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Issue 1: Community Revitalization

Cohousing Communities: A Model for Reinvigorating Urban Neighborhoods

by Kathryn M. McCamant

Cohousing communities offer a new model for reinvigorating urban neighborhoods. Their unique participatory development process and the resulting tight-knit social ties of make these developments successful infill projects in a variety of situations.

In cohousing, residents participate in the design and development process from the start, often initiating projects, so that the communities directly address their needs. This early involvement creates a level of social and financial commitment from future homebuyers that makes financing in “questionable” neighborhoods possible. Early resident participation also assists these projects through the many hurdles encountered in infill development.

The strong sense of community in cohousing developments attracts homebuyers to neighborhoods they would not otherwise choose. The prospect of knowing their neighbors (all 20 to 100 in their community) on a first name basis allows the more vulnerable members of society — seniors, children, and women — to feel safe in an urban setting. This sense of security is strengthened by design considerations which encourage social interaction. Ranging in size from 12 to 40 households, the effective organizational structures and critical mass of these communities allow them to make significant positive impacts on their surroundings. Cohousing communities strive to accommodate a diversity of incomes, as well as ages, household types, and racial backgrounds. This diversity complements urban neighborhoods which often do not want more low-income housing than they have already while at the same time fear gentrification. Cohousing tends to attract people who want to live less car dependent lifestyles. They walk to local stores, patronize public transit, and generally contribute to creating vibrant pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods. All of these aspects make cohousing an ideal model for urban infill development.

Introduced in Scandinavia in the 1970’s, cohousing communities respond to the basic needs of today’s households — childcare, social contact, and economic efficiency — by combining the privacy of individual households with the advantages of community living. Each household has a self-contained private residence, complete with kitchen, but also shares extensive common facilities with the larger group such as a community dining and sitting room, children’s playrooms, workshops, guests rooms, and laundry facilities. Our book, Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves (McCamant and Durrett, Ten Speed Press; 1988, 1994) introduced this housing model to North America in 1988, and the first American community was completed in 1991. By 1998, over 30 developments existed in North America and more than 200 communities were under construction or in the planning stages.

Cohousing communites have been built in a wide variety of contexts, from inner cities to rural sites. A number of these communities stand out as successful models of urban infill, stabilizing inner city neighborhoods by attracting mixed-income residents with an interest in cooperation and a long-term commitment to the area. The experiences of the completed communities, Doyle Street Cohousing in Emeryville, Southside Park in Sacramento, and Berkeley Cohousing in Berkeley, California, illustrate how this type of housing can transform derelict urban properties into vital residential communities as well as influence the future of the surrounding neighborhood. The increasing number of urban cohousing communities planned or under construction show that these developments offer a model applicable in diverse regions.

Doyle Street Cohousing in Emeryville, California

Completed in 1992, Doyle Street Cohousing was created by converting an existing warehouse to a 12-unit community with 2100 sf of common facilities. The .29 acre site is in a neighborhood struggling with drugs and violence and filled with small industry and older homes, many in deteriorated condition. When we first sought people interested in being part of this community, all we had to show was an empty warehouse in a “questionable” neighborhood. As a private development with no outside subsidies, the sales prices for homes in the community were market rate, and in fact seemed high in comparison to the neighborhood. Nevertheless, the idea of an urban community attracted a mix of singles, families and elders who helped us develop the design, champion the project through a tough planning approval process and raise predevelopment funding.

The range in home sizes, from 780 sf to 1600 sf, accommodate the varying needs and incomes of singles, working parents with young children, couples without children and elders. Community dinners have been a staple three nights a week from the beginning. Also in the “common house” is a children’s play room (often used for massive fort building), a sitting area, workshop, storage and laundry facilities. Residents trade off watching the children both formally and informally.

Like most cohousing communities, this group of residents had not known each other previously and came together specifically to create a residential community based on cooperation. It is unlikely any of us would have considered buying into this neighborhood on our own. I for one (I live there with my husband and daughter) would not have felt safe living in one of single-family homes in the area We designed the community so that all private entries and most kitchens look onto a shared courtyard, with the common house at the central corner visible to all who enter. We were able to create a place that feels safe and comfortable for single women, seniors and families with small children — usually the most vulnerable in cities. A strong sense of community — not security gates — provides our safety.

During the community’s seven years of occupancy, its residents have played an active role in the surrounding neighborhood including organizing community meetings, sitting on City committees, working on graffiti clean up at the neighborhood park, and supporting a member’s campaign for City Council. The community hosts numerous neighborhood meetings in its common house, providing one of the few comfortable and convenient locations for such events. Most of us tend to be better informed on local issues than in our previous homes due to the exchange of information that naturally takes place in the community. While our local politicians think of us a “voting block”, in fact, community residents represent may sides of the issues. Community dinners and monthly meetings provide opportunities for debate and discussion among us.

The community also helped to catalyze other neighborhood revitalization. Since the completion of the project, a bilingual Montessori School; several live-work projects, and new office space have been built in the immediate area.

