Re: [External] 30% of Income Cohousing [was Unit price and budget questions
From: Mac Thomson (
Date: Sun, 22 Nov 2020 08:26:41 -0800 (PST)
Earlier this year I gave a presentation called "Customization Kills” for the 
Coho/US Affordable Conference on Affordable Cohousing 
<>. I believe you can still pay to 
get access to those sessions.

My presentation was all about:
why to limit design choices
how to limit design choices
how to create design flexibility despite limited choices

At the end of the day, homebuyers can end up with well-built, gorgeous, 
environmentally friendly, reasonably affordable, and individualized homes if 
you strategically limit design choices and customizations.

Mac Thomson

Heartwood Cohousing
Southwest Colorado

"Before you criticize someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes. That way, 
when you criticize them, you're a mile away and you have their shoes."

> On Nov 21, 2020, at 9:58 AM, Janet Boys <jboys [at]> wrote:
> Thank you, Sharon. I ditto Elisabeth K. Baker
> I particularly appreciate your statement about people with higher
> incomes... Recently I read in a letter to the Denver Post about the
> protests for Black Lives Matter and at sporting venues - "Equality is seen
> as oppression by the privileged". So having "lower quality" fixtures for
> all so that all can afford it, is seen as oppression - "why can't I have
> what I want (when I can pay for it)?" I don't know if you can draw a hard
> line and say no customization during the original build, but I suggest you
> try if you really want to have housing at lower per SF costs. Maybe you
> could give some paint color choices? Also having open shelves (no cupboard
> doors) would allow owners to add the doors later at their own expense and
> sense of decor. Leaving them off is cheaper, and makes it easier for those
> who have disabilities, and it allows infrequent users of the common house
> easy visual reminders of where different things are kept without physical
> barriers to skirt when using the common house kitchen.
> This will probably increase cost, but I sure wish we had a few outlets in
> the floor of the common areas so that electrical things do not always have
> to be by walls to eliminate the tripping over cords. Safety is very
> important.
> Good luck.
> Janet Boys
> Aria Cohousing Community
> Denver, CO
> Email me individually to get my phone # if you want to talk by phone. I do
> not answer unless I know who is calling....
> On Thu, Nov 19, 2020 at 3:01 PM Sharon Villines via Cohousing-L <
> cohousing-l [at]> wrote:
>> On Nov 18, 2020, at 8:35 PM, Toni Elliott <tonialiani [at]> wrote:
>>> I'm involved in a very young, just-trying-to-get-off-the-ground community
>>> in Washington State, Puyallup CoHousing.
>> Congratulations on getting as far as this and for finding Cohousing-L so
>> you can get information from a lot of experienced cohousers, including
>> other start-ups.
>>> The first set of data we are looking for are regarding new or
>>> in-construction communities. We are trying to get some sort of idea on
>> how
>>> affordable we can make our community (we want to make it available for as
>>> many people as possible).
>> Affordable is what I’ve been thinking about lately. I started a website
>> where I am collecting information, just renamed:
>> The About page has an explanation of why I changed from “sustainable” to
>> “affordable” and took on the war to make “affordable” mean something.
>> “Affordable" is applied to housing at all market prices. A $1 million
>> house is affordable in a neighborhood of $10 million houses. In an area
>> with an average home price of $400,000, affordable using HUD standards is
>> $320,000.
>> This is not what most people think of when they think “affordable.” The
>> standard that financial managers use for affordable is 30% of income for
>> all housing costs, whether it is mortgage payments or rent. I’ve posted
>> calculations of income to housing in the past but you can figure it out
>> yourself. 30% of income for everything housing related, including utilities
>> and maintenance. If a household can pay that, they are considered
>> housing-stable. Lower income households often pay more but over 50% of
>> income would be bordering on housing-insecure.
>> So a good guide for your area would be 30% of the median area income as a
>> starting point. Then move down to the incomes of the people in your group
>> or in the population that you want to target.
>> One reason this is not easy is that banks won’t finance housing lower than
>> their own standards of what they consider desirable. And town planning
>> boards restrict multi-household communities, houses below a minimum size
>> (-1,200 SF), and lots smaller than a minimum size. And they enforce them.
>> This is beginning to change but it is taking lawsuits and community
>> activism to change it. It will likely be done one city at a time. So you
>> have to look at zoning requirements and construction requirements.
>> The things that raise the price of houses are the typical things that
>> middle and middle-upper households expect, particularly if they are
