sfgate.com stories - full text pt 1&2
From: Fred H Olson (fholsoncohousing.org)
Date: Tue, 22 May 2001 07:53:59 -0600 (MDT)
Read it at the site affiliated with the San Francisco Chronicle at:
http://www.sfgate.com/columnists/lloyd/

From:  SF Gate  http://www.sfgate.com/
   
   Carol Lloyd: Surreal Estate
   It's A Commune, It's A Condo, It's ... Cohousing
   by Carol Lloyd, special to SFGate   Tuesday, May 8, 2001
     _________________________________________________________________
   
   Like many people who would love to live a less anonymous existence,
   I've often dreamed the dream of cohousing: living with or near a group
   of people who share meals, helping raise each other's children,
   contributing to the greater society and functioning somewhere between
   an extended family and a tight-knit neighborhood.
   
   So I signed up for a whirlwind tour of local [25]cohousing
   communities, led by architect, planner and cohousing advocate Ken
   Norwood. Halfway through the tour, I find myself standing before a
   dusty suburban construction site in Pleasant Hill, listening to a
   bespectacled woman describe her future home.
   
   "The units range from one-bedroom flats to four-bedroom townhouses,"
   she says cheerily. "And there's going to be a children's play area and
   a pool."
   
   About a hundred feet away, a man engages another group: "We still have
   a few homes left and the properties range from $220,000 to $350,000."
   
   Had I just stumbled across this middle-aged couple extolling the
   virtues of their new development on this godforsaken annex of the
   inland empire of the East Bay, I would have assumed they were the
   hired guns of the developer who had decided to ratchet up sales by
   hiring future residents as salespeople. Then I would notice one
   glaring idiosyncrasy: the his-and-her matching tie-dyed outfits. If I
   stuck around, I would hear them utter the words "community" more times
   than a parrot at a La Peņa meeting.
   
   But as it is, I am well prepared for the discussions of renewable
   resources and consensus decision making. What I can't get over is how
   much this feels like a gated community in the middle of Middle
   America.
   
   What is cohousing, anyway? And could I ever find one that felt like
   home?
   
   First pioneered in Denmark as a way to cultivate community without
   giving up the privacy or autonomy that middle-class Westerners have
   come to demand, cohousing is the late-20th century reinvention of
   communal living by people who want to keep their privacy and cede it,
   too.
   
   Unlike the commune, which throws multiple families together to share
   everything from food to ownership of land and furniture, cohousing is
   basically condominiums (or another sort of multi-family housing like a
   co-op or tenancy-in-common), each unit owned by a family, *plus*
   common facilities such as a group kitchen and dining area for shared
   meals, and shared outdoor space. After years of studying in Denmark,
   architects Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett brought the idea to
   the United States in 1988; since then, their firm, the Cohousing
   Company in Berkeley, has become *the* premier design-and-consulting
   company for new cohousing developments. (The group designed three out
   of the six projects on the tour.) Another aspect of the movement is
   the burgeoning practice of "retrofit cohousing" -- in which the
   community is cobbled together from a collection of old buildings and
   homes. Today, the cohousing movement seems to be hitting its stride:
   There are more than 50 cohousing communities across the country and
   another 20 under construction.
   
   According to an article by Durrett in CoHousing magazine, cohousing
   has six ingredients: a participatory process in the design and
   development of the project, a design that facilitates community,
   private homes supplemented by common facilities (almost always a
   kitchen and organized sharing of meals a few times a week), resident
   management of the grounds, non-hierarchical structure of committees
   and consensus decision making, and separate income sources (meaning
   it's not a monastery where the monks' production of cheese creates a
   communal economy).
   
   Abstract descriptions are all very well, but when confronted by actual
   cohousing communities, you realize just how different they can be from
   one another.
   
   The first two projects we visited were very urban and even industrial
   in feel. Doyle Street Cohousing (one of the first projects by Durrett
   and McCamant) in Emeryville is a collection of 12 smart condominiums
   built in an old cement-mixing factory, and includes a common kitchen,
   dining area, children's loft and outdoor play area. There are no
   sprawling tomato gardens but a cafe right across the street. According
   to Joshua Simon, an affordable housing developer who lives there with
   his wife and two children, it was the post-industrial setting as much
   as the community elements that attracted him.
   
   "If I wasn't here I would probably be living in a loft somewhere," he
   said, as he bounced his gurgling infant in a Baby Bjorn. In short,
   Simon seemed like a quintessential urban professional Pa who prefered
   just the sort of "urban renewal" housing that might inspire
   anti-gentrification protests in San Francisco.
   