Southside Park Cohousing in Sacramento

Southside Park Cohousing, completed in 1993, in a redevelopment area in downtown Sacramento provided 25 homes clustered on 1.3 acres on a traditional neighborhood block. Common facilities include dining, sitting, children’s and teen room, laundry, and a workshop. The porches and street facades fit into the surrounding older neighborhood while the backyards open onto a common green.

The community was initiated by a group of residents committed to creating a mixed-income community in the downtown area where they would be less dependent on cars. The cohousing group had been meeting for several years when they heard the Redevelopment Agency was preparing to issue a Request for Proposals for this site. The group pooled their resources to hire several professionals, including our architecture firm, to assist in preparing a submittal. At the same time, they worked with the surrounding neighbors to gain their support. One cohousing resident remembers:

“The neighborhood was wary initially. They had seen developers come in trying to make a quick buck with some new development. They didn’t want more short-term rental housing that would attract people who weren’t interested in the neighborhood. Or they assumed we’d come in and gentrify the area in an elite way. Slowly they began to see that we were a group of owners who wanted to be part of the neighborhood over the long term.”

The support of the neighborhood proved critical, giving the cohousing proposal a chance against the proposals submitted by other established developers. The Redevelopment Agency was intially skeptical that cohousing could succeed since no one was building market-rate townhomes for families in the downtown area at the time. But the group’s persistence and neighborhood support paid off when the Agency gave them the opportunity to develop the site.

One of the initial goals of the group was to develop a mixed-income community. Again through creative persistence, they put together special financing (the Agency holds part of land value as second mortgages) allowing eleven of the 25 homes to be offered to low and moderate income households.

Today, this intergenerational, mixed-income community is a success. Children play in the community green, mothers visit in the common house and neighbors chat with non-cohousing neighbors on the street. The community has clearly helped to stabilized and rejuvenate the larger neighborhood gaining the accolades of the Redevelopment Agency and several design awards. Cohousing residents worked with other neighbors to stop the liquor sales at the corner store. More homebuyers have moved into the neighborhood and are fixing up the older houses. Looking back, it is hard to believe the hurdles this community overcame to gain city approval. Even upon completion, with 100% of the homes with purchase commitments, the community failed to get appraisals supporting its sales prices forcing residents to raise more money for higher downpayments. (The few resales since then have found ready buyers more than willing to pay the price, even in a recession) The framework of cohousing built a community of committed residents, even before buildings were completed, who supported each other emotionally and financially to get this project built.

Berkeley Cohousing

The residents of Berkeley Cohousing transformed a poorly maintained and largely vacant neighborhood eyesore into a model development, supporting a strong sense of community and an environmentally-friendly lifestyle. Located in central Berkeley on a busy corridor, the three-quarters-of-an-acre site had a number of derelict buildings on it when the cohousing group first considered it in 1992. Over the next four years, a dedicated group of resident owners worked with our design firm to convert the property to a community of 14 condominiums with 1600 sf of common facilities.

The first hurdle was working out a way for the City to allow a rental property to be converted to homeownership (Berkeley has very strict rental protection laws). Although the property had been vacant for years and a crime nuisance in the neighborhood, we had to write a special ordinance and get City Council approval to convert the property. In return for allowing the conversion, residents offered to maintain the community’s long term affordability through resale restrictions that cap future sales prices in relation to cost of living (not real estate) increases. This is very unusual since the project was completely privately financed with no outside subsidies. Half the units were sold at prices affordable to households making less than 80 percent of median income in the area (confirm w/ tom).

The residents acted as their own developer, contributing the risky predevelopment funds themselves with support from family and friends. For a group of people with no previous real estate development experience, many of them first time homebuyers, it was an enormous commitment of time and financial resources to make their dream a reality.

The units range in size from small cottages of 570 sf to a 1118 sf flat. Careful attention to design convinced residents to reduce the size of their homes so that they could afford extensive community facilities. The 1600 sf common house (the original “big house” on the property) includes a kitchen and dining area, sitting room, guest room, children’s play room, office and laundry facilities, reducing the need for so much space in each private home. The strong sense of community has reduced car use by encouraging carpooling and on-site childcare, sharing resources, and home offices.

In addition to the goals of community and affordability, residents sought to make the buildings as energy efficient and environmentally friendly as possible within a tight construction budget so that they would be a model of sustainable redevelopment. To begin with, the community sought to reuse as much of the existing buildings as possible. We completely rehabilitated four existing dwellings and then added four new dwellings. The homes, built with environmentally sustainable and healthy materials, reduce energy use through passive solar design, compact fluorescent lighting, and efficient heating systems.

The community is very active in the surrounding neighborhood. They have hosted numerous neighborhood events and organized earthquake preparedness and neighborhood safety programs. The adjacent apartment complex is considering how they can incorporate more cohousing principals and a buyer of a property on the other side has joined the community.

