Re: Urban cohousing
Date: Wed, 23 Feb 1994 13:04:51 -0500 (EST)
For those of you interested in urban co-housing I have the following advice to

Look around your city for "historic" buildings that are in need of
preservation, rather then looking at contemporary buildings.  You can
occasionally get ownership of these for a song, if you form a non-profit
organization whose purpose to "preservation, renovation, and productive use of"
the building.  It is also possible to apply for different types of grants to
develop plans or to help with the renovation process to bring it up to code.

Because these are existing buildings instead of new construction, you do not
have the same type of $$$$ code requirements, if you are using the building for
a use similiar to it's previous uses.  It is possible to get some code
exceptions for historical buildings.  Once you get into the building, it is
easier to gradually bring the building up to code as you deem appropriate, and
migrate it's use to your intended eventual use.

Quite often, historical building are more amenable to community architecture
then contemporary buildings.

Once you have ownership of the building, and have some renovations completed,
the non-profit (whose membership can be mostly members of the community) can
lease the building to the co-housing community, or individual members.  The
lease payments *have to* be at market rates to maintain the distinction between
the non-profit and the community organization, however.  The lease payments can
then be spent on further renovations and historical improvements to the

The fantastic part is that you often don't have to deal with any mortgage, or
banks, and there can be a *lot* fewer hoops to jump through.  In addition, any
money *donated* to the non-profit is tax deductable.

To illustrate this, I can give a reference to "The Art of the Deal" in the 1993
September/October issue of the "Historic Preservation" magazine, about a
non-profit in St Paul Minnisota which renovates old warehouses and historic
buildings into living and work spaces for artists.

I can also describe my own experience:

By forming a non-profit organization, we have been able to obtain ownership to
a 250,000 SF five story granite textile mill with 20-30 acres of land in Baltic
CT on the Shatucket River, by paying $2,000 in transfer costs, and agreeing to
assume liability for $100,000 in back taxes to the town.  

The Baltic Mill was built in 1890 to replace a previous cotton mill built in
the 1850's by the Sprague family, governors and senators of RI.  The town of
Sprague and the company mill village of Baltic was born then, and it has
remained a mostly intact rural mill village inspite of 150 years of
development.  The mill is essentially by itself across the river from the

Last fall the mill was up for tax auction for the back taxes, and nobody bid on
it.  After seeing a back page article with this information, I decided to go
and take a look at it for our co-housing group.  I have always been interested
in renovating an old mill, and fell in love with 3 foot thick grey granite
walls and huge spaces.  The town official I spoke to said that there would be
another tax auction in december, and if no one bid on it then, it would be torn
down for it's granite, brick and beams, and the land would be parcelled off.

The Mill has changed ownership a dozen times since the Sayles Company ceased
operation, and it has been mostly empty for the past 30 years.  The last owners
were a group of lawyers in Hartford CT who wanted to convert it into 200
condos.  This would have doubled the size of the village, and naturally the
town government eventually refused to allow this development.  The owners have
been unable to sell or lease the Mill since, and it has deteriorated and
accumulated back taxes for the past ten years.

The deal we were able to swing, was for the lawyers to donate the mill to the
non-profit Baltic Village Viancy Inc. (also known as the Baltic Mill Renovation
Association) with a quit claim deed to the Mill, which gave them a *huge* tax
write off.  We could not simply buy the mill, because of the outstanding back
taxes.  We also are negotiating with the town to convert the back taxes into a
long term loan, which at some future point will be converted into a a grant
which will be used for matching funds for state or federal historic, economic
development, or National Endowment for the Arts grants.

Therefore, we've been able to get ahold of this multi-million dollar property
for basically nothing.  However, there are a couple of catches...  The first
catch is that at this time, the individual members do not own the property; the
non-profit which they are members of actually owns it. Second, it has been
estimated that the Mill would require 10-20 million to renovate.  This is a
figure given by contractors who have seen a chance to make mega-bucks on this
project in the past.  This is the figure that has scared off any previous
buyers of the mill.  

This figure includes replacing all the 2,000 double hung sash windows, 
replacing the entire roof, and totally new electrical and plumbing for the
entire mill.  But, we don't need to renovate the entire Mill at once!  We don't
*need* to replace all the windows.  Most of sashs are intact, but probably 10%
of the 24,000 panes of glass need to be replaced.  In the short term, we are
moving intact windows to the areas which we want to renovate and use first. 
The entire roof does not need to be replaced.  One section is in bad shape and
will eventually have to be replaced.  Short term, it can be recovered.  The
majority of the roof need to be patched around the valleys, and will eventually
need to be recovered.

Also, this figure assumes that you will have to buy materials retail, and pay
contractors to do the work.  Because of the buildings historical significance
and the non-profit ownership, we will be able to get money and materials
donated for the renovation, and get volunteers, tech schools, and other
organizations to donate labor.  Once portions of the mill are partially
renovated, they can be leased to provide income to help pay for further
renovations.  In short, we should be able to accomplish the renovation over ten
years for probably $1 million dollars.

Does this sound like a get-rich-quick-with-no-money-down scheme to you?

It does to me!!!  But it all fits together and *works*, and it's all legit!

Now naturally we can't use all 250,000 SF for co-housing.  Your historic
co-housing project doesn't need to be this massive; this was which *our*
opportunity in our area that we've siezed.  Our target size is 24 residences,
each 1,000 SF.  Part of the Mill will be used for a museum and visitor center
for the Quinnebaug & Shatucket Rivers National Heritage Corridor.  Part of the
Mill will be used for an artisan's coop, and other small businesses involved in
the community.  We still have more space then we can possibly ever use.  We can
use some for a bed and breakfast space;  we could have a retreat center; we can
have folk dances and concerts....   It's mind-boggling!

The only catastrophe we've had to deal with is that the majority of our
original local co-housing group, when it actually came down to actually *doing*
co-housing, decided that they didn't *really* want to do Co-housing, or it was
not located were they would have liked it, or they didn't want to live in a
converted mill. 

So, does this project still qualify as co-housing?  I don't know.  But it is
likely that *some* sort of community will emerge at the end of this project. 
The few motivated people (esp me) have been able to interest 50 or so other
people, including local tradesmen to volunteer in helping with the renovation
process, which we are going forth with on it's own historic preservation
merits.  It's definitely a opportunity for a community, looking for members.

This Saturday, we are having our second monthly work party and tour.  Last
month we cleaned up 5,000 SF of building #2.  This month we will concentrate on
moving windows.  If anyone is ever interested in coming down and helping out or
looking around, feel free to give us a call.

Jim Baranski
Baltic Mill Renovation Association
16 Hammond Ave
Norwich CT 06360
(203) 889-4968

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