Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Making Community Affordable

This past weekend Ma'ikwe and I were conducting Weekend III of the North Carolina-based version of our Integrative Facilitation training, hosted by Jubilee, a forming cohousing group in Floyd VA.

One of the issues that Jubliee wanted help with was how to keep their houses as affordable as possible—which is a damn good topic. Between the community and the class we brainstormed the following menu of options:

o  Government subsidies in exchange for guaranteeing that at least 25% of their houses remain affordable for low income households (defined to be within reach of people making 80% of the median income for that location).  

Note: You have be careful in that some subsidies come with restrictions over what control the community would have over who lives in those homes and it may be a poor bargain to trade lower housing costs in exchange for loss of control over your membership.

o  Government subsidies (or tax credits) for renewable energy. Sometimes you can also get subsidies from your local utility for energy conversation investments (such as thermal shutters or increased insulation in the walls or attic).

o  Place the undeveloped portion of the property in a land trust, protecting it from the temptation of future development (or selling it to developers), preserving green space (which ensures easy access to nature), riparian buffer zones, and tree belts (that mitigate both winter winds and summer temperatures if sited properly in relation to the houses). Some land trusts will pay you for development rights.

o  Build housing units with shared walls (or build vertically, so that the ceiling of the lower unit is the floor of the one above). While you need to be careful that you're not sacrificing desirable window views or sound insulation (there's a definite limit to what information about your life you want to be sharing inadvertently with your neighbors), dense construction can lower costs without altering square footage.

o  Sell units with the intent that they'll be rentals, or encourage homeowners to build a slightly larger unit than they need so that an extra bedroom can be rented. While there are questions about how to screen renters such that you get people who want to be engaged in community life, and it can be awkward if too high a percentage of residents are renters (who may lack the long-term commitment you'll need to create and maintain a steady core population), encouraging rentals can help make it possible for people on the financial edge to be able to afford to make house payments.

o  Downsize your house. This comes in two flavors: a) simply making the commitment to make do with less house, and adjusting your lifestyle accordingly; and b) thinking through the ways that the community's common facilities (common house, workshop, laundry, library, kids play area, etc.) can meet your household's needs such that you don't need to have those functions accommodated privately. Perhaps you don't need a bath tub in your house if there's one in the common house. 

o  Downsize the common elements. This is taking the last point in the opposite direction. It has been my personal observation (after having worked professionally with more than 50 cohousing communities) that the overwhelming majority of have underused common facilities. Why build what you won't use, or will sit idle too much of the time? To be fair, it's difficult to crystal ball this accurately when few residents have had meaningful prior community experience upon which to base their design decisions.

Note: This last point is further complicated by the impact that social dynamics will have on people's comfort and desire to do things jointly, or in jointly held facilities. If dynamics are good, people are drawn to doing more together; if unresolved tensions persist, the reverse obtains and the common facilities will stand idle. Often groups make irrevocable design decisions before it's clear how well the members will function together socially. 

o  Simplified design. There can be considerable leverage on costs (as well as the aesthetic benefit of a unified design) if all the roof lines are the same. The more houses are clumped and dense, the easier it is to heat and cool them efficiently. Semi-private yard space can be shared between neighbors.

o  Increase the level of sharing (replacing the need to have enough space to own your own). This includes car co-ops, tool sharing (how many table saws and lawn mowers does a community need?), perhaps a community sewing room, kids rumpus room, or community held guest rooms (instead of one in each house). Of particular value in bringing down the cost is limiting the number of bathrooms in private homes. On those rare occasions when two people need to shower simultaneously (and separately), couldn't one of them trot down to the common house?

o  Carports instead of garages. If you plop solar panels on top, so much the better.

o  Outdoor living spaces are far cheaper to build and maintain than enclosed spaces. A well designed and landscaped yard can be every bit as functional as an enclosed porch—excepting when it rains.

o  When it comes to green space, think gardens, not lawns. Not only will you save on mowing, you'll lower your food costs and eat better.

o  Build all at once. There are economies of scale available if you build 32 units in one go, instead of one at a time—or even in four batches of eight.

o  Build with a limited palette of choices. While Jubilee probably needs at least four options: studio, one bedroom, two bedroom, and three bedroom, the more you can agree to limit choices in cabinets, floor coverings, paint, bathroom fixtures, etc, the more you can contain costs.

To be fair, this is hard to do. For most people, building a home is the single largest investment they'll make in their lives and there's a powerful, if vestigial, link to whatever hold the American Dream has on their psyche. You want it to be the way you want it, not the way groupthink wants it. Hint: ask members to hold off on personal preferences during initial construction, and customize afterwards. While the costs will be slightly higher, custom orders after the fact will not impact the price tag on other homes.

o  Internal loan pool. There are some groups that have been able to take advantage of the breadth of financial wherewithal among members to discreetly gather voluntary contributions among those who are better off to create a safety net for those hanging on by their fingernails, allowing the less fortunate to remain in the project. Then, as their financial ships have righted, the loans are repaid and the funds are available to be used again to help succeeding generations of prospective homeowners grab the bottom rung of the community ladder.

o  Community businesses. Most cohousing groups think of themselves as businesses only insofar as they are trying to sell units and cover the costs of maintaining their collective investment. But it could be more than that. Some groups support Community Supported Agriculture operations (see Cobb Hill in Vermont and Ecovillage at Ithaca in New York); some operate Christmas tree farms (see Hundredfold Farm in Pennsylvania). Groups could become producers of heirloom vegetable seeds for Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (operated by Acorn Community in Mineral VA), host personal growth workshops, or rent office space in their common house. Think entrepreneurial!

Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that the spring 2013 issue of Communities magazine is on the theme of Affordability & Self-Reliance, where you'll find additional ideas, plus an amplification of some of the above. It's a hot topic.

• • •
One of the exciting things about Jubilee is that they're trying hard to contain costs. There hope is to build the upper-end units—the three-bedroom jobs—to passive house standards (which are exceptionally inexpensive to heat and cool) for under $225,000. When you digest that there are a number of US cohousing projects extant where the studio units start at double that number, Jubilee is trying to do something significant in addressing affordability.

The very least Ma'ikwe and I could do was help them think it through.

1 comment:

Susan said...

Thanks Laird. The weekend and this summary have been very helpful.

Just a couple of clarifications. There are a number of building systems out there that sound like Passive House, but are spelled differently. Our homes will be built to passivhaus standard.

Second clarification is that ALL of our houses, as well as our Common House will be built to passivhaus standards.

Thanks again!