Is Cohousing Cheap(er)?
From: rpdowds (
Date: Sat, 29 Dec 2012 04:41:14 -0800 (PST)

I don't think so. That is, there's not much reason why the cohousing lifestyle 
should cost substantially less than the conventional lifestyle. Let's look at 
particulars … 

Land and construction: To the extent your cohousing community features high 
density living and multi-family, condo- or apartment-style buildings, you 
should enjoy the same economies that conventional condos and apartments enjoy, 
when built at comparable density. But if your development model is low density, 
spread-out single families or duplexes, you must sustain the same high costs of 
this dispersed configuration. Calling it "cohousing" does not magically 
eliminate the cost overhead of a low-density lifestyle. Nor, at any density, 
secure for you a property tax or utility rebate. 

In some cases — I am a practicing architect, and have some idea what I'm 
talking about — renovation can deliver occupiable space at a cost per square 
foot significantly below that of new construction. But this is not particular 
to cohousing, it's general to all types of residential construction. Also keep 
in mind that "adaptive re-use" renovation often delivers inefficient, 
less-than-optimum floor plans, and fewer dwelling units per sq ft. So you save 
35% on the construction cost per square foot, but must pay for and fix up 25% 
more square feet than would be required for well-designed, purpose-built, new 
construction — and you're no longer as far ahead as you thought you would be. 

Shared facilities: On average, the X hundred thousand you spend on your coho 
unit provides you some valuable shared spaces and amenities, like the common 
kitchen and dining, maybe some common guest rooms, or a common arts and crafts 
studio, and so on. In a more conventional housing arrangement, that same X 
hundred thousand would buy you an extra privatized bedroom, plus maybe a 
half-bath. Clearly, those who choose cohousing value the former more than the 
latter — but they are paying about the same amount for a dwelling unit, either 

Shared amenities: Cohousing certainly offers opportunities for sharing the 
costs of certain amenities. Like, for instance, a common newspaper and magazine 
subscription (read them in the common library); or maybe, a common van (so you 
can make do with one car rather than two); or maybe common washer / dryers or 
freezer chests (so you don't have to own and maintain your own privatized 
versions of such equipment). Maybe if you organize bulk purchasing, you can get 
your granola or paper towels at a 40% discount. But note very well … 

First, Americans aren't well habituated to intimate sharing. Getting households 
to give up their individual subscriptions to the morning paper or The 
Economist, or to bargain with each other about who gets the truck when, or to 
agree on which brand of granola is the best one, may sometimes be an 
insurmountable challenge. (I speak from experience.) 

Second, most of your major life expenses — your mortgage, your daughter's 
college education, your clothes, your vacation trips, your health care plan — 
simply are not share-able under any models now known to us. 

So what all this adds up to is: There is absolutely no reason to expect that 
cohousing is a cheaper way to live than the more privatized conventional models 
now available. Those who forge ahead into cohousing, believing they will "save" 
a lot of money, or live "cheap", are deeply mistaken. Cohousing offers a 
different lifestyle, and for those of us committed to it, a better lifestyle — 
but not a "cheaper" lifestyle. 

So now we come to … 

"AFFORDABLE COHOUSING". As others have noted, this is a fuzzy terminology. But 
as just discussed, it does NOT mean that market-rate cohousing is a cheaper way 
to live than market-rate not-cohousing. What it usually refers to is some sort 
of transfer payment subsidy, such that certain select units are made available 
to certain select households at a below-market rate. This may be a policy you 
choose for yourselves; or — as at Cornerstone — this may be a policy pressed 
upon you by zoning law, lenders, or other outsiders. But most of the time, what 
it boils down to is the market-rate units pick up part of the cost load of the 
affordable units. I am not complaining; I actually support such policies, and 
provide this support for four such units in my 32-unit community. I'm just 
pointing out the realities of what's going on, really. 

R Philip Dowds 

Cornerstone Cohousing 

Cambridge, MA

Results generated by Tiger Technologies Web hosting using MHonArc.