Retrofit cohousing: A different kind of fixer-upper

Temescal Creek
Temescal Creek Cohousing neighbors enjoy their new common house, which includes a unit on the top floor that helped offset construction costs. (Photos by Andrea Kissack)

We often joke that we are the fastest cohousing community ever formed.

In March 1999, after only three months of meetings, a group of five families opened escrow on Temescal Creek Cohousing, a "retrofit" cohousing neighborhood in Oakland, CA. We're called a retrofit community because we transformed an existing neighborhood into a cohousing community, rather than building from the ground up.

Our vision was to create and live in a community that fosters harmony with each other, the larger community and the environment. Our first step in creating our neighborhood was to purchase three adjacent 1920s duplexes in North Oakland's Temescal district as tenants-in-common from a sympathetic property owner. We later bought two adjacent houses on the block. The property is a one-mile walk from the metro transit system called BART, major bus routes and several commercial streets.

Seizing an opportunity

I had just turned 40 and longed to live in an intentional community again, remembering fondly my experiences of living in one in my 20s. I called a meeting of friends, all of whom would be first-time homebuyers.

I had heard about cohousing and contacted Katie McCamant of the CoHousing Company. She looked at the property and advised us to make an offer as soon as possible. We hired a local real estate agent to help us negotiate the offer. The owners put the other two duplexes on the market and we offered the asking price, $785,000, for both properties. Our offer was accepted.

A compatible blend of families

As we negotiated the details of the offer, I was both excited and nervous that the project might fall through. I knew all the families except for one and they were a perfect fit for our group. When we began, we were all in our 30s and 40s with lots of experience in non-profits. Two of us are single lesbians and the other three families are straight with young children. We share a commitment to social justice and living lightly on the planet.

We see "retrofit" cohousing, using mostly existing housing stock - as the most reasonable avenue for cohousing in expensive urban areas such as the San Francisco Bay Area, where construction costs are high and there is very little open space for new developments. We also believe that using existing housing is much friendlier to the environment. I've read that the average 2,000-square-foot new house produces 17 tons of waste during construction.

Magical things happened quickly after we came together to create our community. Fortunately (miraculously!), each of the five families wanted a different unit based on its appearance, cost and location, so we didn't have to haggle over who got what. The CoHousing Company and Diane Ohlsson, our real estate agent, determined the cost of the units and we agreed to trust their assessments. My upstairs, two-bedroom, 1,000-square-foot unit in disrepair cost $117,000 while the largest renovated three-bedroom unit, was closer to $200,000.

Our duplexes sit on two-thirds of an acre, back-to-back facing two different streets, and are joined by an eight-foot easement through the backyards. We bought them as tenants-in-common (all owners were on the same mortgage) because we didn't have time to convert them to condominiums before purchasing the properties. Even though we legally stayed tenants-in-common until recently, we operated just like a condo association, assessing ourselves a monthly fee to develop the landscaping and to finance the costs associated with building our new common house.

The early days

Diane Ohlsson and I negotiated directly with the owners. The deal included a clause allowing them to live in their old unit for six months while they remodeled a nearby home they had purchased.

In the beginning, we had no common house, so we ate twice a week in each other's houses for the first year. While this was a burden, not to mention a very tight squeeze, we accepted the challenges because we knew they were temporary.

In 2000 we purchased another single-family house adjacent to our community. The house had suffered a fire because of a careless renter and we convinced the owners that it was time to sell. We posted the announcement to friends and others interested in cohousing. An acquaintance of ours bought the property, adding much needed energy and indoor space to our community.

The single-family house included a 600-square-foot office space that doubled as our "temporary" common house for the next three years. We cooked in our own homes, then brought the food to our common meals. The setup wasn't ideal, but at least we had a common place to meet outside of our homes. After those three years we finally were ready to construct our beautiful 900-square-foot common house.

Taking a leap forward

Residents spent their first year sharing common meals in each other's homes.
Residents spent their first year sharing common meals in each other's homes.