The community has won several awards including HUD’s Award for Building Innovation for Homeownership. And yet, its multiple levels of complexity make it the type of project that a conventional developer would not take on (not enough money in it to make it worth their while). The project doesn’t fit any of the standard ideas of what the market wants. It took a group of people with a long-term commitment to creating a great place to live to make the time and financial investments that made this project possible. That commitment and perspective is an attribute to any neighborhood.

These three infill communities illustrate how the cohousing model helps reinvigorate urban neighborhoods. In the last year, a number of new infill cohousing communities show that these successes are not isolated examples. In many cases, residents are attracted by the possibility of living a less car-oriented lifestyle afforded by locating in urban areas. In each of the developments discussed, and others such as the recently completed Cambridge Cohousing and soon to be constructed Old Oakland Cohousing in Oakland, California and Sonora Community in Tucson, cohousing groups create very livable intergenerational communities on previously derelict, underutilized urban infill sites. In doing so, they provide a catalysis for stability and to building stronger neighborhood ties between surrounding neighbors.

Advantages of Early Involvement

A key characteristics of these communities is that future residents get involved very early, often even before site selection, and are a driving force in the design and development process. While inexperienced in the intricacies of real estate development, these resident groups are incredibly persistent and dedicated to creating good places to live, raise their children and grow old. This persistence pays off in the often arduous government approval process and in securing financing, a particularly difficult problem for any developer attempting to build in questionable urban neighborhoods.

One of the difficulties in financing these projects is that they often have no “comparables” or similar “product” to point to in the neighborhood. In many cases, the only recently constructed housing has been inexpensive apartments. The cost of a newly constructed quality market-rate development often appears high in older low-income neighborhoods. Early resident involvement makes cohousing developments essentially “presold.” That along with the significant financial investments of the residents are probably the most significant factors making it possible to secure construction financing despite the lack of an comparables.

People’s early involvement also means that they are building their communities long before construction starts. Their commitment is to the vision of a cooperative neighborhood, not just a private house at a certain price. Over and over again, we have seen these groups overcome seemingly insurmountable hurdles. Jim Leach, a developer of numerous cohousing communities, points out that through their involvement in the development process residents “create a more valuable product and better understand its value, and therefore are willing to invest more in it.”

In the Doyle Street and Southside Park developments the community concept helped people overcome fears of a neighborhood in which they would not have otherwise chosen to buy into. In the Old Oakland Cohousing, now under construction in downtown Oakland, the City was convinced there was no market for market-rate condominiums. The project started construction with 100% of the 20 units cohousing community committed.

Integration into the Greater Community

The size of the these developments — 12 to 40 households — is large enough to make an impact on a neighborhood yet small enough to work within an existing urban fabric. Perhaps more importantly, as well organized groups, these residents often have an impact larger than their numbers would suggest. Residents coordinate to make sure they have representation at city meetings — providing childcare and/or rides so that people can attend. Neighborhood issues are regularly discussed at community dinners and monthly meetings. A quick notice on the community bulletin board notifies the whole community of upcoming events. Residents experience working together during the development process trains them to work effectively as a group. At the Doyle Street Community, a conversation before a community dinner once resulted in a well attended (including the mayor and public works department) neighborhood meeting in the common house three days later.

Cohousing communities often seek to accommodate a mixture of incomes. Contradicting conventional real estate wisdom that affordable housing will lower the appeal of adjacent market-rate homes, cohousing communities seek out such diversity and are often disappointed when financing options limit their income diversity. Three communities we are currently designing illustrate this point. Temescal Cohousing, a nine-unit community in a centrally located Oakland neighborhood, is being developed by the future residents and most of the homes will be market rate. Yet the residents are putting an enormous amount of energy and their own resources to raise funding to make one of the homes available as a transitional home for previously homeless families. In Denver, Midtown will include homes for low, moderate and market-rate buyers. It took the resident group years to convince a local non-profit to help them develop the project. In Windsor, California, a cohousing group is organizing to build a market-rate development adjacent to an affordable (subsidized) rental development being built by a local non-profit housing developer. The cohousing group pushed for one truly mixed income community but has had to settle for the concept of adjacent but related developments. By encouraging a diversity of incomes, cohousing communities can bridge the need for affordable housing with the desire to attract middle-income households. The communities show by example that we need not segregate by income.

These developments are still young. Once established, they become models for the power of cooperation and sharing resources. For residents, sharing resources and working together becomes a way of life, helping to develop a sense of responsibility and accountability to each other and their surroundings. On a day-to-day basis they show that we can work together, that we don’t have to live in fear. The long-term effects of these communities will likely be even more than we see now.

Kathryn McCamant is an architect and, along with her husband and partner Charles Durrett, coauthor of Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves (Ten Speed Press, 1998, 1994) which introduced this concept in North America. Together they founded The CoHousing Company, a design and development consulting firm which has worked on dozens of communities. She lives in a cohousing community in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and daughter.

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