CoHoSociety
From: tom ponessa (tom_ponessatvo.org)
Date: Wed, 18 Jan 95 15:27 CST
There have been a number of enquiries as a result of a recent introductory
posting about
the Collaborative Housing Society.  As it happens, I was in the middle of
writing a
presentation/article about what we've been doing over the past three years. 
Here it is,
(in draft form) for those who are interested.

The Collaborative Housing Society:  A Voice for Cohousing.
by Russell Mawby

>From the discussions I've had over the past three years [and recently scanned
on this
conference], I've come to the conclusion that there are two kinds of
approaches to
cohousing [*not* mutually exclusive]:  those who see it as a radically new
way of living,
and those who see it as plain old common sense.  I favour the latter point of
view, after
all, why shouldn't the people who live in a place be responsible for - and in
control of -
how that place is designed, developed and managed?

This common sense approach has prompted a number of people to question why
we're
not already building cohousing.  What happened to us, to the way we build our
homes,
towns and cities that made it necessary to invent cohousing?  It was thinking
about this
problem that led to the formation of the Collaborative Housing Society in
1991.

The CoHoSoc is an umbrella group, linking and encouraging local, regional and
institutional interest in collaborative housing.  We are entirely
volunteer-run, and
supported by our membership, which has reached 800 people, organizations and
institutions from across Canada.

As one member put it, what we do is to reduce the need for groups to expend
energy on
issues not directly related to getting their projects built.  We do not
attempt to manage
individual cohousing efforts - cohousing *has* to be a local initiative and
cannot be
forced into existence.  We do however lend assistance with slide shows,
letters,
advertising and workshops, as required.  We publish a newsletter, "CoHousing
Ontario",
and act as a region of the CoHousing Network, including distribution of their
journal
"CoHousing".  We have held a number of conferences and presentations aimed at
generating interest in this "approach to housing ourselves", and field calls
from an
increasingly curious public.  Our primary role is to prepare the ground for
these seeds of
interest, so that as projects take root they find a receptive environment in
which to grow.

We try to encourage an awareness that collaborative housing means
collaboration not
only between the members and future residents of a given group, but also
between
resident groups and the various other players in the community development
game - the
architects, bankers, planners, builders and others who usually control what
gets built.

To a large extent, the problem with how we build our communities is a lack of
collaboration, not only between the housing professions themselves, but more
importantly, between those people who build our homes and the people who
actually
have to live there.   It is a situation somewhat analogous to the state of
the North
American auto industry in the 1970's.  They insisted that the huge chromed
monsters
they were pumping out were what the public wanted, until the Japanese and
European
auto makers came along to prove that the public had different ideas *when
given the
choice*.  The Big Three are only just recovering from that rude awakening.

Like the auto industry, the housing professions have become used to producing
a product
that suits their agendas, which are increasingly out of step with the needs
and desires of
the intended residents.  They justify their ignorance by claiming success
because they sell
what they build, when in fact most people do not see any alternatives to the
poor
products they are offered.  This is where cohousing comes in - as a wake up
call.  We
believe that the CoHoSoc's main role is to mobilize this growing group of
informed
consumers, not only to build a few unique places to lead the way, but
ultimately to help
change the way all of our communities are built.

We do this by acting as a conduit for information, (re)establishing the
communication
between the people who live in communities and the people who build them.  Of
course,
communication is a two-way process, and we find that as much as we are
working with
groups to educate the powers that be, we are also bringing back some lessons
from
"above" - if we want cohousing to be accepted and supported as a part of how
we build
our society, we have to make sure it operates in society, not as a quaint
curiosity, but as
a viable, demonstrable and supported way of approaching how we build the
places we
live.

A good example of what we are doing to foster collaboration is our "Planning
Cohousing" conference, held in April, 1994, where we brought together members
of
cohousing groups and planners and other housing professionals from around
Southern
Ontario in a one-day workshop (charette) to design a handbook on the planning
process
for resident groups.  The handbook, however, was just an excuse.  The real
reason
behind this event was to open up lines of communication between resident
groups and
planners.  Groups seem to have inherited a distrust, if not fear, of
planners, which stems
largely from the adversarial role planners tend to have to take in the eyes
of the public -
always telling people what they can't do.

In spite of repeated appeals for groups to take the plunge, not one group in
Ontario had
approached their local planning department, even though some groups had
selected sites
and done preliminary designs.  So we organized this conference, the main
benefit of
which is that it occurs on neutral ground, not over the regional planner's
table, discussing
a specific project.  Both planners and cohousers were free to dream, to
speculate, and
propose ideas that might have been rejected out-of-hand in a formal review
process.
Planners learned that resident involvement in the development process really
does
change the nature of what gets built, but that it isn't anything to be afraid
of.  Cohousers
learned to be more conventional in how they presented themselves, for
example,
designing a Common House might raise too many red flags, but "shared amenity
space"
is part of many condominium developments, and therefore more normal and
acceptable.

