Two blocks from the UCLA campus, the University Cooperative Housing Association offers the university’s students, visiting scholars and faculty affordable accommodation, at an average cost of $500 a month including meals. Founded in 1938, UCHA, or “the Co-op”, as it is known to residents, also offers much more, as is clear from its mission statement: “To promote the social and general welfare of the community by offering low-rent housing to all university students, regardless of race, creed, color or national origin, and thus influence the community to eliminate prejudice and discrimination in housing.”

The mix of undergraduate and graduate students, visiting scholars and faculty from all over the world means a rich mix of cultural and educational diversity. “The Co-op had a much more diverse student population, in terms of race, nationality, and age, and, it seemed to me, a much greater sense of camaraderie than you would find in other types of student housing,” recalls Riccardo Bodini, an Italian who lived there in 1998-1999. “I am sure the fact that we were not only living together, but working together and sharing a stake in the place we lived in also helped in this respect.”

The 400-plus resident-members must perform one four-hour chore shift per week, and one special four-hour project per quarter. Chores can range from mail sorting, kitchen duties and gardening to organizing social events or running the Co-op store, which sells hot and cold food and snacks.

As the student-members contribute their time and effort towards the day-to-day running, there is less need to hire staff except for the most essential functions, like supervising food service, maintenance and administration. Apart from keeping costs down, this has other benefits, according to Arusha Weerasinghe, UCHA’s executive director, “What’’s not been given enough credit for is that it is also a training ground for young members to acquire valuable skills that they take into the workforce and get to draw on in their professional careers. Some of these skills can prove relevant for graduate school application purposes as well – for management, law school, and so on.”

The student members also make decisions about UCHA’s organization, both in terms of day-to-day activity and future commitments. Riccardo had a chance to experience the benefits of this unique system. “When I first got there the place was not run as well as it could have been, and during the year I was there we ended up making some major changes to the board of directors and the staff, hiring the current executive director and effectively setting in motion a whole range of improvements to the quality of the services UCHA provides. This would not have been even remotely possible in any other place.”

The high natural turnover of members as students graduate and move out is one of the challenges to UCHA’s operation, says Arusha, making it vulnerable to a lack of consistency. Plus, he says: “On the one hand it is a business that needs to be efficient and productive to remain solvent, and on the other hand, it is run and led by students who may or may not have the relevant skills or experience to make the appropriate decisions.”

Nonetheless, UCHA has survived and flourished for almost three-quarters of a century, providing affordable housing, a sense of community and an invaluable experience to many generations of UCLA students. “I’’ve been gone for 13 years and I’’m still in touch with many friends from that year at UCHA,” says Riccardo. “Living together, studying together and playing together in that kind of setting helped forge a bond that will last for all of our lives.”