affordability compilation
From: Elizabeth Rice (
Date: Thu, 25 May 2000 18:01:40 -0600 (MDT)
Hi all, (my subject line makes it sound like a new music CD set...available
I was asked to compile the answers to my question about affordable housing
and cohousing. Here they are ? the original question is first with the
responses following. I received some responses sent just to me, and checked
with the folks who sent them and got an ok to include them. Thanks again for
all your help in this?it is much is indeed an interesting
Liz Rice

>-----Original Message-----
>From: cohousing-l [at]
>[mailto:cohousing-l [at]]On Behalf Of E. Rice
>Sent: Tuesday, May 16, 2000 4:06 PM
>To: Multiple recipients of list
>Subject: question from a grad student
>I'm a graduate student at University of Washington School of Public
>Affairs. I'm in a policy class, and a group of us are looking at issues of
>housing and low-income affordability. I, in particular, am looking at
>cohousing as an option for the city to get more behind in terms of
>low-income housing development. I know many cohousing groups seek
>diversity of all kinds, including income diversity, but I'm wondering how
>well you feel it works, and how city incentives to create affordable
>housing as part of the cohousing unit help or inhibit its creation. I'm
>also wondering how those who are part of the cohousing movement in general
>feel about the ability of cohousing to address issues of availability of
>low-income housing options, especially in cities such as Seattle in which
>real estate prices have increased to the point where it is difficult to
>maintain affordable housing.
>Hope you don't mind me posting to this email list. I would love any input
>anyone has on this matter.
>Thanks for your time
>Liz Rice

What a cool question!  This is a very topical question for the Seattle
Cohousing community

The city of Seattle has been very, very helpful to the Seattle cohousing
project.  For starters, they are giving us a great price on our land, and
just lately when we hit a major cash crunch they have agreed to let us pay
interest for the land instead of paying for the cost of the land up front.
They also have a policy of not charging real-estate taxes on projects in our
area if we have a certain minimum number of low income residents.  That
could work out to be a large savings.  There are some catches with this tax
free status, so we may not go with it, but it is a wonderful carrot to
encourage us to try to get more low income members.

No, the problem is not government, it is the bankers.  We are scrambling to
get everything in place so that we can start construction in July.  If we
don't start in July we will soon be up against the infamous Seattle rainy
season, and will probably have to delay the project another year.  And the
hard cold reality is that if we want to build, we need to make our
development bank happy.

The problem is, our development bank wants us to pay 23% of the project cost
upfront plus any expected over-runs.  And we recently got an updated bid
from our contractors only to find that their prices have gone up 15% since
last Fall -- the Seattle building market is absolutely out of control at the
moment.  Even this wouldn't be too much of a problem except that the banks
we talked to won't attach a monetary value to our common facilities.  So in
effect, we have to consider the common facilities as a cost over-run.  In
practical terms this means we have to come up with that much more money up

The need for this upfront money has put an enormous strain on our lower
income members.  Fortunately we have some deep pocketed members who have
decided to pay most of the money for their unit over a year in advance.
That gives us just enough money to pull it off.

Nevertheless, one of our lower income members decided to downgrade to
associate member because she couldn't sleep nights.  Several others are
still hanging on, but their sleep is apparently not that good either.

Here's my dream:  Create a non-profit community oriented bank.  This bank
would specialize in cohousing and co-op community loans across the nation.
The bank would act like a normal commercial development bank in most
respects except that it would be specifically focused on cohousing style
loans and would do a much, much better job of servicing this segment.  To
get it going there would need to be a large seed money infusion, but after
that it should be self sufficient.  I never thought that my dream would be
to start a bank, but after seeing how much it has dictated the course of our
project, I now understand how vitally important banks can be.

In a message dated 5/16/2000 8:27:01 PM, olevy [at] writes:

<< No, the problem is not government, it is the bankers.  ....the
hard cold reality is that if we want to build, we need to make our
development bank happy.

The problem is, our development bank wants us to pay 23% of the project cost
upfront plus any expected over-runs.  And we recently got an updated bid
from our contractors only to find that their prices have gone up 15% since
last Fall -- the Seattle building market is absolutely out of control at the
moment.  Even this wouldn't be too much of a problem except that the banks
we talked to won't attach a monetary value to our common facilities.  So in
effect, we have to consider the common facilities as a cost over-run.  In
practical terms this means we have to come up with that much more money up
front. >>

At Pathways we got lucky; the Pathways development entity (who we were
we were owner occupied) never had to go to the banks.  Our
contractor/developer agreed to lend us money, at decent market rates, after
we were willing to lend ourselves a bunch of money in advance (I think it
10% of the total budgeted costs, but I'm not sure).  This made some money
the developer (which would have gone to the banks) and saved us about
in bank fees.   If you can find an enlightened developer who would like to
make a few extra bucks on the project by loaning you money, you may be able
to bypass the banks also.  Good luck.

