Re: Senior Cohousing / rental / http
From: Sharon Villines (
Date: Sun, 10 May 2009 06:23:36 -0700 (PDT)

On May 10, 2009, at 3:51 AM, Marganne Meyer wrote:

Figuring out a way to transfer cohousing into something that lower
income people could afford will be very helpful now, and in the

I think everyone agrees with this, but for those already living in cohousing, it was all they could do to get their first community built -- too much work to get enthusiastic enough to build a community again. When cohousing first started in this country it was just as hard to build market rate housing as it is now to build low cost homes. Those living in cohousing did not get there easily -- at least not those who started the communities.

Groups were unable to get construction loans. No developers were interested in working with them. People didn't want to sell them land because they thought the group would fall apart and they wouldn't get their money. One after another land deals fell through. After every failure, the group would lose members, often half the group. And then they had to start over. These were people with young children and no life savings who were attending meetings and meetings and meetings for years just to build a community.

The archives are littered with messages from people who were trying to start communities and were never heard from again. In one instance, perhaps apocryphal in fact but not feeling, the community took 10 years to build and only one of the original members was still there at move-in.

Because groups were self-developing, they often spent tens of thousands of dollars more than the cost of construction because they didn't know anything about construction or financing. They made mistakes and were taken advantage of. Many households had to drop put of the process because after years of work they couldn't afford to live in the finished product. Then the rest of the group faced disaster because they had to scramble to find people who could buy the houses so everyone else didn't go bankrupt and lose their life savings. Many of those final sales were to people who had not a clue what they were getting into and the group had to educate them fast so they didn't dilute the goals of the group.

In other cases no late buyers could be found and communities went into debt carrying the properties. The whole idea was financially absurd in addition to the absurdity of learning how to govern a community and defending the lifestyle in the years when "communes," the dreaded C word, were still fresh memories in the public mind. Visions of long unwashed hair, bare chested men, barefoot pregnant women, children smoking pot, rusted our VW buses, and weird music flashed into the heads of bankers, town boards, and neighbors when density variances were requested. It's no accident that many of the early communities were far out in the suburbs.

The task is still to get the people together who want to do this and go after it. There are enormous resources at the disposal of new groups that weren't there 10 years ago -- even five years ago. And a lot of people who would like to see low cost cohousing -- if only to change the stigma of cohousing being for closet (and not so closet) yuppies. (if you want to build cohousing you can't be above a little guilt-tripping.)

One approach might be to find a cohousing developer, or several, who would donate a specific number of hours or tasks to helping your group focus on one location and/or strategy to developing a community. I'm still not hearing progress toward a defined vision, although you are listing all the options that are under consideration.

One I thing I do from time to time is get on the list of a forming group just to watch how the group forms and to offer whatever information I can to help them without become obnoxious. What I've seen is that groups, which may be only two households in the beginning, really move forward when they stop saying, "We are open to all ideas. We need you. We will be anything you want us to be." The group crystallizes when they say we are building this in this area. The group can't be talking about straw bale in the middle of Los Angeles and igloos in Antarctica at the same time.

One group got serious when they started talking to town boards and construction companies (who know a lot about zoning and infrastructure). Only then did they know what they could do where and how much it would cost. With the costs in hand, they meshed their vision with reality, and the group moved forward. Before that they had been focusing on building their group in numbers. That process, before they had a vision, attracted people who had widely varying interests and demands. It was impossible to move in any direction.

If you can get 2-3 people together and form a single vision, it will be easier to move forward. I know you've been working on this a long time and need to feel some sense of accomplishment.

(My Sunday morning writing exercise.)

Sharon Villines
Takoma Village Cohousing,Washington DC

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