Lincoln Miller fights for co-op housing

Lincoln Miller in Masala Co-op garden

Lincoln Miller, executive director of the Boulder Housing Coalition, displays a late-season tomato fresh from the Masala Co-op garden. (Photo by Crystal Eilerman/Under the Flatirons)

Lincoln Miller has a tendency to speak slowly and softly, his deep voice occasionally muffled by the mug of hot tea cradled near his chin.

An avowed nerd, the 5-foot-8 Miller likes to ride road bikes, breathe fire, run a Dungeons & Dragons game and write comic books. As executive director of the Boulder Housing Coalition, Miller is also a major policy wonk.

Hearing Miller’s passion as he describes the unacknowledged conservatism of long-time Boulderites, the seemingly immovable unrelated persons ordinance and students’ seeming apathy for local politics, one starts to think Miller, if given enough time, could resolve every one of those issues through sheer force of will.

Considering what he’s accomplished in the last 20 years, that might be true.

An early trial by fire

Born and raised in the San Francisco Bay area, Miller occasionally slips into the up-speak the area is known for, his rising intonation nudging the end of a phrase into a vague question.

His mom, a University of Colorado Denver alumna, suggested that Miller go to CU-Boulder for his undergraduate degree.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do or what my career path was at that time, so I was just exploring different options. They let me in, so I figured I would go there,” he said with a deep chortle.

In the mid-1990s, Miller graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science and started work as the co-op coordinator at the University of Colorado Environmental Center.

Center director and future Boulder mayor Will Toor said, “Lincoln really saw the connection between low consumption lifestyles and environmental sustainability, and the important role that shared housing could play.”

Toor and Miller founded the nonprofit Boulder Housing Coalition, and soon both a CU-Boulder student group and a working group had developed to with the purpose of establishing a student co-op.

In spring 1998, the groups got a referendum on the student government ballot proposing a fee increase of $2 per student per semester. At the end of four years, those small fees would add up to $400,000, which Miller estimated could have bought not just one co-op, but a co-op housing system.

When the referendum passed, Miller and fellow Limpopo Co-op founder Tony Sanny lined up a house for their first co-op, got a sign-off from the CU treasurer and just needed the president’s office and the Board of Regents to enact the referendum.

“We handed them a co-op system on a silver platter,” Miller said after a long sip of tea. “At zero cost, they decided they didn’t want it.”

‘We didn’t really have time to think’

“We didn’t have enough money to hold the house,” Miller said, “we didn’t have the student plan, and there was a ticking clock where if we didn’t do it, then the house would be sold to the highest bidder.”

The group’s last chance to keep the house was to try for a grant. They’d already been turned down when they applied as a student co-op, but this time they applied as a community co-op.

The grant was successful, and the first of three Boulder Housing Coalition co-ops, Masala, was born.

“It was an adventure,” Miller said with a goofy laugh. “I think that group of co-opers still has a special bond because of that challenge we all faced together.”

Toor said of the feat, “Here you had a startup co-op system with no assets, and only a few years of history as a rental co-op, and he managed to actually put together grants and financing to make it happen.”

Friend and fellow Masala Co-oper Zane Selvans met Miller in 2002 while volunteering at the Boulder Co-op Market. Selvans mentioned an interest in starting an equity co-op, and Miller’s eyes lit up.

“He was immediately super enthusiastic,” Selvans said, “and I wanted to get to know him better.”

Sanny and Selvans both wish more people appreciated how long Miller has been fighting for affordable community housing in Boulder.

“He knew it was something that needed to be done, in the long-term interests of the city and the people who live here,” Selvans said. “So he just went ahead and did it, even when the path forward was unclear.”

Masala Co-op displays yard signs against ballot initiatives no. 300 & 301 and supporting city council candidate Aaron Brockett.

Masala, the first permanently affordable rental co-op in Colorado, has 11 bedrooms and four bathrooms spread across four levels. (Photo by Crystal Eilerman/Under the Flatirons)

Walking the talk: ‘social justice has to live’

Selvans, the Masala house representative to the Boulder Housing Coalition board, has been working closely with Miller for the last two years on a policy solution to enable cooperative housing. The men continue to battle a perception that higher housing density means more cars, when in reality most co-opers don’t own cars.

“As we came up against this limitation over and over again,” Selvans said, Miller “decided one day that, if we were going to do this work, he needed to walk the talk.”

So Miller donated his car to Community Cycles and has been car-free ever since.

“Lincoln is a stubborn, passionate advocate for cooperative housing and social justice,” Selvans said. “When he gets an idea in his head, he just keeps on going.”

Sanny said, “He can be quiet, but he really has a lot to say, and when he does get to talking, it’s hard not to be engaged by the energy of his words.”

Miller’s passion shines strongest when discussing social justice. Quoting one of his heroes, former Masala Co-op resident and program director of CU-Boulder’s INVST Community Studies program Sabrina Sideris, Miller’s speech became increasingly self-assured.

“She told me that social justice has to live,” Miller said. “It has to be in a real place, in a real time, right here. If you’re for something,” he said, his conviction rising, “you need to be for that thing”–he thumped his fist on the table–“right fucking next to you.”

Miller pointing at a building across 8th Street. “When I say I’m for the homeless shelter, I’m saying put it right in that building right there. I will go talk to the people there and say, ‘What’s up?’ and be neighbors to them, because that’s what it means to be for something.”

Miller salutes the Boulder City Council’s dedication to affordable housing, but questions their understanding of the connection between city planning and sustainability. He wants to see stronger leadership, more bravery and more willingness to do the right thing.

Reaping the hard-won rewards of a growing community

Miller had been wanting to create a family co-op, and in spring 2013, the Boulder Housing Coalition purchased their third property, a small apartment complex at 2550 9th Street, for that purpose.

Occupancy limits, construction delays and 100-year floods notwithstanding, North Haven/Ostara Co-op’s first members had moved in and it was time to celebrate.

They cooked chili and barbecue, Miller said, and invited everyone from the city, county and state, whether they’d given the co-op money or not.

“Everybody was all there together,” Miller said, “and everybody was just happy, and there’s kids running around.”

People from the city’s division of housing told Miller it was the best grand opening they’d ever attended.

“That meant a lot to me,” Miller said. “They go to a lot of things, but ours was…it was special.”


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