Re: ratio of least to most expensive unit in cohousing?
From: Raines Cohen (
Date: Thu, 4 Jun 2009 06:47:55 -0700 (PDT)

I see you've gotten some great responses here already from people in
several communities, so I'll just add my two cents on some of the
underlying principles at play here, including price, value, equity,
fairness, inclusivity, creativity, and opportunity. I've been part of
this discussion in one cohousing neighborhood, and advised a little on
others. Note that the tension you're experiencing is not at all
unusual, and not specific to working with an existing building: every
site has design constraints, and painful trade-offs that have to be
made in # and size and price of units, to fit the build-able

First of all, don't lose sight of the fact that by engaging in the
cohousing process of community design, you're buying yourselves great
deals, in terms of the value and quality and long-term savings from
the efficiency and community living. The experts have validated this
value, time and time again, with cohousing projects designed with
resident participation selected for awards over professional "we know
what you need so we'll build it for you" conventional developments;
FrogSong Cohousing in Cotati, CA is such an example. The challenge is
in making the value accessible to the members in ways that help them
get in the door.

In your case, by renovating an existing building and embracing
PassivHaus (passive house) design principles and standards (if press
accounts of decisions the group made after the presentation I attended
at your meeting last month are correct), you're building the most
energy-efficient multifamily housing in America, with systems that
will not just, by conservative estimates, pay for themselves in a few
years, but result in multi-million dollar savings over time. You are
"future-proofed" against carbon taxes and fuel cost increases that are
virtually certain with the onset of Peak Oil and collective action to
head off climate change.

Of course, not everybody (especially traditionally conservative
lenders) appreciate this kind of investment in the future, or is
willing to share in the cost and (perceived) risks involved of
"pushing the envelope" in this regard, no matter how logical and smart
the decision (and other group design elements) may be in the long
view. Some buyers, especially those that need larger units that bear a
larger share of the base square-foot construction and development
costs, may find it harder, especially in today's "new world" (really
more of a return to the pre-boom "old world") of banking, to stretch
their "jumbo" loans to meet their needs.

This is where the creative collaborative consensus process can come in
and create new alternatives, from new ways of looking at the problem.
Here's a couple of off-the-cuff approaches, inspired by different
groups' approaches as well as workshops with Katie & Chuck & Zev &
Neshama & Chris and others at national conferences (I do hope your
group is sending some members to the Seattle conference this month,
where you can soak up an awful lot of this):

- while the bulk of construction costs are generally allocated per
square foot (or per kitchen/bathroom, as Sharon notes), some portion
of administrative/marketing/overhead costs are per unit. Perhaps some
estimate of per-unit fixed costs from your budget can lead you to set
a base price per unit/greater proportional cost-share rather than
strict per-square-foot pricing. (but see my note below about not
getting too hung up on this one)

- the group can set up its own loan fund to help members who need it
with "silent" (recorded after closing) second mortgages and other
innovative financing tools; members who have more cash available than
they need to close can invest it in a revolving loan fund, or the
group's profit-share can help fund it.

- perhaps some members will qualify for city or state purchase- or
down-payment-assistance programs

- members can go in together on a unit, running it as a mini co-op
within cohousing

- larger families can add walls after move-in to subdivide a room, so
they can fit more kids with fewer rooms

- perhaps the marketing team can identify characteristics of people
who can afford the true costs of the larger units and do targeted
outreach to connect with them

- people may not need as much room as they think they do, because
they're not used to factoring in the common space, guest room(s), and
other shared amenities of community living. Perhaps some exercises to
help people explore what they need extra space for and how much they
might need it if someone else can help them get their needs met more
creatively would be in order at this stage.

I've seen groups at your stage of development (which you should keep
in mind you're running through at breakneck pace, by cohousing
standards) spend lots of time and energy agonizing over what amount to
small details in the big picture, relatively small differences in
price or features. It's at times like this that getting quality social
time together can be important, building bonds that last, getting to
the point of having confidence in the group's common ground and shared
vision can help get past everyone's inevitable fixation on "their"
unit. If you can help people get to the point where they don't see it
as giving something up, but rather as creating opportunity and helping
the whole project happen, you'll be able to achieve your deeper goals
of getting the project built and sold and getting on with community

One particular note on your group's process: I was a little surprised
to see the invitation sent to your group's announcement/interest list
to come see the unit selection as an example of the group consensus
process, because that seems like one element that's usually not by the
group's standard procedure... will you be making full-group decisions
about who "gets" which unit? Or is it by
strict-seniority-in-unit-selection order... or something else? The one
group I was a member of for this stage (Swan's Market Cohousing) had
an order-of-joining list and preliminary selections, but as household
#17 (out of 20) it was hard for me to know for sure which unit I would
end up with because of the "ripple effect" of any changes ahead of me.

I'll be back in your area in mid-to-late July (my Great-Aunt's coop
apartment in Jackson Heights hasn't sold, because the board didn't
approve the buyer -- or perhaps didn't like the sales price making
their places' decline in value all too real), and would love to better
meet the group (so far I've been to two orientations and one public
meeting while passing by, without much time to chat) and share stories
of some of the challenges other communities have faced (I've visited
87 so far) and overcome, and look at how the group can get past the
"us-versus-them" perception that can infuse key decisions like this
one. It looks like my friends Mandy and Ryan, doing their "Within
Reach" documentary-filming bike tour visiting sustainable communities
around the country, will be passing through NYC at about the same
time, so perhaps we can make a fun outreach event out of it.

Raines Cohen, Cohousing Coach
(now making appointments and scheduling interviews at the national
cohousing conference in Seattle, June 26-29)

Planning for Sustainable Communities
at Berkeley (CA) Cohousing
intrigued at some new developments that could bring at least two
senior cohousing neighborhoods to the area

Enjoying a fun run in the sun of San Francisco Bay Area cohousing activities:

In the past week: a report from Boulder's Silver Sage senior cohousing
residents in San Francisco, a table at the Older American's Month
celebration in Oakland, a Maker Faire booth in San Mateo, and an
Indian Sitar house concert at Berkeley Cohousing, along with a
vegan/raw-food class.

In the week Ahead: Opera in the SF Ballpark this Friday evening (join
us - it's free), a North Bay carpool tour of cohousing and co-ops
(about a third the price of the bus tours, and visiting some smaller
communities), as well as an artists' open house that includes an
Emeryville cohousing neighborhood this and next Saturday, San Mateo
EcoVillage open houses this and next Sunday, a video on the mortgage
crisis Monday, a downtown-SF talk with sustainable architects and
planners Wednesday, and then a bicycle tour of
Berkeley-Oakland-Emeryville cohousing next Saturday.

Details at East Bay Cohousing:

Results generated by Tiger Technologies Web hosting using MHonArc.