   Next we visited Swans Marketplace Cohousing in downtown Oakland, the
   most urban of all cohousing projects in the country. With 20 units and
   a common house within a mixed-use project of affordable housing,
   shops, offices and a children's museum, it has a sunny, open, but
   vaguely sterile feel: There is no landscape greenery to care for (or
   stash drugs in) and the entire building is painted an inoffensive,
   noncommittal white. Our resident guide there was Joani Blank, founder
   of Good Vibrations and former resident of Doyle Street. Although she
   has been involved in cohousing for decades, she jumped at the
   opportunity to help plan and live at Swans Marketplace. "I wanted to
   live in a bigger community and somewhere where I didn't have to use my
   car," she said.
   
   Then came Pleasant Hill, what would be a leafy, pool-appointed,
   pseudo-gated community in a car-dependent suburb, between the
   concrete-canalled Walnut Creek, a trailer park and some forlorn tract
   housing.
   
   So here we had it: industrial chic, downtown urban projects and the
   full-blown 'burbs. They were all wildly different and yet somehow none
   of them were exactly what I'd hoped to see.
   
   When confronted by Pleasant Hill, the facts suddenly hit home:
   Cohousing is not just a fabulous idea but a very complicated social
   experiment that can render radically different outcomes. It can be a
   makeshift rural farm community, urban loft living or -- as in Pleasant
   Hill -- a new suburban development. Co-housing could be everything
   from a casual, practical solution for urban anonymity to a fanatic
   cult bounded by a set of rigid beliefs. A community can use its
   identity to turn inward and foster intimacy (and isolation) or turn
   outward and become a resource (or soapbox) for the larger community.
   
   By the time we reached the shacky, organically developed N-Street
   Cohousing in Davis, I realized that even defining cohousing is a
   little like defining a plant. Every time you think you find a hard and
   fast rule (a living organism that feeds on inorganic matter) you find
   the exception (Venus flytrap). Most of the time, for instance,
   cohousing in the United States consists of new development financially
   structured as condominiums.
   
   But not always -- N-Street is an example of retrofit cohousing. A
   community of ramshackle, low-slung single family homes in an overgrown
   student rental ghetto, the community evolved gradually over 15 years.
   Tenants began buying their units, taking down fences and organizing
   themselves into a residential community. Yet residents at N-Street
   still don't have condo-status, which makes them somewhat more
   autonomous. They do, however, have a shared hot-tub, sauna, treehouse,
   tiny pond and a rather grimy common house where they share meals three
   times a week. They also got themselves rezoned as a "planned
   development" in order to change building ordinances to suit their
   needs.
   
   By the end of the day, when we parked in front of Parker Street
   Cooperative, a limited-equity housing cooperative in Berkeley where
   Norwood is a resident, I had plenty of feelings. In fact, I felt a
   little schizophrenic.
   
   I could see the benefits of most places we'd visited but I wouldn't
   want to live in any of them. Co-housing wasn't a haven for nut cases
   or psycho-hippies -- our resident tour guides all seemed wonderfully
   smart and funny -- but they did seem to have a penchant for meetings
   and organization that most of us don't. Joani Blank said that
   developing a community could mean five to seven years of pre-planning
   and construction time. And all those spinning chore wheels (each place
   had its own system of committees, shared meals, celebrations and
   decision making) just made me dizzy.
   
   But the most surprising thing was that the physical spaces felt
   strangely uninspired, leading me to assume that the communities were a
   little tamped-down and conforming. (The big exception was N-Street,
   whose anarchic mix of conscientious remodel jobs, run-down tract
   shacks and garish semi-monster duplexes was saved by abundant
   foliage.) It was almost as if you could feel how the group process had
   stamped out any bold design choices that the architects might have
   suggested. And ironically, since this was about not only getting your
   own place but additional communal space, cohousing turned out to be 10
   to 15 percent more expensive than comparable conventional housing. So
   in that sense it was in direct opposition to its more economical
   ancestor, the commune, where people share all the resources.
   
   "What did you think?" my friend asked me as we high-tailed it over the
   bridge back to our anonymous, private residences.
   
   "From a distance it sounded so perfect, now it seems impossible and
   annoying and expensive." I stopped babbling. "I need cohousing
   therapy."
   
   Little did I know that a woman in the Bay Area was already trying to
   help cohousing wannabes like myself work out their wants and needs and
   then take the first steps toward committing to that most idolized and
   dreaded of lifestyles, "living in community."
   To be continued next week. - see below
     _________________________________________________________________
   
   Carol Lloyd: Surreal Estate
   Community-Minded Nesting
   Cohousing angels work to make potluck dreams come true
   by Carol Lloyd, special to SFGate   Tuesday, May 15, 2001
     _________________________________________________________________
   
   
   Last week, after touring several [27]cohousing communities in the
   greater Bay Area, I was left with a conundrum. All these years I'd
   thought of communal living as something like falling in love -- you
   could hope for it but never consciously engineer it.
   
