|sfgate.com stories - full text pt 1&2||<– Date –> <– Thread –>|
|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 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 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 Hesternet [at] jps.net or  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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- Re: Re:sfgate.com story (series!) as a sobering mirror Hans Tilstra, May 10 2001
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