Today in Property the professor embarrassed a student by putting her on the spot and questioning her relentlessly. That's not noteworthy; that happens three times a day in every law school class across the country. What was interesting about this time was that the nature of the questioning and her embarrassment stemmed from an odd failure of communication.

I sort-of kind-of know the girl who was interrogated. She's from Berkeley. The professor offhandedly started grilling her on co-ops, a subject we haven't gotten to in the casebook yet, in class. He asked her something like "Well, how would (legal doctrine) apply to a co-op?"

"Umm.... I don't see how it being a co-op would be relevant..."

The professor snorted. "Well, of course it's relevant. What makes a co-op different from a standard property?"

"Uh... Well, I guess people sort of... share the work?" (Laughter from the mostly East Coast student crowd)

"No, that's not how co-ops work, and it's not relevant anyway. What about a co-op complicates ownership?"

"Well... I guess no one person really owns a co-op..." (More laughter)

"How can nobody own a co-op? Somebody has to own it!"

And so on until the professor gave up and let her off the hook.

The fundamental problem is that we in America have completely failed to settle on a uniform meaning for the term "Co-Op." In Berkeley, where I'm from and where the unfortunate student went to undergrad, a co-op is a weird sort of private dorm thing. That is, the University Students Co-Operative Association owns a few dozen properties of various sizes in the community around the campus. Students apply to join the co-ops, and most are let in. They're assigned a living space and agree to 1. pay rent, and 2. provide a certain amount of maintenance work each week. USCA has a bunch of properties providing different living situations (dorm-style, house-style, etc.), different provisions of services (some have open kitchens, some provide daily meals, etc.), and themes (African-American, LGBT, Grad Students, etc). But in general, the idea is that you live there, pay a rent that's way reduced from market rates (basically just what it costs to pay property taxes and maintain the building) and contribute labor to the communal welfare of co-op denizens. It's essentially nothing special lease-wise; just a residential rental where the landlord happens to be benevolent and the monthly rent involves a mix of rent payments and service-in-kind. It's what most people think of as a "collective," or "collective housing," and most folks on the west coast, I believe, would envision something like that when you mention the phrase "co-op" to them.

A co-op is vastly different on the East Coast generally, and in New York in particular. Here, co-op is essentially a fancy word for "Condominium." There's a slight difference from a legal standpoint (A co-op is organized as a corporation that holds the building, and those who live there purchase shares of the corporation. Based on the share they purchased, they're entitled to a percentage of the corporation's assets, which is to say, an apartment in the building) but the point remains: A co-op is distinguished from a rental unit in that you are actually paying a large lump of money up front to buy the apartment, and from then on you own it.

So, the student was lambasted unfairly. She and the professor were essentially talking past one another. While the professor (and most of the East Coaster students) believed her befuddlement and not-on-point answers were caused by her head full of mush (because she has not yet been trained, you see, to think like a lawyer), the problem was actually that the professor failed to define his terms properly. I think this was a cheap trick on the professor's part; an eminent property scholar like him should (and likely does) know that "co-op" has a lot of different meanings, and it's unfair of him to assume that when he uses a word the listener will know what exact meaning he intends. Perhaps I should start referring to him as Professor Humpty-Dumpty.

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This page contains a single entry by Zach published on March 21, 2006 4:49 PM.

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