The “P’s” of Cohousing
Parking. Participation. Pets. Those were the three bigest points of contention we heard from all of the communities. When we spoke with Windsong Cohousing up in Vancouver a few months back (hint: we were planning to move there, it’s what sparked this whole idea), they’d mentioned that the 3 P’s were Parking, Parenting, and Pets. We asked about Parenting at these tours, but there didn’t seem to be as many issues – likely because Windsong is one large building with multigenerational cohousing, and the only single building we saw this trip is currently all seniors. Living closely and sharing space isn’t for everyone, and sometimes, they have to find this out by living there first.
Bonus: Development Tips
We heard there are a few issues you can run into that can significantly slow down the project, or end up costing much more than expected.
City/County – Do your zoning due diligence ASAP. In our case, we went to the town first, to make sure the land we were even considering putting an offer in on was going to be suitable. Find out all of the zoning restrictions, cost to rezone, and the rezoning process before you invest any money at all. This could save some serious headaches, such as buying a piece of land and realizing there’s no way to zone it for your cohousing project. Ask about working from home too – there may be different requirements for commercial-type uses.
Capacity – Also, check to make sure the land can handle what you’re hoping to put down. Check sewage capacity on city or county services, and make sure you can get enough water lines to the area. If the land is rural, check the status and size of the well, and inquire about the septic tank capacity. If what’s there isn’t enough, you might have to weigh out the costs of having services brought in, or adjusted.
- Get the land FIRST
Whaaaat? Traditionally, we’re told that you should build the core group first, then work on Mission.Vision statements, then work on decision-making, then agree on a parcel of land, then move forward. Sadly, many groups put in years worth of work, only to see members drop off as land opportunities come up and fall through. We had a great opportunity to talk to Village Hearth Cohousing – an LGBT resident/ally/family senior cohousing group building north of Durham – and they were smart in hiring Chuck Durrett, the FATHER of modern cohousing, as their architectural consultant. Chuck literally wrote the book on cohousing, and in it, he maintains you should stick with those general steps. As it turns out, Chuck has changed his mind – his new advice? Get the land first! This was a theory I had, but wasn’t backed up by literature, only “horror” stories of groups formed for over half a decade, with little forward momentum. It’s easier for people to rally around a piece of land than a general concept. People get anxious, they want a timeline for when they have to sell their house, when they have to move their kids’ school, when they finally get to live in this dream community… I know I do! The idea of community is nice, but trying to get together regularly for 5 years to put money and effort into an abstract idea is unsettling, and exhausting. So if at all possible, buy the land first.
Legal – The surrounding neighbors can make or break a development project. Try to be as kind, courteous, and considerate as you can, because if they decide they don’t want you there, for whatever reason, they can slow you down with complaints to the city, or even shut you down with an expensive lawsuit. It’s happened, so play nice!
Extra – If your city or town doesn’t require you to make any community presentations (other than to the zoning board), plan one yourself! Tell the neighbors what you’re building and why, and how you’re going to make sure it runs as smoothly as possible for them. Construction noise can be really bothersome for them, so try to let the neighbors know you’ll do what you can, within reason, to help with the transition. Also, let them know how this new development will benefit them.
Value – If your goal is to maintain affordability, there might have to be something written in the covenants to dictate that the future sale price must be a certain amount below market value. The general national trend (at the moment) is that housing prices are rising, which naturally causes home values to increase. Pricing rules in the covenants can help keep units affordable, and keep them safe from housing bubbles.
Newcomers – Since each individual owns their own home and can sell at will, how can you be sure that the incoming residents know what they’re really buying into? One idea was that you can allow for the common entity (LLC, non-profit, etc), or other members of the community to have “right of first refusal”. This means that, when a member is ready to sell, they must offer the community members, or the community itself, a chance to buy the home first. This can benefit newcomers, by reducing the amount of shock that may come with suddenly entering a cohousing community without knowing it, and can also offer established members to move within the community easily.
Cohousing is lovely. Cohousing is unique. Cohousing is healthy. And cohousing is never perfect. As one resident put it, “If you think it’s going to be all rainbows and singing Kubaya, f**k that.” But even though they were all quick to point out their faults, not one person said they’d rather live somewhere else. Every single person we spoke to said that this way of living was better than any way they’d lived before, and their honesty about their faults came from a place of love and hope. They hope that we can learn from their successes and missteps, and do even better. While we know the Waxhaw Pocket Neighborhood won’t create a perfect living situation for every resident, we’re going to take the 100+ years of combined knowledge from every cohousing community we can, and strive to be better.
Thank you to all of our incredible hosts!
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