Organizing Low-Income Cohousing
What are some ways to encourage people to create low-income cohousing?,
1. Define “low income.”
“Affordable” is not a euphemism for “low income.” Affordable is usually defined as 80% of the average cost of a similar housing unit in the area. That could be in the millions and still be called “affordable.”
HUD’s definitions for Low and Very Low Income are on this page:
Basically they are 50% and 80% of the median family income, again in the area , and used to judge eligibility for subsidized housing.
Other definitions are based on “twice the poverty level” that in 2015 is $11,770 for one person and $24,250 for a family of 4. (Higher in Alaska and Hawaii).
In contrast the eligible income in Bethany CT for affordable housing for one person are 60%=$35,040, 80% = $46,100, 100% = 58,380. As you see this is not close to low-income housing. The full scale is posted at:
“Low income” should be understood as the aim from the beginning or construction plans will drift out of the income range. It’s easier to build or renovate for higher income levels so the drift is attractive and has to be countered. Some communities have managed to include affordable units and the rest of the community is market rate. The community then continues to subsidize those units in one way or another. I haven’t heard of any market rate communities that incorporate low-income units.
2. Get organized and empower leadership.
You need a leader. Someone who takes initiative to keep the effort on track and moving forward. Or 2-3 people who share leadership. Define clear responsibilities so people commit to roles and responsibilities.
Using your income standards, form a means of communication for those who meet your criterion for top salary or unit price. You don’t have to do an income check but state your aim clearly—only for people interested in “cohousing for people with incomes of $12-15,000 or lower per person.”
A list like Cohousing-L on YahooGroups or GoogleGroups, I think is the best. They are free and publicly available in a directory so any one searching for low-income housing or cohousing can find you. In the past, using Cohousing-L to recruit and discuss low income cohousing has been confused and lacked focus. More time is spent clarifying income limits than discussing realistic options and making connections between low-income people to share information. Use the low-income cohousing list to collect information from many different places and people. (Use a descriptive name like “low income cohousing,” not something like “grasshoppers and warriors.”)
Actively moderate the list so the messages are on topic and helpful in intention. No ranting or continuous complaining. Warn people off list when they are off topic. I find that “just a reminder” works to keep from offending the person you are warning.
Don’t let any questions go unanswered. That keeps the list alive. Only a few people will post but almost everyone will read. Many will have the same questions so you will be speaking to more readers than the one asking the question. If others don’t respond to questions or post themselves, the moderator needs to. It takes about 200 people to keep a list at a critical mass unless it is actively focused on an active project.
Set up a website to organize information. You can do this free on GoogleSites or WordPress.com. It can be found by anyone and people who don’t like email lists. And it makes you look serious. Some people will watch for a long time before contacting you.
Many people like social media but if you use them they must be active. Like the email list, someone has to monitor and keep them alive.
I’m not in favor of forums. They are deceptively easy in terms of organizing information but email is immediate and encourages reading a wider range of topics. Everyone has to be informed for the project to work. It has to be collaborative, beginning to end That’s basic to cohousing. The “co” is for “collaborative” or “cooperative,” depending on who you ask.
3. Find a financial consultant and professional advice
Talk to Rocky Corner Cohousing about their financing consultant. They found a person who is an expert on funding for residential property. He knows all the federal and state housing programs. When I met with them, they said they would have never gotten built without him.
Find an architect or professional housing consultant who will donate a limited number of hours to advising you. Look for someone at a bank or a housing authority who is specifically interested in low-income housing. (Do not say “affordable” and correct anyone who slips into that terminology. It isn’t just a word,; it’s a definition. And it’s not yours.)
Contact companies specializing in building low-income housing and new or alternative structures.
4. Do research and price alternatives
BEFORE approaching such a professional, do a lot of research. What’s out there? What is being done in conventional low-income cohousing? How? Look at alternative building materials and designs. Sometimes these are so out of code they can’t be used but there may be some ideas you can use. Look at single-room occupancy buildings that have a private room and bathroom for a resident but other facilities are shared. Some are very run down and in badly converted buildings but others are nicely designed and new architecture.
Look at other countries. I remember a documentary on housing in Scandinavia. The bedrooms were literally just a shelf bed attached to the wall. Storage underneath. A closet. Floor space not larger than the bed. A very tall window with a window seat made it wonderful. Very light and open. Not claustrophobic. This was an average apartment, not specifically low-income housing.
Search YouTube. Many videos there of very small apartments —200-300 SF.
Be realistic but don’t take no for an answer.
5. Expect a long timeline
Start with the expectation that this may take years. The early cohousing communities took 5 years to get built and many have failed and continue to fail (but at a lower rate). The average has been reported as 3 years but I think that is optimistic for a new model. And some people work with more than one group before they see success.
Just stick to it and don’t push so hard you exhaust yourself and can’t continue. Reach out for support when things look dark.
(I’m too involved in other projects to get involved in this but would be happy to give email support, even to moderate a list or put up a website. These are just suggestions, not an offer on my part to take this on. I say this because when I’ve posted on this in the past people have thought I was the leader of the movement.)
Tags: Affordability, Finance, Low cost housing