Raise-Op Housing Cooperative

The growing housing affordability crisis has been influencing the lives of lower-income workers and their families all over America. In Lewiston and Auburn, the rental market has been very tight with private vacancy rates that are at 0% while subsidized vacancies are around 2-3%. Many of the government offered solutions such as subsidized rental payments have not helped to address the core of the problem namely the inequitable distribution of land and housing ownership throughout communities. Raise-Op Housing Cooperative addresses this problem by bringing the possibility of cooperative homeownership to families in the regional hub of Lewiston. By purchasing apartment buildings with the primary aim of growing the amount of affordable cooperative housing available, Raise-Op is changing the lives of many who get to maintain their own safe and healthy homes.

Raise-Op Board Members, 2016.  Photo courtesy Raise-Op.

Craig Saddlemire, the co-founder of Raise-Op, says that the project is about turning the traditional housing for money equation on its head. “Instead of treating housing as a commodity to be bought and sold at the best price, we’re trying to promote housing both as a human right and public resource,” says Saddlemire. For this reason, Raise-Op recruits residents of all incomes, and charges a monthly rate according to the costs of operating the property.  “To qualify, applicants basically just need to demonstrate their ability to pay, affirm their agreement with basic principles and commit to participating in the democratic governance of their building. The level of the community they want to seek out or communal activities they choose to create within the cooperative is totally up to them,” said Saddlemire.

This focus on accessibility has ensured that a diverse group of families are benefiting from the affordable prices and the added financial security of Raise-Op apartments. Residents include students, locals and their families that grew up in Maine and New Americans from places such as Somalia, the Congo, and Djibouti. Board member Melissa Dunn said she think it’s a good model. “It’s important because of the economy,” Dunn said. “The way it is now, a lot of families are choosing to live together.” The safeguarding of the long-term stability of each cooperative housing building has been about more than just finding families to live in them. It has been about developing a community of equity and understanding guided by respect, accountability, integration, and solidarity. There is a collective responsibility to establish the rules of the premises and ensure administrative and maintenance functions are in order. “In this way, we are really trying to create a culture of mutual accountability between members who actively participate in how their building is managed, and its residents work together,” said Saddlemire.

With democratic responsibility, come financial benefits from being part of a housing cooperative that make the families substantially better off. They pay $750 per share upon joining and a monthly rent that is typically below the market rate. This payment covers fees for utilities, maintenance and, importantly, the capital to expand the Raise-Op model. For Raise-Op is not only about building affordable accommodation for the residents of one building. It is about an ongoing mission to show solidarity for others in need of affordable housing by working to expand this model by purchasing more buildings to convert to cooperative ownership.

Raise-Op has it roots in the Faire-Op Housing Cooperative, a three-unit building in Lewiston that Saddlemire and other members purchased in 2008. Raise-Op was formed in 2014 to expand this model and shortly afterward purchased another three-unit building. More recently they have acquired a new nine-unit building which when full with members will bring their total of family memberships to fifteen. However, expansion is not the only outcome that shows Raise-Op’s commitment to the community. When residents sell their shares they are only permitted to do so at a limited price. This helps to ensure that the level of affordability is similar for the next person waiting that is in need of secure, safe and affordable housing.

In addition to housing, Raise-Op just opened its first commercial space that contains offices for the cooperative and a center for the Somali Bantu Community Association of Lewiston Auburn.  This building sits on the same property as their newest 9-unit apartment building. 

As a result of all these community benefits, Raise-Op’s success has been embraced by the community. The latest development proposal for Raise-Op’s third building received unanimous support from all councilors when the Lewiston Council reviewed the project. Several press articles have also praised the projects and the potential they have to bring together what has been a historically class and racially divided town.

All of this success has not come without challenges. “Bringing together people that are really different from one another and helping folks to realize their common interests will always be an ongoing cultural transformation process.” With such strong support from the community, this process looks likely to continue as Raise-Op sets strong goals to expand this inspiring cooperative model. Saddlemire says “by the beginning of 2017 we hope to have our 15 member households and be ready to purchase more buildings to scale up and grow our size and impact on creating affordable housing for Lewiston and beyond.” Board President Shaad Masood said "For the things people are most dissatisfied with in traditional housing, cooperative housing has an answer.  They have more say about what they are doing, they can see where their carrying charges actually go and they have a voice and can see things getting done in a timely manner. It's different than putting in a phone call and then waiting for things to get done."

For an explanation of the different types of housing co-ops.