Located on West Johnson Street, Zoe Bayliss has housed women at UW-Madison for over 60 years. 

Image By: Kalli Anderson

Over 60 years later, women’s co-op faces closure at the hand of university

After decades of providing affordable housing to women at UW-Madison, the Zoe Bayliss Women’s Cooperative could lose control of their organization as the university proposes a merger that could place all control of finances and hired personnel in the hands of University Housing.  

Zoe Bayliss has been home to women on the UW-Madison campus since 1955. The co-op is made up of an elected board of officers and resident members. The board oversees the function of the house and ensures that each member helps maintain the living space through cleaning and administration. 

This aspect, along with having a paid chef, sets Zoe Bayliss apart from other housing options on campus. It is also what allows rent to be cost-effective. 

UW-Madison currently owns the building that Zoe Bayliss rents each year. Through their lease agreement, all residents of the co-op must be university-affiliated. This year, the Zoe Bayliss community is made up of 36 women residents, all who are either undergraduates, graduates or Fulbright scholars. 

At a meeting in February of 2018, University Housing showed interest in stopping their lease agreement with Zoe Bayliss, and ultimately merging the co-op with the university. This merge would designate control of Zoe Bayliss’s budget to UW-Madison and allow the university to employ individuals such as a chef and live-in liaison, who would act as a middle-man between the residents and the university. 

President of Zoe Bayliss Riley Whitehead said this announcement blindsided the residents. However, after little communication with the university, the Zoe Bayliss board and residents thought the idea of a merger might be behind them. 

This was until a few weeks ago when University Housing called for another meeting with the co-op, announcing they wanted to move forward with the merger. 

On Feb. 6, nearly a year after their first meeting, Director of University Housing Jeff Novak and Admin Officer for University Housing Laura Morris came to Zoe Bayliss to talk about the future of the co-op with the board and its members. 

Novak and Morris came to the meeting prepared to talk about a compromise that could be made between the university and Zoe Bayliss, so as not to change the fundamental structure of the co-op. 

During the meeting, they assured the residents that rental costs at Zoe Bayliss would not increase, that the board could continue to recruit student residents and that they would be able to keep their meal plan and their chef. 

Even though Zoe Bayliss would still be a part of the recruitment process, the co-op would no longer be contracting the rooms. Instead, the university would separately contract the rooms to students. 

This caused concern with the board because currently, Zoe Bayliss allows their residents certain freedoms, like being able to pay their rent late if they are behind payment. 

Being in control of their own budget and being able to be flexible with the way they charge their residents is something that is unique to Zoe Bayliss. Zoe Bayliss Business Manager Ann Sojka said losing this control would be detrimental to the structure of the co-op. 

“The finances are part of the autonomy of the co-op and it just feels like we will no longer have that autonomy,” Sojka said. “We will no longer need to make sure that everything we’re doing ensures our survival, instead we will know the university is making the decisions for us, taking away our power from us.” 

Novak said he understands the members’ concerns about the university taking control of the Zoe Bayliss financing.

“I think what they’d like to be able to do is pay us the rent on their own, pay us their monthly utility charges, and pay their chef’s salary,” Novak said. “We’re saying we can help with that.” 

If the merger were to take place, Novak said the university would be able to save the co-op $20,000 a year. 

Currently, Zoe Bayliss is a taxable entity while the university is not. This means that the co-op pays taxes on the food and supplies they purchase. The co-op also pays for liability insurance and must hire and pay an accountant to help with audits and other financial matters. Novak said by merging with the university, these costs would be covered. 

Novak said the excess money saved in the merger would not be surrendered to the university but would be the co-op’s money to invest. The money could be used to reduce rent or maintain facilities. 

However, current Zoe Bayliss resident Anne Ulrich said the co-op would cease to exist if the merger were to take place. 

“If University Housing goes through with their plan to take over our co-op, we would be forced to dissolve because we can’t present ourselves as a co-op if we don’t have control of our own financial structures,” Ulrich said.  

Another concern that members of Zoe Bayliss had is that they would lose their current chef, who is a paid employee of the co-op. The university said they would be able to keep their chef, under the condition that the chef would be hired as a university employee. 

Whitehead said that their chef was previously contracted as a caterer for the university. In a meeting with Novak, the chef asked if the co-op structure would stay the same under the university, in which case he would continue to cook for the co-op. Novak responded saying that changes would be made.  

This means if the merger takes place, Zoe Bayliss could lose their chef, someone Whitehead describes as a vital member of the co-op. 

Many residents of Zoe Bayliss, including Whitehead, said they look forward to dinner and simply being in the house because their chef is like a friend and mentor to them. Whitehead said losing this individual would be disheartening. 

As part of the merger, Novak and Morris also suggested that a university-hired liaison could be the way to communicate between the co-op and the university. 

This is something that many of the women living in Zoe Bayliss said would fracture the structure of the co-op. Whitehead said this is something that would take away from the leadership roles at Zoe Bayliss, whether that be working on the board or cleaning and kitchen duties. 

“It seems like a conflict of interest if the person that leads the co-op is paid by university housing,” Whitehead said. “It would take away the pride in leadership that the women of Zoe Bayliss have.” 

This leadership is something that drew Ulrich to the co-op two years ago. 

“I chose to live here because I found the community very appealing,” Ulrich said. “Since we have local control and own government structure there are a lot of leadership opportunities available that I’ve been able to take advantage of.” 

Ulrich said this is why other residents continue to choose Zoe Bayliss as their home. 

According to a satisfaction survey conducted by the co-op, all of the 29 respondents said they would suggest the co-op as a quality place to live to a friend. 

Ulrich said she is confused about how the university can see students’ satisfaction with the co-op and still want to carry out the merger. 

“The university has shown a complete unwillingness to listen to us,” Ulrich said. “We’ve expressed our concerns to them for over a year and they still seem determined to take it over even though what we’re doing is working.”

Current Zoe Bayliss resident Sam Syta agreed with Ulrich saying, “The way University Housing has interacted with us, it’s almost like they’re trying to bully us out of having a co-op here.” 

This lack of communication is why Sojka said members of Zoe Bayliss have little trust in the university. 

“Our concerns fall on deaf ears, and that may be the biggest indication of [the university’s] disregard for student interest,” Sojka said. “They’re not listening to us, and it doesn’t feel like there’s a true negotiation going on.” 

However, Novak said the merger is in the interest of current Zoe Bayliss members as well as future residents. 

“I absolutely believe [that the merger is in the best interest of the students],” Novak said. “We can save money for the co-op, provide them greater resources and help with transitioning from year to year.” 

Ulrich said she hopes the university is making decisions based on how they will affect the student residents at Zoe Bayliss. 

“I would love to work with University Housing to keep the co-op going,” Ulrich said. “I hope they come to their senses and start listening and compromising with us.”

At the meeting on Feb. 6, Novak and Morris agreed to have a written proposal drawn up in the coming weeks, highlighting specific details of the merger, so both the university and Zoe Bayliss can begin to make concrete progress in the negotiation.  

“I am proud to be involved with the Zoe Bayliss community and look forward to a continued partnership with the co-op,” Novak said. 

Update: Zoe Bayliss is authorized to operate as a co-op through at least the 2020-2021 school year.

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