Seeking Affordable Cohousing Options for Individuals: Part I

[Wendy is responding to an inquiry from a person in Sacramento seeking affordable cohousing options, who writes:

I’ve been trying to crack this cohousing egg for many years without luck. We have many new cohousing projects either developed or in development in the Sacramento, California area, but when I ask about affordable units, I get no response.

….It is likely your requests were fielded in the past by someone who didn’t really know how to respond to them.

When a person with needs–financial or otherwise–contacts a cohousing community and wants to join it, chances are that there’s no procedure, policy or guidelines in place for handling this special request. So if PFAC refers the request, it does so with the unfortunate knowledge that it might be doing nothing more than exporting a quandary. This quandary becomes a crisis when an active community participant can’t in the end afford to move in, leaving a community on the verge of construction short of pre-sales, and a valued community member without a home!
PFAC’s most valuable efforts to date–those directly in service of solving this problem–have been spent convincing both forming and existing communities before the fact that making affordable units, as well as addressing current and future members’ affordability needs, is crucial. In fact, I can unflinchingly say that navigating affordability issues is in the best interest of each and every cohousing community.

It is this basic desire, the openness within a community to address affordability, that is the crack in the door we seek, and this small opening is what makes it possible to “crack the egg”. Without this basic intent, we’ve got nothing to work with, until a community finds itself unable to get financing or public approvals without addressing affordability (a scenario that is happening more frequently). At this point, a community is in expeditious need of a genuine inquiry, one that earnestly seeks both affordability and community. What an ironic “Gift of the Magi” kind of moment!

As a meaningful aside, PFAC having a proactive and fully comprehensive affordability effort requires a focus not only on cohousing communities, but also on conventional developments (either all-affordable or mixed income where affordable units are already baked in). Bringing cohousing principles and methods very intentionally, most expertly to bear into these developments offers the possibility of measurable, quantifiable, more than lip-service community. It also means more cohousing, of both the market rate and affordable varieties, and in this case more is most certainly better.

So we can think about “affordable cohousing” as either “all affordable or mixed income housing that is on a cohousing model”, or “cohousing that is affordable”. Returning to our original focus brings us to the latter, however, where there is progress and encouraging news; many cohousing communities are now taking affordability seriously, and more will be persuaded in the future to do the same. At some point the economic realities facing us all will demand it, where the anticipation, anxiety and experience of financial pressure associated with aging just ups the ante.

Yet this expressed desire to address the issue is just the first step taken on the 100 Ft. Journey, and the inquiry with (any) special need remains a Catch-22–for communities, for PFAC, and the person who is inquiring in the first place, for it is true that the easiest way to avoid making a promise that can’t be kept, to assuage the fear of creating unrealistic hopes or expectations, is to say little or nothing. It’s a person’s house we’re talking about, and this makes the stakes pretty high for everyone involved!

Being cautious seems all the more prudent when we acknowledge the practical reality, the current state of affairs where affordable units in cohousing communities are few and far between–scarce like any kind of affordable housing in today’s most popular cohousing markets. Nevertheless, responding with well-meaning silence, or in ways that are devoid of substance, isn’t consistent with what cohousing fundamentally IS: Reciprocity and mutual support. Welcoming porches and open doors. Common houses and common concerns.

We need a process for thoughtfully handling these inquiries, one that if it is to be truly helpful, is predicated upon cooperation between existing and forming communities and PFAC.

I am going to suggest a process here, one that has concrete steps and instructions that for people inquiring about affordable cohousing, irrespective of whether a cohousing community is in a position to “fix” the “scarcity of affordable cohousing problem”, or to address financial needs/issues (or not). The goal is to guide inquiries looking for affordable cohousing in ways that can positively, directly, meaningfully contribute to “fixing” the problem. I’m going to use the initial Sacramento inquiry as example, with an eye to a template that can be used anywhere.

This suggested process for people inquiring about affordable cohousing will be addressed in Part II. I look forward to your feedback.

[Note: This particular inquiry coming out of Sacramento identified being on disability as part and parcel of the situation. It is important to note that disability and financial need are in nearly all cases tightly intertwined. Soon I will write about community, process and navigating the broader realm of disability/special needs within the context of affordability. The person inquiring is also 60+ years old, which leads to a special focus placed on the needs that emerge during the aging process.]

Click here for Part II of Affordability for Individuals.

Wendy Willbanks Wiesner

Executive Director

Partnerships for Affordable Cohousing (PFAC)

Category: Affordability

Tags: Affordability, affordable housing, cohousing

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