   Now I saw that creating a community was more like pursuing an
   ambitious career -- nothing would happen without arduous effort, yet
   even with that effort, there are no guarantees of success.
   
   With my typically individualistic impulses and my bicoastal diaspora
   of friends, I doubted that I could ever manage such an undertaking.
   The cohousing communities on the tour had ranged from formalized, new
   developments spearheaded by professional developers to a small-town
   community that had evolved gradually over 15 years. Wasn't there
   something less time-consuming and not so complicated?
   
   Cohousing Angels
   
   So when I heard about Karen Hester, a self-styled cohousing
   consultant, and her cohort, real estate agent Dianne Ohlsson, I leapt
   at the opportunity to meet them. Unlike the newly constructed
   projects, the cohousing that Hester and Ohlsson help people find is
   called "retrofit cohousing." You have a few friends who want to find
   an old building or group of homes and move in together? Hester and
   Ohlsson will help you form and grow your group, find the site and
   obtain a loan for your purchase.
   
   Although Hester, a quick-eyed 42-year-old pixie, has only been
   involved in cohousing for two years, as founder of Temescal Creek
   Cohousing in Oakland, one of the most rapidly created cohousing
   communities on record, she's become an instant expert. A
   dyed-in-the-wool East Bay activist who helps organize the How Berkeley
   Can You Be festival and Berkeley Earth Day, she's spent years honing
   her group process skills. Even so, she's a most unlikely homeowner.
   She has no savings to speak of, lives off $28,000 a year and, until
   age 40, was a lifelong tenant.
   
   Fit To Retrofit
   
   But two years ago, when she heard about a property going up for sale
   behind the building where she was a tenant in Oakland, she called
   friends she thought might be interested and the group set about buying
   the six units for $785,000. Hester ended up with a capacious
   two-bedroom flat that overlooks the communal gardens for $117,000.
   Soon after, an adjacent house came on the market, which they also
   found a friend to buy. Within three months, the original group of five
   families had moved in and begun work on the motley group of duplexes
   and single-family homes.
   
   They took down the fences, organized potlucks, planted trees and
   planned a neighborhood block party. Now their compound of 26 people --
   a mix of gay and straight lefty professionals with eight children and
   three renters -- is a thriving den that includes communal meals twice
   a week, monthly workdays and holiday celebrations.
   
   On a recent tour of the community grounds, Hester proudly explained
   the history of their formation as a result of good luck, quick work
   and longtime friendships. The four buildings -- ranging from Victorian
   vernacular to modern slapdash -- center on the shared gardens and a
   children's play area. The group recently made plans to tear down a
   two-story garage and build a common house for shared meals and an
   upstairs apartment, which will foot the bill for the common house.
   Unlike newly constructed cohousing, wherein much planning is completed
   before the group ever lives together, this group is making it up as
   they go along.
   
   "I think it's good because we're learning what we need before we spend
   a lot of money on a common house," said Hester. "We now know what our
   challenges are."
   
   Since Hester embarked on her crash course in cohousing, word got out.
   Friends and friends of friends began calling Hester asking her for
   words of wisdom. "Everybody wanted advice," she told me in her sunny
   kitchen. "I started retrofit cohousing classes partly out of
   frustration. Plus Diane our real estate agent was always finding these
   great properties."
   
   Realtor With A Mission
   
   If Hester is the poster child for how retrofit cohousing can turn the
   unlikeliest of tenants into a happy homeowner, Diane Ohlsson is
   cohousing's steely eyed, bleeding-heart professional. Eight years ago,
   she found the ˛-acre parcel and farmhouse which became Berkeley
   Cohousing on Sacramento Street. Since then, in addition to her regular
   real estate practice, she's continued to find properties for people
   who want to create larger communities. The process is often bad for
   business, she tells me, because gathering a group of buyers can be so
   complicated.
   
   "Recently I found a property for four families and we were all ready
   to sign the papers and at the last moment one of the couples broke up.
   Everyone was heartbroken. This was after months and months of work,"
   she said.
   
   So why does Ohlsson spend so much time looking for cohousing sites?
   
   "I often ask myself the same thing," she laughs. "But when I was
   growing up in Jamestown, Pa., in the winter if you got cold walking to
   school in the snow you would just knock on someone's door and they
   would put you in front of the fire and give you hot chocolate until
   you were ready to go on, until you knocked on someone else's door. It
   wasn't even conceivable that that would be a problem. I believe in
   that kind of community."
   
