Bologna pioneers a model of municipal housing cooperative

Porto 15 community members, image provided by Porto 15

Alla Kudryashova was born and raised in Russia, but moved to Italy in 2007. Kudryashova had lived in four different apartments in Bologna before moving into Porto 15, a municipal housing cooperative, three years ago. She now shares in the management of the 18-unit building with its 34 other residents. While this means that the decision-making process can sometimes be a headache, she still prefers Porto 15 to her previous apartments.

“Since we are around 40 individuals from five countries, much diversity is experienced and long discussions on everything are necessary,” says Kudryashova. But, she also admits, “We are definitely happier and feel more rich now than before moving to Porto 15.”

Backed by the city of Bologna, Porto 15 is the first municipal housing cooperative in Italy. Its success has inspired other similar projects throughout the country, but the model has yet to arrive in the United States.

The building which houses Porto 15 was originally constructed in 1914 and sits in Bologna’s “Creative Cluster,” amid art museums and galleries. Its development into a municipal housing cooperative was organized by local and national agencies, which began accepting applications for “cohousers,” as Kudryashova and her neighbors are called, and conducting renovations in 2015. Promoted by the Italian Ministry of Youth, Porto 15 is dedicated to housing low-income people under the age of 35, who are given a six-year lease with an option to renew for two more years. They must then move out to make room for a new cohort.

Bologna pioneers a model of municipal housing cooperative
Porto 15, image provided by Porto 15

Kudryashova, now 39 years old, was among Porto 15’s first residents. Working for the nearby University of Bologna, she finds the cooperative’s location — five minutes from the train, 15 minutes from the main square — one of its greatest benefits, but was most drawn to its model of “cohousing,” as it’s referred to in Italy.

“I was eager to experiment with more sustainable ways of living in a city and to promote these ways amongst neighbors,” she says.

Besides paying below market-rate rent, Kudryashova and her cohousers are responsible for managing Porto 15’s operations. Generally, this is done through a steering committee and biweekly decision-making meetings. There are also a number of working groups dedicated to specific functions, such as funding, communications, events and facilities, which include a laundry, wood shop, bicycle repair, storage, communal pantry and tool library.

While that may sound like a lot of work, Porto 15’s success is evident, as the model inspires other municipal housing cooperatives in Italy.

“So far we are the first and the only public cohousing in Italy,” says Kudryashova. But she adds, “There are other public cohousing projects with other target audiences which are being projected or realized now.”

Unfortunately, the model of municipal housing cooperatives has not yet made its way to the United States. The National Association of Housing Cooperatives (NAHC) is the only country-wide organization representing cooperative residents. It estimates that cooperatives house more than one million families in the United States, but the exact figure is difficult to pin down.  

“We only know of the housing cooperatives that are members of our organization,” explains Paul Doggett, NAHC’s membership manager. “There are thousands of cooperatives that are not members of our organization, so it’s tough to pinpoint how many cooperatives and the number of people they serve in the United States.”

Linda Brockway, a NAHC board member, estimates that there are around 2.5 million people housed by cooperatives in the United States. These housing cooperatives are made up of anywhere from four to 2,000 members, and most are incorporated as nonprofit, “social welfare” organizations. (Brockway mentions that, for a short time in the 1950s, housing cooperatives were awarded charity status.) But none of the housing cooperatives in the United States are municipal projects, like Porto 15.

“Most of the cooperatives were developed by a developer, without city or county involvement,” says Brockway.

Back in Bologna, Kudryashova describes how Porto 15 continues promoting municipal housing cooperatives. Porto 15 is a member of La Rete Nazionale Cohousing (The Italian Network of Cohousing) and has organized open house events to celebrate the European Day of Cohousing in 2018 and 2019. They had hoped to do the same this year, but all of Italy went into lockdown in March due to COVID-19, with restrictions on gatherings only now being lifted. So instead of the open house, Porto 15 is considering a smaller get-together, just for themselves.

“We might be gathering all together in our courtyard, with physical distancing,” says Kudryashova, “to celebrate the end of the lockdown.”

Arvind Dilawar


Arvind Dilawar

Arvind Dilawar is an independent journalist. His articles, interviews, and essays on everything from the spacesuits of the future to love in the time of visas have appeared in Newsweek,