Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Unsettled Forecast: The Cohousing Movement in a Soft Housing Market

I'm just done with four days at the national Cohousing Conference in Waltham MA, and it seems appropriate to reflect on what's happening with that dynamic segment of the Communities Movement.

While the number of attendees at the conference was about 2/3rds of the what the organizers were hoping for (280 instead of 400+), the energy was excellent and the venue (Bentley College) worked pretty well. Although Coho/US has never before held national conferences in successive years, next year they'll test the waters: June 25-28, 2009 on the campus of the University of Washington in Seattle.

Here are three miscellaneous reflections on trends:

Changing of the Guard
I noticed that a lot of familiar cohousing faces were not in Boston. In no particular order, all of the following were not with us: Kathryn Lorenz, James Hamilton, Nick Meima, Michael McIntyre, Barbara Lynch, David Ergo, Rob Sandelin, Sherri Rosenthal, Tom & Carol Braford, Annie Russell, David Wann, Shari Leach, Neshama Abraham, Tree Bressen. (What's more, I'm sure I'm forgetting others who deserve mention; these are just the ones I can name in one sitting.)

While nothing lasts forever, and a certain amount of turnover is healthy, the above list represents an enormous amount of cohousing experience that was doing something else last weekend. I used to know everyone on the Board of Coho/US and now I don't. We'll see where it leads.

Uncertain Future
Over the course of the weekend I had the chance to ask several heavy hitters their sense of the cohousing market. The answers varied widely. One reported that his company had gotten no cohousing business at all the last two years and was in the process of reinventing itself focusing on New Urbanism and Green Neighborhoods. Another reported that he had more business than he could get to. A third said she was getting steady calls, yet mostly it was for offers to develop projects in locations too far away for them to be interested in traveling to.

Overall, I got the sense that there was still significant business out there (a continuing flow of new starts and forming groups), yet the rate of growth was slowing and there were definitely some parts of the country badly affected by the slumping housing market.

Many developers and other cohousing professionals offer an overlapping array of services. Because few can offer a group everything, there is a compelling need for professionals to collaborate in meeting client needs. All the more so in that the core of what they're all selling is community and that's based on a root commitment to cooperation. However, not everyone is equally good at everything they do (it's hard to recommend someone if you're not confident they'll be able to deliver to the standard of quality you set for yourself) and it can be hard to keep up with what everyone is offering. In consequence, there is not the easy flow among professionals as might be hoped for, and in a soft market there can be increasing tensions around everyone getting all the work they'd like.

It's my sense that there is still plenty of work for those with the most established reputations, yet it may be a difficult time for new people to break into the field. We'll see.

Greener and Bigger
The largest buzz at the conference was around sustainability and an intelligent response to the challenge of upward spiraling gas prices. Chris ScottHanson was especially excited about how Jamaica Plain Cohousing (completed in 2005) has been able to reduce its total car ownership by 2/3rds (less than one per unit) by the sharing achievable with community living, and by building on a site that's within easy walking distance of the subway line. They have empty parking spaces which they're now thinking of tearing up and converting to garden and food production.

Chris, Jim Leach, and Zev Paiss were all talking about ratcheting up their businesses to aim at sustainable neighborhood development—especially in urban areas—and not just cohousing projects. There are several pieces to this puzzle. In addition to carbon-neutral construction, they're thinking about what can be done to create vibrant urban lifestyles that are not car dependent. It's exciting stuff. Next year, I'll get to check in on how all this is unfolding.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As always, Laird shares interesting points of view... Let me offer a few more to your many readers.

The 400 attendance number was held up, by me, quite early with the intent of inspiring ambition on the part of the conference team - a common practice from Microsoft. You put out a high, ambitious goal to give something to strive toward, so you do not become complacent about just repeating the past success. To help illustrate our realism about this, a few weeks before the event, I ordered a total of 270 Conference T-shirts, which we gave away (for free) to all attendees. Did we run out? No - the staff members received one of the 20 Event Staff shirts we also provided.

To add a little more perspective, I believe the 280 count was higher than for any past National Cohousing Conference - and was certainly one of the larger intentional community events in recent history.

The event was definitely made stronger by the folks from the FIC, especially the great Community Bookstore (see the online one here) and the fabulous fund-raising Auction - which raised more funds for both Coho/US and the FIC than in 2006.

As for the upcoming 2009 National Cohousing Conference, I suspect that since Puget Sound has more Cohousing Communities than Massachusetts, and both Portland and Vancouver BC are also nearby hotbeds, that it too will be a well-attended event. The vital community organizing by NICA (Northwest Intentional Communities Association) is also expected to help us get the word out.