One immediate result of this event was an active collaboration on a senior's
cohousing
project to the west of Toronto.  By working with the planners, this group was
able to
learn what they could realistically expect to build, but also were able to
educate the
planners about the effects of their rigid interpretations of by-laws.  As
just one example,
maximum density in this rural area is one house per four acres, and was
always assumed
to mean a house surrounded by four acres of land.  This group pointed out the
benefits
of (*and* desire for) clustering and averaging density, and gained approval
without the
need for rezoning or even site-specific variance.  By the way, this group,
the Lowville
Project, secured their land in December, and expect to start building in the
Spring!

Some other initiatives we have undertaken include establishing a strong
relationship with
both the National and Provincial Ministries of Housing to ensure that
cohousing is
recognized and understood as a viable development process.  We have made
presentations to two Royal Commissions on planning and development reform,
advocating resident involvement in these processes as a way to generate
healthy
communities.  We have spoken on behalf of the Toronto Islands Residents
Association
at legislative hearings to set up Ontario's first public Land Trust (the
Toronto Islands are
North America's only car-free community).  We have organized a letter-writing
campaign
to support innovative development of Toronto's vacant industrial lands.  I am
now
writing a column for the Ontario Planning Journal about the lessons we can
learn when
people get control over what and how their communities are built, which again
serves to
establish cohousing as "real", and not only continues to educate planners
about the
intentions and benefits of the concept, but also normalizes it - cohousing's
just a bunch
of people who care as much about their community as you do.

We have also generated fairly significant local media attention, even without
any built
projects in the area to look at.  By focusing on the social implications of
collaborative
housing, we have made this an issue broader than a group of people looking
for their
own private paradise.  For example, we discuss the benefits of sharing in
ways that most
people can accept and appreciate - sharing lawn mowers or photocopiers,
rather than the
scary idea of sharing meals.  We talk about cohousing as a way of mobilizing
our power
as consumers in the housing development industry, rather than presuming that
we're out
there inventing new, and somewhat exclusive, ways of doing things.  We
explain
cohousing as everything from tearing down backyard fences up to building
sustainable
Eco-villages - anytime a group of residents recognizes and actively supports
co-operation
between neighbours, that's cohousing.  In other words, we approach and "sell"
cohousing
as a natural, normal process that most people would probably prefer, and that
everyone
can see the benefits of.


Finally, we have begun discussions with the true arbiters of what and how we
build - the
banks and lawyers - to test the feasibility of introducing alternative
mechanisms for
property ownership, specifically shared or co-ownership [The STRATA Project].
 For
many reasons, (which will be the subject of another discussion!) here in
Ontario we
suffer from a severe lack of housing options - a very limited palette of
choices, and few
alternatives to traditional delivery and consumption patterns.  Cohousing has
given us a
powerful tool to pry open the doors into mortgage lending practices, simply
because we
can demonstrate that there is a demand out there for other than the tried and
true.  We
are also kicking around the idea of a revolving loan/investment fund to help
bridge the
gap for those innovative projects that banks fear to touch.

In short, then, our role as an organization is to pool the energy, efforts
and ideas of this
diverse movement and provide some coherence, solidity and, to some extent,
credibility
to it all.  Banks, planners and politicians might dismiss a single group as a
curiosity, but
cannot dismiss 800 people who are all prepared to lend their voices in
support of
individual projects.  Because of our direct connection to the continent-wide
CoHousing
Network, groups that might be perceived as bunch of dreamers can bring the
power of a
movement to their discussions.  Because of our contact with professional
organizations
and governments, cohousing is at least understood as an option - certainly
not for
everybody, but an option none the less.

But more importantly, by establishing broad lines of communication we are
enabling
groups to gain access to the carefully hoarded knowledge that many
professionals (in any
industry) have preferred to keep to themselves.  After all, knowledge is
power, and it is
the lack of knowledge of community development that has kept residents from
exercising
any meaningful control over what gets built in the past.  So when groups come
to call on
those planners, bankers, politicians and developers, they'll be coming in as
equal partners
in the process, not as sheep heading off to a good fleecing.

This all sounds very deterministic, so it must be said that this description
of what we do
is mostly hindsight, reflecting on the success we've already had with limited
resources,
and anticipating the successes to come.  We cannot stress too much that we
only exist to
serve the local efforts towards building better communities.  Their work is
the most
important of all, and we hope that, someday soon, we will no longer need to
exist as an
organization, because cohousing will be just another housing choice, or,
better still, will be
the way everyone lives!

I should add that, in my opinion, cohousing will have failed if it only
results in scattered,
specially made places for the fortunate few.  The true test of this movement
is whether it
can help change the world out there that we all seem to agree is not what we
would like
it to be.  [a recent posting said it best - "I don't want to just expand my
present isolation
from society by swapping my single family home with fence to 26 family homes
with
fence."  Don, Acacia Lane Cohousing, Santa Rosa, CA.]

In the end, the Collaborative Housing Society is simply a lot of people who
believe that
there are better ways of building and rebuilding the places we call home, and
that the
more people who work towards this, the better off we'll all be.
* * *
For more information, contact the Society at 105 Stephen Dr., Toronto,
Ontario M8Y
3M8, or phone (416) 255-7446.  E-mail can be sent to tom_ponessa [at] tvo.org
* * *
Russell Mawby is the founder of the Collaborative Housing Society, and is
(another)
graduate architect, who believes that if we just build appropriate places to
live, then all
the good neighbour stuff will happen - naive but
hopeful!

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