    Roger Berman
    Pathways Cohousing
    Northampton, MA

You bring up some interesting points, my understanding of co-housing is that
it is not necessarily suited for "low-income" housing projects.  It is
certainly a "life style" choice.  I work with a very strong non-profit
agency that develops low income housing in Rural areas. (we work actively in
the State of Washington thru our Lacy office) and the question of co-housing
comes up in our "self-help" programs.  To my knowledge, only a project in
the Holister, California area used co-housing, and that was for agricultural
working mothers.  Our staff works closely with groups in the development and
construction of their homes, but find most folks want their own, independent
home. Some of the models we use to develop afforable housing can work in the
city, the most important piece is the cost of real estate..
I live near a city co-housing group, the South Park, in Sacramento,
California, and their units are at market or higher for similar homes in the
area, without some of the amenties the other homes have, such as garages.
If you have questions, please contact us via our web page at



Hi, Liz.
Here in Florida we are exploring the application of cohousing in low-income
situations. You might want to read an article by Hasell and Scanzoni
"Cohousing in HUD - Problems and Prospects" (The Journal of Architecture
and Planning Research 17:2, 133-145, Summer 2000).  Actually -and for all
in the list who are interested in reserach on cohousing- the JAPR Summer
2000 issue is dedicated to this topic. It was edited by Dr. John Scanzoni,
a sociologist at UF.

I am part of a group exploring ways to adapt cohousing concepts to an
ecovillage development for Habitat for Humanity in Gainesville, FL.  We are
just getting started so there isn't much to report yet, except our belief
that the benefits of the cohousing lifestyle need not be restricted to the
income bracket population that has at first adopted the model.

About banking,,

The concept of forming a bank is not really that bad, my agency did the same
about 10 years ago for rural housing developments, when both federal and
private funds would not pay for the projects due to "strange issues" they
didn't know how to deal with.  You might check with our financial services
division to find out more, currently we only with work in small towns, of
less than 10,000 people, and they have to be a non-profit, Indian tribe, or
public entity, we are very active in the western 12 states, Hawaii to
Alaska, Washington to New Mexico, you can find us at    We are
a non-profit group.

Liz -

Would you compile the responses you get and send them to the list? Or maybe
you could post a link to the eventual paper you write?

I'm with a cohousing group in the San Francisco Bay Area that is interested
in incorporating affordable housing into our project. We are currently at
the site search stage and are unsure as to whether and how we will do this.
We've gotten lots of advice from this list, the Cohousing Network (see
David Mandel's page there), and from the Cohousing Company.

I know there are many in the cohousing movement who are interested in
affordable housing but who may be daunted (or defeated) by the prospect of
combining two difficult-to-develop types of housing.

In general, as you know, cohousing has been a middle-class endeavor.  I
this is not only a matter of finances but also of education and
entrepreneurial requirements!
After all, getting a cohousing community off the ground requires a huge
investment of time and energy as well as dollars.

 Cambridge Coho wanted to have some diversity and managed some by having a
huge variety of unit sizes from studios to large 4-bedroom townhouses.   We
also offered two units to the local housing authority, which purchased them
at a slight discount and found us two eligible families  - a single mother
one daughter and a single woman - that were interested in the concept.  They
have been great neighbors and both love the community, like the idea of
coming home to see people around, stopping to chat, etc.    However,
they do attend General Meetings from time to time and participate in meals
and other activities, neither is much interested in being a member of one of
our many committees or or participating in governance type activities.  To
honest, socialization between these families and other residents is mostly
the neighborly not close personal level.  Of course, these residents do not
have the sense of ownership that comes with owning a piece of the pie!!

In addition, we have a limited dividend unit, subsidized by a city program
encourage home ownership in those of moderate means by helping with a
downpayment and low interest mortgage.  On sale, the amount of profit is
limited by deed.  This is a concept that needs more exploration, I think.

On the other hand, there are public housing developments in Boston which
elected resident managing boards which have been successful  (and some that
haven't).    I'm not sure where this is going, so maybe I'll leave it at


    I'm sending this just to you but feel free to share it if you wish.

    Getting cohousing built is difficult. Getting affordable housing built
difficult. Doing both at the same time is maybe four times as difficult.
Therefore is doesn't seem to happen much. A group or agency devoted to one
unlikely to want to muck up the works by doing the other too.
    This is my conclusion from observation, despite my belief that
housing projects could be much more successful if they adopt some aspects of
cohousing, including ownership and self-management; and my dislike of most
private market cohousing development that pay lip service to the concept of
affordability when getting started but then find it too difficult and leave
low-income people out completely.
    So how can the gap be bridged? With difficulty, in any event, but here
a few ideas.
    1. By getting at least some low-income people be involved in a cohousing
group from the start, which can infuse the group with the determination
to keep them from being excluded.
    2. By promoting mixed-income cohousing development in low-income
neighborhoods. Programs to subsidize housing in distressed neighborhoods are
more likely to make a mixed-income project feasible there than it would be
a suburb.
    3. By finding some lenders -- private or governmental -- who would like
get good PR for innovation by funding low-income cohousing while meeting
CRA obligations. I believe the potential is out there. That could draw
nonprofit developers into the game.

