op, in part, for the low cost, but that is not why she stayed.

“The price is a smaller factor to me and for a lot of people that move in, we are looking for community,” she said.

Bhavana Jonnalagadda, who moved into Ostara in August 2023, has a similar sentiment. She moved to Boulder from New York City for a master’s program and was drawn to the idea of communal living because she didn’t know anyone in Boulder. Shared food, low rent, and automatic friends sounded like the perfect combination for her transition.

“It was overwhelming, and yet also pretty exhilarating, I really enjoyed it,” Bhavana said of her first few days in the house.

She applied, had an interview with the current residents, and was accepted into Ostara. This interview, where all current residents are invited, is representative of the nature of the BHC co-ops. They are all consensus-based and community-oriented.

Boulder Housing Coalition. Photo by Katie Mackinnon

Shared community

Part of the lease is an agreement to participate in house chores like cooking and cleaning, as well as attending a weekly house meeting. While this makes the house run smoothly, it is an added commitment.

“One thing that isn’t mentioned enough is that it takes more effort to live here than in a two-bedroom apartment because there’s built-in chores into the lease,” Bhavana said.

Plus, the social aspect of living with 20 other people means there is always someone around to chat with. “I’ll walk out of my room and walk back in like an hour and half later like ‘wait a second, I was only supposed to spend 10 minutes out there!’” she said.

While she has gotten along with most of the residents, even in the six months she has been living at Ostara, Bhavana said that she has experienced someone who is causing tension in the house being asked to leave. Other residents shared a similar sentiment – that while living in the community has many benefits, there is often a learning curve to managing the inevitable conflict.

In her role as director of development, Lily doesn’t only manage external development, like fundraising and networking, she also manages internal development. This looks like planning training, enacting conflict resolution, and helping residents engage in facing the bigger questions that are unavoidable when living with such a diverse group of people.

“I got a master’s in eco-psychology at Naropa and reflected a lot on how much the co-ops are a microcosm for our world,” she said. “Learning those skills of how do we share limited resources; how do we navigate conflict; how do we upkeep a shared home; how do we embrace our differences and navigate them instead of trying to have a homogenous everyone needs to think about this the same way?”

By facing these questions, she said that several residents comment that they learn more living in a co-op than working to get their college degrees.

While the BHC housing has many benefits for residents, the goal is for them to benefit the entire community as well. One way they do this is through sustainability.

Sharing resources like buying food in bulk and investing in communal appliances like a blender, vacuum cleaner, and printer, allows the houses to only use the things they need. Several of the houses have solar panels and several houses offer free bus passes to residents – all residents get a free membership to Colorado Car Share. Mango Manor, which due to its location has limited parking, offers an incentive to residents without cars, as well as a rental car charge station.

Over the years, residents have planted gardens at each house and taken initiative on other improvements that they feel passionate about. While residents range in age, backgrounds, and interests, Lily said that this way of living attracts people who want to be active members of their community.

“We create a home for people who have an interest in making a difference in Boulder and people who might not have been able to consider Boulder a home if they didn’t have this option and who are really fueled by the sense of community there and can team up with you,” she said.

Lodro Parker, another resident who moved into Ostara in August, is no stranger to communal living. They are a monk, who lived at a Buddhist monastery retreat center for 11 years before leaving to get a degree in therapy at Naropa University. When moving to Boulder, they searched for about eight months before finding housing with BHC.

They said that through meeting people who have been in the area for a long time, they have learned how the folks defining the culture of the area in the 70s have slowly been overtaken by those who are willing to pay more to have access to nature.

Boulder Housing Coalition. Photo by Katie Mackinnon

Pocket of old Boulder

“There are these pockets of that old Boulder that are still there, you just have to know what you’re looking for or be lucky enough to stumble into places like [BHC] and find them,” Lodro said. Many feel like that “old Boulder” with diversity and culture is no longer in sight.

“I would hope that there would be more and more affordable housing and more diversity and more addressing our environmental impact,” Lily said. “But I don’t feel very optimistic about the ways that Boulder is going to navigate.”

While these concerns certainly have two feet to stand on, Lodro doesn’t think the future has to look so bleak.

“Even though I might look at the other side of town and realize it’s people with a very different economic bracket, we are still technically a community,” Lodro said. “And also, that person that I bump into on Pearl Street with a cardboard sign is also a part of the community.”

Despite the uncertainty, BHC continues to work to improve the state of affordable housing in the county. They are putting in a bid on a fifth house this month and continue to support other groups working to make communal living possible in Boulder.

And, while a lack of affordability is a symptom of a changing Boulder, a sense of community may have more to do with the solution. Coming home to people who challenge your preconceived beliefs, encourage conflict resolution, and make you feel part of something may have more value than we often give it credit for.

“Just by nature of existing as low-income, affordable housing, we have a beautiful diversity in pretty much every subgenre you can imagine,” Bhavana said. “How often do you get such a mixture of socioeconomic strata mixing together like that? I think that is pretty awesome.”


Katie Mackinnon
Katie MacKinnon is a writer striving to build connection through storytelling. She specializes in environmental reporting, always looking to find the human angle and the untold story. She has a passion for local food systems, sustainable agriculture, and environmental justice. When not writing, she can be found reading, sewing, or spending time in the outdoors.

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