   She also thrills to the detective work of finding good deals. "I
   approach this as a spiritual thing," she says. "Houses speak to me.
   Sometimes they say, 'I want a new owner.'" She tells me a story about
   contacting the owner of a run-down rental house in Berkeley. "She was
   this old woman in Boston and when she heard why I called she burst
   into tears. 'God must have sent you,' she said. 'I haven't gotten rent
   in nine years.' She was sick and didn't know anyone in the Bay Area so
   she didn't know who to call. She was thrilled to sell the house. And
   my clients got a wonderful deal and never had to enter a bidding war."
   
   The Community Biz
   
   To prevent the months of unpaid labor resulting in no sales, Ohlsson
   has hired Hester as the group-forming consultant, paying her a 15 to
   20 percent of sales that result from her input. Hester also teaches
   affordable workshops on retrofit cohousing (for more information
   contact [28]Hesternet [at] jps.net or [510] 654-6346) in the East Bay and
   helps families find each other. She's gathering an e-mail list of
   interested people with an eye to creating a database that will serve
   as a sort of cohousing matchmaking service.
   
   This might sound like a business model that is sure to take off, but
   Hester and Ohlsson are still working out the kinks. "We haven't been
   successful in completing a sale," says Hester, although she has helped
   Ohlsson in other sales -- none have been a large-scale cohousing
   project. "We find great sites all the time but people are having a
   hard time forming large enough groups. Most of the people who come to
   my workshop are parents with young children, single mothers, people
   who don't have that much time [to devote to creating a community] in
   the first place."
   
   By far cheaper and more efficacious than new construction, retrofit
   cohousing is really more like a mad real estate tea party. Sites are
   best discovered when they are not on sale. The weirder and more unruly
   the mix of buildings, the better the potential for a good deal. But
   once the site is located and the owner wants to sell, the group must
   be ready to jump down the rabbit hole and not look back.
   
   Conundrums and Caveats
   
   Last Friday I joined Hester and Ohlsson on one of their gambles at an
   old house on a tree-canopied Berkeley street that, with its backyard
   cottage, functions as a fourplex. Like many of the sites they look at,
   this property was not on the open market. They heard that the house
   was owned by someone in the cohousing community and contacted them
   about selling.
   
   It is all too perfect: the streaming sunlight through the leaves, the
   imagined children playing on the front lawn, the gentle owner who
   wants to support cohousing instead of selling off to the highest
   bidder.
   
   Yet standing outside the building, overhearing the conversation
   between Hester and Ohlsson, I am once again struck by the political
   prickly pear of community housing in the Bay Area. For those who
   cannot afford single-family homes, buying often means evicting tenants
   and converting rental stock to owner-occupied property. So even if
   they had the perfect group of ready buyers, an eager seller and a
   reasonable price, they would still need to deal with the likelihood of
   displacing the current tenants and the many laws designed to prevent
   such displacement. So when it comes to owner-occupied multifamily
   housing, one must chew through a thorny rind of issues before tasting
   the sweet fruit of home ownership.
   
   "Berkeley laws are pretty difficult when it comes to owner-occupying,"
   Ohlsson sighs. The elegant 50-something is bedecked in casual business
   attire. Her white luxury vehicle sits in the driveway, gleaming.
   
   "Oakland is so much easier, with just the 30-day notice eviction,"
   Hester agrees. "Berkeley is tough." They both stare up at the house,
   contemplating potential beauty, potential bureaucracy.
   
   For a moment it feels like I'm witnessing a classic real estate trope:
   the developer/agent cabal doing a deal, strategizing about ousting
   tenants and speculating about a lucrative condo development.
   
   Then the image disappears.
   
   Hester shrugs off the mirage of developer, dons her straw hat, and,
   leaping on her basketed bicycle, pedals off to her other job,
   organizing a new farmers' market in Berkeley. And Ohlsson chats with
   one of the owners, who happens to live in a small apartment in a local
   co-op, about whether the two remaining tenants (the other two are
   already planning to move out) might want to buy their units or were
   considering moving out.
   
   "It's very possible. One guy said he wanted to move," says the
   willowy, fair-headed woman. "We were thinking of calling him and
   asking him about his plans."
   
   "That would be a good idea," says Ohlsson. "Because I'm really not
   interested in throwing people out -- that's not what I'm about."
     _________________________________________________________________
   
   Carol Lloyd, a former editor at Salon, is currently at work on a
   book about real estate, neighborhoods and the dot-com wars.


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