Re: affordable housing
From: rphilipdowds (
Date: Fri, 3 Jan 2020 10:36:41 -0800 (PST)
I agree with Sharon that significant income disparities within a cohousing 
community can create tension between those who can afford and want better, and 
those who can barely afford the minimum.  But one of the points of cohousing is 
that one can and does learn how to compromise constructively with neighbors of 
very different means, political and religious beliefs, lifestyle preferences 
and so on.  As one of my neighbors at Cornerstone puts it, “If you want 
diversity, get ready for conflict.”  So, I’m quite yet ready to buy into a 
vision of economically segregated cohousing as the optimum way of dealing with 
household financial differences.

But I would like to broaden our perspective of sweat equity:  It’s not just 
about heavy lifting and floating drywall compound.  Most cohousing developments 
happen chiefly due to astonishingly high levels of sweat equity contributed 
during the development process  — probably three years at the shortest; more 
typically four or five years; and sometimes worse.  During that time, a 
morphing and somewhat uncertain assembly of volunteers puts in many hours a 
week  learning to do, and doing, jobs for which they’ve not been trained: 
Hunting for land, fund-raising and budgeting, negotiating options and 
purchases, architectural programming and design review, seeking permits, 
marketing and membership drives, selecting and mobilizing contractors, and on 
and on.

These, of course, are the customary tasks and activities of professional real 
estate developers.  These tasks are expensive and risky — which is why 
developers expect high monetary returns on their investments of time and cash.  
Because the founders of cohousing are also, at least in part, the sweat equity 
developers, one thing they have a shot at getting (in addition to a community 
of friends) is housing maybe 5% to 15% lower in price than a comparable 
property produced by for-profit developers.  (On the other hand … if the 
founders are slow learners, and/or don’t get adequate professional assistance 
at critical junctures, then the value of their substantial sweat equity can be 
overwhelmed by general inefficiency.)

Overall, I am usually bowled over by the time investment the founding members 
must commit, and are willing to commit, to invent their property and 
instantiate their dream.  This is sweat equity of the highest order.

Philip Dowds
Cornerstone Cohousing
Cambridge, MA
On Jan 3, 2020, 11:38 AM -0500, Sharon Villines via Cohousing-L <cohousing-l 
[at]>, wrote:
> > On Jan 2, 2020, at 10:56 AM, Ron Ingram <ingramr88 [at]> wrote:
> >
> > None of these workers were paid money.
> > Zero dollars were given to electricians, plumbers, roofers, inspectors,
> > etc. to be honest, we didn't have any money. None of us. But we pulled
> > together and got it done. We valued sweat equity.
> Thank you for taking time to write such a thoughtful and balanced account of 
> the way things are. When you describe how the small town built their church, 
> it reminds me of the forming-a-cohousing-group stage. Most have more income 
> that those in your small town but the need and the desire are the same. 
> Communities are fully involved in doing as much as they can themselves. It 
> isn’t always apparent because it’s less visible but the Yankee-do’s are hard 
> at work. One reason developers and banks refused to work with cohousing 
> groups in the first 20-30 years is not just because the banks thought 
> cohousers were weird but because the cohousers had no idea how they were 
> going to pay for it and actually had no idea how much it would cost. They 
> were just going to do it.
> Renting is a step in the process of building a secure foundation for living. 
> People need a place to live now, not when they have saved enough money — if 
> you ever can save enough to own while renting. Many of us elders also rented 
> for a large part of our lives. We didn’t have the money either. Unless you 
> had parents who could give or loan you the downpayment, it wasn’t possible.
> But here we are now with many people who want to live in cohousing not being 
> able to afford to, and many people who already live in cohousing, not having 
> or not willing to have the money to provide them with housing that is 
> affordable for them. Affordable for them means forget the 80% of market rate.
> I’m dubious about the plans to have a few low income units mixed in with 
> market rate units. I’ve witnessed a group that was started by a city worker 
> who was living in subsidized housing and wanted a home so she could adopt a 
> child. “I need more than one room.” But when she start organizing the group, 
> middle class professionals who already owned market rate houses joined. Very 
> quickly the goal became building market rate housing that would support 
> low-income housing. She became very frustrated and felt her idea had been 
> taken away from her. It’s very hard when you live from one paycheck to 
> another to explain to those who live well that the expense of building a 
> common house, for example, is above your means, and that you don’t want to 
> live in a situation with constant pressure to pay higher monthly fees because 
> someone wants to upgrade faucets. It doesn’t matter that the new faucets are 
> pretty and force people to use less water, you can’t afford them. And you 
> don’t want someone buying them for you — day after day. The pressure can be 
> enormous.
> This is why I think low income cohousing will happen when a group of low 
> income households comes together to build housing affordable by low-income 
> households. And insists on equality. That nothing will be done that can’t be 
> afforded by at least 60% or 90% of the members. If there are people who want 
> to help with initial financing that it be done as a loan or outright gift, 
> not in a way that creates a two income level community with the smaller piece 
> being low-income.
> What I can offer is to design and host a website and an email discussion 
> group for those who are interested in giving sweat equity to build low-income 
> cohousing. I can also offer policing to keep the plans from escalating to 
> soaring heights of “affordable” defined as 80% of market rate in the area. 
> And online research.
> I’m sure there are many other people on the list who can offer skills and 
> information without compromising the efforts of the group to build housing 
> they can afford.
> Sharon
> ----
> Sharon Villines
> Takoma Village Cohousing, Washington DC

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