A Mess on Our Hands

The Great Depression, probably not, but we sure have a mess on our hands. On Sunday, October 5th In Fresno, CA the Cohousing Partners and McCamant and Durrett Architects (MDA), and an awesome cohousing group celebrated the grand opening of La Querencia cohousing among hundreds of well wishers, under glorious blue skies and next door to the new Gold LEED Unitarian Church. The church and the community, both designed by MDA, have been recognized for their cutting-edge environmental leadership.
The core Fresno community of 16 households is very strong and enjoys excellent participation as it goes through the usual challenges of the move-in stage. But the challenges are not usual this year. The politicians talk of the financial crisis moving from Wall Street to Main Street. Well, Main Street is us.

The same risk?

Fresno buyers with very good credit and down payments of more than 20 percent already invested in the project cannot get a permanent loan so they can close on their new homes. The lenders consider all of central California a distressed market. And I would argue that, yes, that’s true for those regular boxes spread equidistant across the landscape: there are too many of them and they appear to have been left there by some kind of asphalt-laying machine. They are unfortunate (euphemistically) on so many levels. There are too many McMansions, too many tract houses with two- or three-car garages facing the sidewalk.

The banks blame their reticence on the new Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac requirements, but they don’t have the sense to evaluate cohousing on a real risk basis. Do you know of any cohousing units that have foreclosed anywhere in the United States? Meanwhile there are houses with foreclosure signs on each lawn for streets on end in some towns in central California, Florida and Arizona — how could that be the same risk?

Is this a situation that will get worked out in the next few months? We hope so. But it is a little bit indicative of the challenges of innovative, sustainable housing solutions like cohousing are facing in the near future. The moral of this story is that if we don’t get our collective backsides in gear, this little movement, this little attempt to change the world one neighborhood at a time, this little attempt to move the ball forward towards more sustainability is in danger of being buried with the trash so dominant in the American housing markets.
So, what should we do? Cohousing is the best mainstream example of taking community and sustainability to the people. We should get ourselves organized to let our fellow citizens know the story of this small movement and how it offers the middle-class a chance to live lighter on the planet while enhancing their quality of life at the some time.

Now is the Time

We now have 20 years of experience in how to design, build and manage these proactive neighborhood communities. Now is the time to step up and show the real strength of true community. We benefit from a positive public image and more free PR than we deserve. America is looking for solutions and we have one. Cohousing is a solution that can help mobilize the country towards greater social, economic and environmental sustainability. We do this by the examples we set—one neighborhood at a time.
So what is there to do? First and foremost, cohousing is the best opportunity for middle-class folks to make a quantum leap towards cooperation and community, but it also offers an opportunity for stewardship, and for significantly lowering our carbon footprint while having a good time.

Call to action.

  • Tell your cohousing story
  • Write your congressperson
  • Get involved with the national cohousing association or help support its work
  • Invest in cohousing (there are projects that need help — by offering Financial Support you are not putting your money into another petroleum or tobacco company.
  • Share with your neighbors at large what you have done to live more lightly on the planet
  • Make sure to keep your community presentable to the larger community

But, most importantly, be proactive in making your (model) community work. Make sure that you practice compassionate communication with your neighbors, but don’t get pushed out of shape when someone disagrees with you. Learn to dialog healthfully, but also heartfully. Don’t take advantage of your neighbors—do your share. Help maintain your community: be accountable, cook dinner, be the model that we know we can be; be a functional neighborhood where neighbors talk about the issues of the day and resolve mutual concerns.

This is our chance to model the possible—and to make it more obvious to those who live in an estranged neighborhood. I think that we have a lot to offer—we can no longer afford to be the best kept secret in cultural and ecological sustainability.
But times are raw. Financial crisis, climatic disasters, and perhaps a young, new democratic president.

That’s exactly the conditions between 1987 and 1992, the last severe recession: the Keating debacle and the savings & loan mess, huge floods and fires, and Bill Clinton. Then came the largest economic expansion in American history and of course cohousing (the first cohousing was built in 1991).

This is the time to buy and to build cohousing. Prices won’t be this low again for a long while. And of course as usual what we have to fear more than all else is fear itself. Cohousing and cooperation really do have something to offer—let’s see if we can move it forward while the economics are peculiar—this is our opportunity to make it much more affordable by buying land and construction while they are less costly.

In 1929, the time of the last crash, most citizens lived on Farms and were closer to the food source. Most lived near extended families, and even nuclear families—demographics are dramatically changed now—for example more than half of American women do not live with husbands. Church and other institutions connected us with vital community. Our opportunities to retool our society through cohousing and other cooperative mechanisms have never been so needed.

Cohousing can be the possibility for modeling a sustainable future.
For those who know someone who survived the Great Depression, they say more than anything else, "spend wisely." This is the time to live in community—we can do so much for each other simply by doing things with each other. For this to work, be prepared to give each other permission to talk about finances with each other. Be prepared to hire each other, be prepared to help each other. The sky is not falling—it's just clouded, and the only thing that consistently brightens my day is the smile of my neighbors and what they teach me. I'm sure glad that I live in cohousing just now.

In community with significant help from herrer Jim Leach,

Chuck

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