Sustainable, Low-cost Cohousing
From: Sharon Villines (
Date: Mon, 4 May 2020 13:19:22 -0700 (PDT)
(I’m still finding it strange that the pandemic has brought so many things to a 
halt that would seemingly not stop, like sharing on email. I thought it was 
more temporary than it is turning out to be, but I’m slowly getting back into 
the flow of things.)

I agree with Brian that the largest hurdle for low cost housing is the 
system—zoning, financing, capitalist values, etc. The system is designed to 
support biases against those who are more financially insecure and live in 
multi-household buildings. But there is strong movement against that all across 
the United States. The McMansion with all it’s huge green lawn separating it 
from the street and the strangers next door has not brought happiness. 
Commuting, consumes hours of each day. Two incomes are required to support the 
mansion and the matching lifestyle. The perils of raising children in a 
two-income family are becoming obvious. No one is at home to shop and cook 
dinner or to get the furnace fixed. The cultural institutions are miles away in 
the city. Another commute. So after generations in the suburbs people are 
realizing the value of greater density and greater variety.

The primary driver toward smaller and low cost housing, however, is the 
changing values and needs of the rapidly increasing population of people over 
age 65, and particularly over 85 when over 20% need some help with daily life. 
If households ever needed 5 bedrooms and huge entertainment areas, they don’t 
when the adults pass into elderhood at ~70. Smaller and easier to maintain 
housing allows greater freedom to travel and to write those books that have 
been on hold for 50 years. To put all those photos into a family history for 
the grandchildren. The economic and quality-of-life benefits of keeping elders 
close by have become obvious and zoning laws are changing. 

After the pandemic even more people will be thinking ahead to build lives that 
are not dependent on two income streams either or both of which can suddenly 
and unexpectedly disappear. The need for economic security and control are more 
immediate and tangible.

For low-cost cohousing this is an opportunity.

The reason I set up the SustainableCohousing [at] list and website 
was so people who were committed to low cost cohousing could research and plan 
without the seductive pressure to do what is easier, to conform to the norm. In 
her webcast on the Coho-US website, Katie McCamant who has perhaps the longest 
and deepest experience with cohousing, confirms that all groups start with 
wanting to have affordable, income diverse communities. But over the process of 
development, the desire to find a location close to the city if not in it and 
to have all the green features that mark them as climate change leaders 
overcomes affordable. Low cost is not even mentioned.

Even if the initial group came together out of a need to escape subsidized 
housing, those who can afford to finance market rate housing will join. At 
first the middle class is welcomed because they bring the money, expertise, and 
business contacts the group needs. But as altruistic as the middle class 
joiners are, their assumptions and expectations along with the biases of the 
system overpower the initial purpose.

Cohousing communities today look like ideal villages: bright and shiny, no 
cars, lots of gardens, walking paths, play areas, etc. But for almost two 
decades it was the norm that banks refused to make construction loans to 
cohousing groups. The people who could build without loans were those who could 
afford to finance construction themselves. It was the only way to build.

In the 1990s Cohousing-L became the place to learn how to form, build, live in, 
and maintain a cohousing community, particularly in areas where there were no 
other communities. It was where anyone in any time-zone or geographic location 
could find out which banks had given loans for cohousing, which green features 
were worth having or were a rip-off, and how to (maybe) keep costs down. Why 
you needed to hire a project director if you could find one. How to convince 
future neighbors that you weren’t a cult. How to reason with zoning boards—to 
even understand zoning. How to suffer through households leaving because they 
were priced out. How to resolve seemingly impossible conflicts. Good cohousing 
practices. What consensus means.

Low cost cohousing needs the same focus or it will go the way of all housing — 
toward the norm.

Sustainable Cohousing is focused on low-cost housing. Housing that low-income 
households can afford, perhaps with great effort, but still can afford. 
Discussions will be limited to housing that costs under 50% of the median 
market rate. Since 50% of the population falls below the median income, this is 
a large population. They aren’t homeless but not housing secure. They currently 
have no options except for subsidized or substandard housing which rarely leads 
to either strong neighborhoods or financial independence—for them or their 

Low-income people join Cohousing-L and explain what they need and what they 
could bring to a community. They have often been persistent over years. But 
they weren’t able to attract others with the same focus and eventually gave up. 
I think we need the congregation of people working together with a narrow focus 
to work against the norm. I’m hoping that Sustainable Cohousing will not 
compete with Cohousing-L—this still the place to find out how cohousing 
communities function, how to do marketing, etc. But it hasn’t met the need for 
low-cost cohousing.

So please do join that list if you want to focus on truly low-cost housing. It 
is still quiet with only a few members but it is growing. To join send a blank 
email to:

sustainablecohousing+subscribe [at]

Sharon Villines
sustainablecohousing [at]

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