In 2001 we hired the CoHousing Company to help develop a strategic plan for our community. Our challenge was to form a condominium association as we were designing and building a new common house. That way each unit would have its own separate mortgage and would own an equal share of the constructed common house. Katie McCamant also had the bright idea to build a nice unit above the common house and sell it for market rate, adding another member to our community and helping offset the costs of the condo conversion and the new construction.

To finance construction, we used individual home-equity lines of credit. (Our equity had soared along with Bay Area housing prices since we first bought into the neighborhood.) We spent more than a year obtaining the necessary permits from the Planning Department and the Planning Commission as well as obtaining an easement from a neighboring commercial property. We paid some Temescal Creek Cohousing residents $35 an hour to perform the work required to obtain the permits and to convert our ownership structure from tenants-in-common to condos.

We got to know all our immediate neighbors by instigating block parties and other fun social events. Later, when we applied for a major variance to build right on the property line, those neighbors wrote letters of support, and one even showed up at the Planning Commission to speak on our behalf.

Another challenge we faced was paring down all the stuff we had kept communally in a large garage, which we tore down to build the common house. Each household was given a storage space of 4' x 5' x 9' high. Amazingly, folks learned the meaning of trying to "live simply" - at least in our amount of "stuff." We recycled many items, including little-used bikes, and hosted a big yard sale. I returned two large windows that I had bought from a salvage yard before I knew about the importance of more efficient, "double-paned" windows.

Working through the hard times

We struggled sometimes during the next year to agree on the details of the common house. Our hardest discussions were over the exterior finish (should it be board and batten or a more expensive stucco), exterior color and whether or not to install photovoltaics. Eventually we reached consensus, choosing stucco, a burnt orange and yellow, with avocado metal railings. And we decided to install photovoltaics (solar panels to produce electricity) because we were committed to alternative energy and had watched other communities struggle for years over the issue after not installing it from the start.

Temescal Creek is an urban retreat and gathering place for friends and neighbors.
Temescal Creek is an urban retreat and gathering place for friends and neighbors.

We finally chose a wonderful contractor who helped us complete our project on time (within nine months) and on budget. We spent a total of $488,000, including the cost of the condo conversion. Since we sold the new upstairs unit for $350,000, each family's share totaled approximately $23,000.

To cut costs, we didn't hire the general contractor to do all the work. Instead, we paid one of our community residents who works in the trades to oversee subcontracting the stucco, painting, landscaping and hardscape concrete work. We recommend this route as a way to reduce expenses if someone is willing to serve in this role and will be supported by others in the community. We also hired a landscape architect to help us with some drainage issues and were glad we did because a creek runs underground nearby.

Because we were living, and some of us working, on site, there were days when we wondered if we could stand one more day of jack hammering. But, in the end, we're proud of the results, especially the green elements of our construction. We have blown-in cellulose insulation, an on-demand water heater for the new living unit, photovoltaics for the common house and the unit above, and an irrigation system. The common house includes our long-awaited kitchen and dining room, a sitting area, laundry, bathroom and kid's room. Extras we're glad we included are acoustic treatment for sound in the dining room and a beautiful two-color concrete hardscape where the kids love to ride their scooters and jump rope.

More to come - after a well deserved rest

Our seven-unit retrofit community is taking a slight breather before we tackle most of Phase Two of our long-term plan to redo the pathways, build a new gate, add more landscaping and install a solar-powered, guilt-free hot tub. In the meantime, we're gratified by all our curious friends and acquaintances who come to dinners and parties and exclaim over our "luck" to live in such a gorgeous urban retreat. The huge 100-year-old oak tree, fig tree and nice new sod together with new perennial plants give a feeling of oasis in a busy neighborhood.

After meeting twice a month for regular meetings, not to mention countless committee meetings since 1999, we hope to cut back soon to meeting once a month for community business matters. But we often remind each other that had we been in a new-construction community we'd probably just be moving in now. Instead, during these past five years, we've had the pleasure of living in community while we create it - sharing meals and milestones, and watching our kids grow up together.

Karen HesterKaren Hester is an events organizer who maintains an email list for folks interested in "retrofit" cohousing in the East Bay. To subscribe, please visit her website. Active in her community, Karen organizes local street fairs and is helping to renovate a nearby arts center called Studio One, which is run by the City of Oakland.