    These are on top of considering other strategies for affordability
included in my outline of a few years ago (available through the cohousing
site) and other things that have been written about it.

David Mandel, Sacramento

Dear Ms. Rice-

Well, here is what I wanted to say.  I read your post on the cohousing-L
about affordable housing, and cohousing being a potential answer in tight
urban markets.  In a nutshell- I don't see the standard model of cohousing
being the answer.  For the following reasons:

1.Time- People in lower income brackets tend not to have a lot of time to
devote to this  kind of an endeavor.
2.Finances- Cohousing is expensive.  It is the nature of the beast.  When
you take a market item whose costs have been lowered by standardization
(homebuilding) and customize it (cohousing) the expense will only be higher
than doing it the conventional way.
3.Interest- The very concept of resource sharing smacks of inadequacy to
provide for one's self when your personal background experience has been one
of poverty.

Generally speaking, cohousing (or intentional community) is pursued by one
of two sorts of people.  Either, people with a luxury of time, and
disposable income, who have been well educated, and have the whole-life
resources to make discriminating housing choices, and then tailor those
choices to their precise needs/ wants; or those who are deeply disappointed/
disenchanted with mainstream culture (or both).  Generally speaking, people
who need affordable housing don't fit either of those catagories.  And once,
again- as is the nature of the beast- the critical difference in cohousing
is that the development is driven by the people who are going to live there;
not an external source.  So to build a cohousing development, and then
invite a group of low-income people who've never met each other to come live
there... sounds like it would defeat the purpose of cohousing to me.

The needs of affordable housing could much better be met by fostering ties
between neighbors in existing neighborhoods.  (externally organized block
parties, and cooperative daycare centers come to mind, as well as local
currency systems)  And as far as changing the dynamic of home ownership-
that seems like a painfully simple question.  If there is money to build
affordable housing- that same money can purchase existing housing- and
resell it as limited equity cooperatives.  There are several tremendously
good examples of this here in Ann Arbor, a pocket of notoriously high real
estate.  But if policy makers insist on building new buildings- then I'm
quite certain it wouldn't hurt if they were pedestrian-oriented layouts,
with community centers for common use, all surrounded by a quantity of
greenspace.  I'm just not sure how it would be a better answer to the
quagmire of questions surrounding the affordable housing issue.

There's my two cents.  Thanks for asking.

Good luck on your project!!

Hi Liz,

I have not seen too much success with groups doing affordable cohousing.
Affordable means  subsidity and getting such things is difficult. The Vashon

Island Cohousing group  worked with Vashion household to secure some
affordable housing grants. I don't know if that situation is reproducable.
The key is find a partnering affordable housing organization to team up

I haven't much time, but wanted to sketch out a brief response.  I've been a
resident of Puget Ridge Cohousing for almost six years.  I've had little
experience in successful outreach for diversity.  The common denominator
here has a great deal to do with economics; the sad truth is, the only
people who could afford to move in had some sort of substantial assets.
I have a strong interest in affordable, low income, and poverty level
housing, and have watched as Ciel/Dumwamish cohousing tried to reach out to
diverse members.  They haven't been successful with ethnic diversity, but
they managed to attract many more families with small children than we
did -- I wonder if there may have been some city subsidy for certain units,
and, if so, that affected the ability of youngish, just-starting-out
families to join?
Creating cohousing is a horrendous challenge, and certainly more money is
key for making it available to lower income families and individuals.  But
many lower-income individuals whom I've known live so close to the line that
they would not have the time and energy to contribute heavily to developing
cohousing, so in my opinion, it would be most successful in a situation
where there is ample talent and time in the group to absorb individuals who
have less time to devote.

Marty Kehl

1.  have the local housing authority purchase 1 or 2 units in existing
developments and rent them out to low income people. They already do this
around town in Portland, why not add cohousing to the list of options?  For
motivated low income renters, this could be a very positive option.  Think
of all the support they'd get.

2. have the local housing authorities purchase a small 12 plex or bigger,
gut 2 of the units to make a common house.  Hold a public cohousing meeting,
attract buyers with VERY reasonable prices on 2/3rds of the units, the last
1/3 sold to low income qualifiers, perhaps something along the habitat for
humanity model.  There is a largely rental community in Australia, members
of whom write into the list, that should be very informative on this idea.

These ideas assume that the low income people buy into (figuratively) the
community model.

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