Re: affordable cohousing
From: Sharon Villines (
Date: Wed, 20 Jan 2010 08:34:45 -0800 (PST)

On Jan 20, 2010, at 4:59 AM, Marganne Meyer wrote:

We primarily decided to separate this discussion from the main list
because of a prevailing feeling that involved people not wanting to
lose the investment value of their homes by having smaller
(supposedly shabbier) homes located nearby.

Tumbleweed houses are beautiful, just too small for most people to contemplate. I don't think shabby is reason or even a major issue in cohouing communities, although the container houses are probably not going to be welcomed. And our community would not, I think I can reliably predict, agree to have a person living in a camper in our parking lot as one person proposed.

I think the larger issue is that most people are not interested in truly low-cost and/or micro-housing. I think it would be safe to say that a very large majority of people in cohousing communities have spent most of their lives working to avoid it. On the small houses list, there was one family of 4 intentionally living in less than 500 sq ft. Few people will make that commitment, and few people who of necessity have to live that way can also afford to spend the time it takes to care for that big commonhouse with all its facilities that the household living on $100,000+ wants.

Some people have been able to get one or two subsidized housing units in their communities but the process is long and unpredictable. And in some cases has to be financed and located with some separation from the non-subsidized housing to ensure that the government isn't subsidizing market rate housing. In our community just having some units be row-houses on the green and others stacked apartments around an enclosed piazza has created an unintentional divide in values and interests. A separation of both income and geography could be difficult to manage after the feel-good of helping "poor" families wears out.

The big river flows toward "affordable" housing. "Affordable" isn't a euphemism for "low cost." It's a whole different category of housing. Financial definitions of "affordable" vary but usually it means within 10% of the _average_ cost of housing in the _same_ neighborhood. "Average" could be 1.5 million.

In our area of DC an "affordable" two-bedroom condo costs over $300,000; a very small house over $400,000. A 625 sq ft unit, a one bedroom with a den, just sold for $280,000. Not only would the mortgage payments of $2,000+ be beyond reach, for a household living on less than $30,000 a year, but the money for a down-payment is impossible. Saving even a 10% down payment plus closing costs at a rate of 10% would take over ten years. How many families do that on $60,000?

The inclusion of people who need or want to live at the level of minimum wage also creates conflict over the maintenance of the common house, for example. Spending money replacing worn and damaged linoleum on the kitchen floor is seen as wasteful and unnecessary by some of our residents. Even the argument that it cannot be cleaned and is unsanitary is not acceptable if it means spending money. Our members have donated money for capital improvements but not the basic costs like a new floor. And many rarely use the CH so are not likely to consider donating more when they already pay condo fees.

In an "affordable" community of people with average incomes, a household whose self-enforced standard of what "needs" to be done is Central Africa or rural China causes perhaps even more friction because it is not an economic reality but the imposition of their values on others. In one community (not cohousing) a person intentionally lives in a tent on $4,000 a year and there can be friction with those who live on $20,000, five times as much; the same ratio as $30,000 to $150,000. And two-earner professional households can make more than that.

That's why I believe that those who are truly interested in low cost housing need to start their own community. Even the issues discussed here are often way off target for low cost housing.

And cohousing communities are built by the residents, not an outside group. Even with the most interested developer in the world, the residents have to sell the units--70% before construction. Or get government subsidies, but subsidies are probably impossible when there are requirements for residents to do anything other than live there on a first come, first served basis.

If people can build SROs, i think low-cost cohousing can also be done.

Sharon Villines
Takoma Village Cohousing, Washington DC

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