Like you, I surely missed some of the folks not attending. I spoke personally with many that you named and reasons for not attending varied greatly, including retirement from any travel, illness, and unwillingness to use that much carbon for travel. The most unfortunate was a family tragedy that focused them elsewhere - we also greatly missed Michael Black, who passed away a few months ago. Michael was scheduled to present a really intersting perspective on eclectic spirituality that embraced life in community as spritual practice. Diana Leafe Christian honored Michael as part of the 2008 National Cohousing Conference closing.

In this posting, Laird speaks of those who did not join us. While we missed them, I found it very exciting to witness first-hand the great many fresh, new faces. Some of these are now building new professional practices that include cohousing. This is precisely how we must grow the Cohousing movement - recruitment of more and more new folks that can build on the past.

One of the freshest most excited people in attendance was Mark Westcombe, Chair of the UK Cohousing Network. Mark and Sarah, another UK organizer were just two of many international participants. So, will Mark become the "Jim Leach of the UK?" - NO - he will be the Mark Westcombe of the UK, which has had Jim Leach as a source of inspiration and a model to learn from. I expect Mark will have considerable impact in a country that is mostly new to Cohousing - despite how close they are to Denmark. Mark and I met for hours at Cambridge Cohousing the day after the conference. We did some early planning for the 2009 International Cohousing Summit that will precede the 2009 National Cohousing Conference.

The summit is a collaborative project of UK Cohousing Network, the Canadian Cohousing Network, and Coho/US. And we have just started inviting other National Cohousing networks to join us in creating this exciting first-time event.

I find the energy from folks who are relatively new to cohousing (as professionals) refreshing and vital - they are part of what expands our movement - and because of this, the Coho/US board is already tapping this energy...

Three of our board members are (relatively) new cohousing professionals. These are (1) Grace Kim, architect based out Seattle, that designed Daybreak Cohousing in Portland; (2) Terri Furman, doing Sales and Marketing at Wonderland Hill, and (3) Eris Weaver, a facilitator from FrogSong Cohousing in Cotati. None of these folks were doing cohousing professionally 10 years ago and all are now actively learning from the old guard, as they add their new sizzle and perspectives to the movement.

Unlike the first wave of Cohousing Professionals, the newer folks have a base of 20 years of experience to build upon - and, thanks to the net, much of this resource is relatively easy to access through the Cohousing Website and the FIC Website. They will also be adding wholely new ways to communicate - ways that many who went before cannot even imagine.

Many familiar faces (with their ever-active minds) also continue to evolve their Cohousing thinking and contributions. For example, at the conference, Chuck Durrett shared his perspective on Aging in Community. This work, which evolved out of his Senior Cohousing work (and book by that title), but is inclusive of established communities.

That some Cohousing Professionals are adding other, related endeavors to their work is great news. This spreads Cohousing and Community thinking more broadly - growing community opportunities for even more people than will ever be attracted to the more intense requirements of cohousing.

Many of us are eagerly taking Cohousing into the future - defining and creating Cohousing 2.0. This will only emerge from new energy and new approaches, from both familiar and new minds.

I disagree with Laird's supposition that the growth of cohousing is slowing. The data I shared on this at the Conference showed Cohousing growth over the last 20 years. We now have 113 occupied cohousing communities, with almost 5,600 residents. It is noteworthy that the second decade of cohousing had 3 times the number of cohousing communities open as the first. The number predicted to open in 2008 is right on target for continued growth. Finally, on this point, the mathematical model I shared predicted substantial continued growth - 3-4 times as many communities over the next twenty years if the patterns from the past continue forward.

Of course past performance is not a predictor of the future and the current housing crisis impacts all housing projects, including cohousing. When looking at trends, however, its all-to-easy to get distracted by the moment and the anecdotal frustrations of a few when thinking about the future. I, personally, prefer to rely on data.

Many hope this housing downturn will not last. For some Forming Cohousing Groups, however, the slowdown is creating new opportunity. For just a few years ago, many properties that appealed to cohousing communities were simply sucked into conventional housing because of the big-time speculative money being made by typical speculative land developers. Today, similar sites are much more available to forming groups - and at lower prices! But these are only to groups able to think outside the conventional box. To realize that the ongoing growth in human population will continue to increase the value of land and housing, despite short-term crises.

That being said, since cohousing is designed to use bank financing and to leverage home ownership, it is quite reasonable to expect a slow-down - maybe our growth will only be steady, linear, rather than at an increasing rate. Part of the good news here is that the forming groups I spoke with are facing such challenges head-on, demonstrating a healthy mix of pragmatism and idealism. This, I think, is what makes new intentional community happen and last.

For those interested, the first version of the 2009 National Cohousing Conference web page is now live. There's not much detail there as I write this - but keep an eye on it to learn about what's ahead for this event.

In closing, I'm excited about the way that Coho/US and the FIC continue to make beautiful music together as we strive to grow both Cohousing and the broader, Intentional Community movement. I see events, like this conference as one vital way that some of us are able to come together and share.

Craig Ragland
Coho/US Executive Director