>> building the homes themselves.
>> 1. Bathrooms and kitchens are the most expensive per SF initially, but
>> total SF will be expensive from day to day for heating and cooling and
>> maintenance. A three-bedroom house has more roof than a one-bedroom house.
>> More walls, more  light fixtures, more sprinkler heads, etc. Down the line
>> the larger total space is more expensive.
>> 2. Minimum requirements for a kitchen may be the ability to cook and store
>> food, running water, and waste disposal. But dishwashers, large
>> refrigerators, stone sinks and countertops, etc., are often considered the
>> minimum in a new or rehabbed house. A stainless steel sink can be had for
>> $100 and a quartz, marble, granite, or slate kitchen sink for $1000+.
>> Multiply the difference for a 30 unit cohousing community and the range
>> might be from $300 to 3,000+. Composites are less expensive but have a
>> shorter life.
>> 3. Flooring in bathrooms is usually ceramic tile because it tolerates
>> water best. Ceramic tile can be from 20-40 cents a SF for plain white.
>> Traffic master tan, 50 cents to $5.00+ for more decorative tiles. A  5 x
>> 10SF floor, just for tiles, Might cost $15 to $250. For 30 bathrooms, $450
>> to $7500. And if larger units have 2 baths or 1 1/2 baths, it costs that
>> much more.
>> 4. Wall board, electrical wiring and outlets, duct work, number of
>> windows, flooring, sprinkler heads, stairways, closet doors — all these
>> things increase with size. And with quality. Small unit may have 5-7
>> sprinkler heads for a 2-bedroom and, 21-27 for a 3 bedroom with a den and a
>> basement. Those all have to be inspected and replaced from time to time. An
>> ongoing cost that is much greater for large units.
>> It’s very hard to keep costs low enough for a household income of $50,000,
>> approx. the median wage in the US. Half earn less than that. A household
>> earning $10 an hour will have $6240 for housing costs using the accepted
>> formula for being housing-secure.
>> It’s very hard for people who have higher incomes to hold the line so
>> lower income people can afford units. I question how large the range of SF
>> costs can be. The average cost per SF is 154 SF but that is an average many
>> parts of the US are higher than  that. The average size of newly
>> constructed homes is 2,776 SF and costs $427,893 to build. Condominiums
>> average 1200 SF, or 20’x30’.
>> Homeowners who want the amenities and finishes that are normally expected
>> in the $500,000 house market, how can other units be kept to prices that
>> low-income households can afford.
>> Customization is very expensive. If you have watched a multi-unit
>> residential building being built, you see construction workers,
>> electricians, plumbers, etc., all running around at the same time trying to
>> remember if this is the unit that gets green tile and 2 sinks or the one
>> with a bidet and red tile. The building is still a wood plank structure
>> with no numbers when some workers have to begin their work. Which space is
>> the kitchen and where is the bathroom?
>> If all the floor tiles are the same and all the sinks the same size, the
>> job can be done much more quickly, with less supervision, and fewer
>> mistakes that have to be corrected. I once moved into an apartment in a
>> complex of 7 buildings. Our building was the only one finished. The other
>> apartments were for the construction workers who travelled all over the
>> country to build for this contractor. In the evenings they invited us in to
>> hang with them. The stories they told were horrendous. Of all the mistakes
>> they had made and why. And how many more construction days it took to
>> correct them. That’s why only our building had been finished — we had
>> signed a lease a year before. They were a bit behind.
>> For budget for operating the building, I recommend finding a building
>> manager in the area who manages a building the size of yours and ask what
>> maintenance costs are. Even if they don’t give you figures, they will be
>> able to advise you on which systems are hardest to maintain, etc. There are
>> professional managers associations, condo management companies, etc. One
>> may not be willing to talk to you but another one will. People who like
>> their work love to talk about it. That’s the person you need to find.
>> Many a day I’ve wished we had had a maintenance person look at our
>> construction plans and tell us how much harder this or that would be. Like
>> fixtures on a 2 story ceiling that need new light bulbs. Interior surfaces
>> that are unreachable. They look wonderful unless you are on the maintenance
>> team.
>> Thinking in terms of 30% of income, might be the best target to ensure
>> building income diversity in the community. I think it would be easier to
>> limit the top cost to the average income or it will be too hard to keep the
>> costs down.
>> Sharon
>> ----
>> Sharon Villines
>> Takoma Village Cohousing, Washington DC
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> Janet Boys
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