Re: Rental Cohousing?
From: Kay Argyle (
Date: Fri, 18 Jan 2008 17:43:44 -0800 (PST)
Our experience at Wasatch Commons (SLC, Utah) is that renters are every bit
as stable and committed (hereafter "s&c") as owners - which is to say, some
are and some aren't.

Disclosure: I've been a renter most of my adult life and probably would be
now if a friend hadn't talked me into pooling our incomes to buy a house
together.  Additionally, anything I say here is based on my personal
observations in my community.  Your Mileage May Vary.  You will certainly
find people who are exceptions to every generality I make here.

There's one definite advantage to renters - When somebody develops a
strained relationship with the community, they can bail out quickly and

Maybe five years after move-in, some residents were concerned about the fact
almost half the units in the community were rentals - seven privately owned
units were no longer owner-occupied, in addition to the five low-income
units. I pointed out what our experience actually was with renters - Nearly
two-thirds of the originally owner-occupied units had changed hands,
sometimes more than once, compared to just one of the original rentals.
Residents who happened to be renters did the HOA bookkeeping, comprised half
the parents committee, managed dining's accounts, taught other residents'
kids tennis or aikido.  Less stable?  Less committed?  Quit making up
monsters under the bed.

(The only negative effect I could see from the high percentage of renters
was that, since renters cannot, per our CCR, be elected to management, we
were having trouble finding anyone who didn't protest, "But I've already
done it!" when nominated - it's a community joke that the typical campaign
speech starts out, "Well, if you can't find anyone else ...."  I'm one of
those running uncontested at next week's Annual Meeting, hoping for a
last-minute write-in candidate.)

Most of the factors that contribute to owners being s&c apply equally to
renters - some even more so.  

The same channels that produce good prospects for ownership also work for
renters.  Recruiting through the housing agency for the rent-to-own
income-qualified* units wasn't successful. (*check my posts in the archives
if you want additional info about these.) Fortunately, the agency has been
willing to bend its rules about its waiting list. Applicants they sent us in
the beginning had the good sense to realize for themselves it wouldn't be a
good fit, and were allowed to turn the units down without losing their place
on the waiting list, and ever since then the agency has allowed us to send
them applicants who get the units.  

Potential renters, like potential owners, need to understand they are moving
into a lifestyle, not a house. It helps if they attend meetings and meals
and are familiar with community expectations before anything is signed.
This seems to get neglected more with renters than buyers.

The work a person does for the community invests them in the community -
whether renters or owners, members during planning or people who move in
after the community is built.  Renters tend to be shyer than owner newcomers
about jumping in and claiming some project for their own. Help them find a
match between their strengths and passions and the community's needs.

Kids make a difference in whether a household's social life (that of younger
residents especially) is centered in the community or out of it. (On the
other hand, households with kids are sometimes already overbooked.)  It's
been our experience, as other communities have remarked, that families end
up shoehorned into little units while older singles can afford big ones.
This is someplace rentals can play a role - attracting families.

At Wasatch Commons, most single mothers in rentals have been notably s&c. A
number of highly s&c residents, renters and owners both, have come through
contacts at the school most of the community kids attend, a
by-application-only program that mandates parental involvement - an ideal
pool for potential cohousers!

Childless low-income renters have not always been as successful - how can I
put this delicately?  Let's just say that mental health issues, from
drinking to schizophrenia, can interfere with being s&c. The correlation
I've noticed may be a total coincidence, but I'm inclined to think it
follows - mental illness increases the probability of low income which
lowers the probability of home ownership.

As other communities have experienced, we find more demand for small units
than for big ones (if anything we have more single-person households than
average) - yet the exception to the stability of the low-income rentals is
the one-bedroom.  It's had a high turnover.  It is up a flight of stairs,
which discourages older or physically disabled low-income people from
considering it. Younger low-income people are more likely to be single
mothers, and need another bedroom or two.

The housing program requires an applicant who has earned income (so no
elderly people on fixed incomes - who wouldn't want the stairs anyway - and
not most full-time students).  Having ruled out many of the common causes of
low income, who is left to qualify for that unit?  Guess where half the
residents whose mental health I've regarded as questionable have lived.

The history of the upstairs single-bedroom that is not low-income is
slightly better - although still spottier than most of the townhouse units.
Don't build one-bedrooms with stairs!

So there you have some advantages and cautions to rental units, particularly
low-income.  On the whole I regard renters as a very positive thing for the
community (although I could have done without several of the residents in
that upstairs low-income unit).


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