Community, Features

“HER” House gives women, nonbinary students safe, affordable place to live, community

It’s past midnight and half the residents of the house are awake, trickling in and out of the kitchen.

Harriet E. Richards Cooperative House (HER House)
Harriet E. Richards Cooperative House (HER House) located on 191 Bay State Rd. The cooperative house offers a space for women to live in exchange for reduced rates and participating in communal chores. ANDREW BURKE-STEVENSON/DFP STAFF

The chocolate chip cookies in the oven are almost ready, wafting warm, sweet air into every corner of the five-story brownstone, and students — curled over their textbooks at the kitchen table, perched on countertops and cross-legged on the floor — are studying, venting, celebrating, and debriefing one another on their day.

When one wanders down Bay State Road, the Harriet E. Richard’s house appears to be just like the other brownstones — the only defining features being the Danny DeVito and Michelle Obama cutouts in the window — but the close-knit community has a deeper history on campus.

The HER house, established in 1928, is a cooperative home for undergraduate cisgender and transgender women and nonbinary people who are dependant on financial aid.

“It’s not just about low income housing, it’s about being able to be prepared to fully contribute to this little community that we have, because it takes every one of us to maintain it,” said Morgan Sile, a sophomore in the College of Communications and HER House clerk, meaning she’s responsible for delegating and managing the chores. “I think it’s absolutely worth it.”

Students get into the class through an application process. Eligibility requirements include being a full-time undergraduate female or nonbinary student, having a 2.0 GPA and being in good academic standing, demonstrating financial need and being able to pay the adjusted rent cost.

The house, founded by the first dean of women at the University, Lucy Jenkins Franklin, who, after a vacation to France, was “fascinated by the cooperative concept” and brought the idea back to BU. It was the first all-female cooperative dormitory in the country, and served as a model for many other cooperative dorms.

It was named after Dean Franklin’s good friend, Harriet Eliza Richards who donated the first $100 to get the house up and running. Now, according to the HER House website, up to 24 students, from all walks of life, reside in and sign on to work for the communal needs of everyone in the HER House.

Students at the HER house are offered a reduced rate on housing for students who otherwise couldn’t afford living and tuition costs, the website states. According to the HER Lifebook, each member of the household also has weekly chores and designated responsibilities such as food shopping, cleaning and cooking.

As the person that assigns the chores, Sile said it’s important to recognize it’s everyone’s space, and they all play a role in keeping the historic house maintained for the community.

“Living in the house is knowing that everyone wants to be there and wants to contribute to that community and create a positive environment for everyone,” Sile said. “They’re looking for camaraderie that I think we all get.”

When she was a freshman, Sile said she lived on a co-ed floor in Warren where she didn’t speak to anyone. She said that living in an all-women and nonbinary space changes the experience and overall atmosphere of her living situation.

“We take a lot of steps to make sure everyone in the house feels safe in this environment,” Sile said. “I think that’s something that I didn’t really experience in a dorm building.”

Sile said though a definite attraction of the HER house is financial, the friendship and close relationships are very valuable and informative.

“It’s a camaraderie that you get from just being able to sit around a table and eat the food that someone’s cooked for you,” Sile said of the meals members make three times a semester each. “It’s like something that you would miss when you’re away from home.”

Margaret Ortwerth, a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences and president of HER House, said she moved into the house last Fall. She said she chose to apply to the house given the loans, work and savings she had to take out to pay for her first semester on campus.

“It was going to turn into a lot more loans if I was going to continue here, and I was really worried and trying to find different solutions,” Ortwerth said. “It was less of a decision of ‘Should I apply to the HER house?’ and more a desperate ‘Will they let me in?’”

She said while the house helps her life by making it more affordable, she was surprised how fulfilling it was in other ways too.

“I do think that there were a lot of things that I didn’t expect to be as fulfilling as they are,” Ortwerth said. “A lot of times on our cook nights, people bring their own backgrounds to the table, and you learn things that you never thought you would have.”

Kaylynn Michael, a junior in the College of Fine Arts and vice president, said the community in the house makes it all worth it.

“My favorite memories are just sitting around the kitchen table in the middle of the night,” Michael said. “Some people are doing work, some people are baking, or making smoothies, doing whatever. And it’s just so chaotic, but in the best way possible and I think that helps build community.”

Ortwerth said she hopes more people get to hear about the house.

“I’ve noticed so many other people who had my story of stressing day and night about how they were going to stay here and what they were going to do, who had no idea the house was an option,” she said. “And then somehow it dropped in their lap and the day was saved.”

If people are interested in cooperative living and are financially eligible for the application, or know someone who is, Ortwerth said HER House might be the place they are looking for.

“It does feel like a hidden gem, that’s sometimes a little too hidden to the point that the people who need it don’t know that it exists,” she said. “If people are either interested in living in a cooperative house … or even know someone who they know is struggling, and would be interested in it, to let them know that it’s an option. And I think it’s a pretty good one.”

Disclaimer: Co-Features Editor Claire Law lives at the HER House and was not involved with the editing or the writing of this article.

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