Lack of scale, not building costs
From: Jonathan Kallay (
Date: Wed, 24 Aug 2016 09:47:59 -0700 (PDT)
Hi all. This is my first time posting to the list--I don't live in cohousing but am interested in the concept.

Apologies if I'm repeating what has been said before, but it seems to me that the problem of affordability is really a symptom of the larger problem of the difficulty of scaling cohousing to more than the presently negligible scale. If there aren't otherwise suitable cohousing opportunities available, then the affordability issue is moot.

Economists might say that the dominant mode of housing is dominant because it is more efficient. If we believe cohousing serves people better in the long run and is better at allocating resources, there is probably some hidden way in which it is still inefficient, and the first place to look in such cases is transaction costs. Indeed, if I want to buy a house or rent an apartment, the market can easily provide those by pairing me with the individual parties selling or letting out their houses. With cohousing, in contrast, there is a complicated process of bringing many buyers together--30 or so households, according to the research Katie has reported about optimal community size! Inevitably this requires a "burning soul" willing to coordinate the process without pay, which guarantees scarcity.

If we look for the most prevalent forms approximating cohousing I think we'd find that the number of instances of the "real thing" (that is, intentional community) is blown out of the water by forms that are a by-product of institutional coordination, such as
* University housing
* Housing for seasonal workers
* Military housing
* Historically, "company towns" built around the railroad, mining, logging, etc.

The reason, naturally, is that these institutions already cover the transaction costs of bringing people together for a shared purpose. What the cohousing/IC movement brings to the table, I think, is the idea that there are elements of these models that are worthy of emulation outside of the specific cases where they grow out of necessity.

If I were Katie or anyone with IC expertise looking to maximize its impact, I would target employers importing a large part of their growing workforces. Amazon in Seattle is for me an obvious local example. The approach would be to get the employer behind the creation and facilitation of ICs for its workers. These families are already relocating so there's no friction there. They are already stimulating the creation of new housing. And, for the foreign-born imports in particular, they are often coming from more communal societies and need the additional social support that IC is intended to provide.

Such ICs would dramatically increase the supply available to everyone.

Jonathan Kallay

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