Paradise future? Part 1, development
The older I get, the less faith I place in future-tense verbs.
Character is what you are in the dark
Thus it was with a fair dose of jaundice that I read a sympathetic Boston Globe account of a new approach to affordable housing, co-housing:
Co-housing? Bah, humbug!
The idea started small. Kathy Journeay and a few close friends wanted to buy houses together on a cozy street so they could pool resources, raise their children together, and share their lives.
Long day’s journeay into housing
Is community something we bring to virgin territory, or what we make of those who become our neighbors?
More than seven years later, those same friends are about to realize their dream – albeit on a much larger scale than they ever imagined – and move into Sawyer Hill EcoVillage, a 68-unit development in Berlin that is the largest cohousing project in the country.
Far west of
As in a traditional condominium complex, each unit will be individually owned.
You might think this is a traditional Planned Unit Development, but the founders have idealist visions:
In most places, “maybe the only time you ever see your neighbor is when you’re pulling your mail out of your mailbox. You don’t find excuses to interact with each other. You don’t have the opportunities to get to know each other’s lives,” she said. “Did you just have a baby? Then I should be making you casseroles and bringing them over.”
On my street, a neighbor whom all of us have nicknamed the Mayor of Francis Avenue handles the social infrastructure for us – for which we neighbors are all grateful.
They learned how architecture is used to promote frequent interaction among residents. Homes are clustered around walking paths and a common house, where shared meals and events are held throughout the week. Social activities are centered on the property, child care is shared, and knowing your neighbors is inevitable.
Any shared-burden, shared-benefit environment faces the free rider problem. Inevitably, some do less than their share – or what their neighbors consider ‘their share.’
We’re doing our share
At Sawyer Hill, responsibilities and costs will be apportioned as presented in the six defining characteristics of co-housing:
Business is predicated on value chains – disaggregated sequences of actions where each participant has a discrete function, for which it is paid. Co-housing challenges that presumption, preferring instead an egalitarian utopia, a socialize community:
And at the center of their social lives will be shared meals – like the recent gathering in the development’s central common house, organized while awaiting the official occupancy permits that will let them move in for good.
The kitchen in Camelot Commons, one of two neighborhoods within Sawyer Hill
Sawyer Hill EcoVillage is composed of two 34-unit communities with distinct architectural styles – Mosaic Commons features multifamily buildings in the
It makes good sense to offer multiple configurations to accommodate diversity of family situations.
Shared meals will be at the heart of each neighborhood. As daunting as cooking for 34 households may be, it’s a duty that rolls around only every month and a half, said Journeay.
Want to eat what others choose?
You’re in the co-housing now, son
In exchange, residents can enjoy two cooked meals per week, while using only one kitchen on those nights instead of 34.
I don’t know about you, tovarisch, but my experience with group cooking involves lots of pasta and simmered meats.
Don’t forget the grilled cheese and tomato!
For many of us, being at home is where we can be apart, private. We cook what we like, eat what we like, do what we like. The right to privacy begins at home, yet in a co-housing property, such privacy may be considered antisocial.
“Ideally, for me, community is where I can get support in my times of crisis and I can give support,” said Journeay, 39, who expects to move in with her husband within a few weeks. “When no one is in crisis, I have friends who I can spend time with.”
Although idealism ushered in the cohousing dream, Journeay and her friends quickly learned that it takes tenacious will to master all the technical, legal, and regulatory aspects that come with building a housing development.
Development is a real business: it takes real work, and there are real responsibilities. After all, they call it real estate.
They also had to convince
Presumably they picked
Cohousing is still a novel idea in this country, though the model has been around since its 1964 birth in
I suspect that co-housing, like birds, is scale-limited. (If I did the cut-paste-total right, the site lists 129 properties and 3,243 homes, an average of about 25 per site.) Too small and there isn’t the critical mass of people to assure that every function can be covered at one time or other. Too large and governance will break down.
Any bigger and I couldn’t fly
Soon after finding the land, the people who formed Camelot CoHousing banded together with the people from Mosaic Commons, who had also been searching for a site, and formed Sawyer Hill EcoVillage. But they still had to persuade the town, and its residents, that this new arrangement would work.
The developmental and permitting challenges are non-trivial. In fact, the neighbors didn’t want it:
Since zoning is destiny, large-lot zoning is a convenient means of being the righteous snobs by keeping ‘those people’ out of your bucolic town. Except when inclusionary zoning can be compelled, as in Massachusetts:
To have homes set up in the clusters they envisioned, Sawyer Hill’s organizers obtained a permit under the state’s Chapter 40B law, which allowed them to work around the local zoning regulations.
I’m not buying your story
That phrasing is sympathetically euphemistic. Chapter 40B allowed the developers to override local preferences, so we have the community-oriented neighbors using a property law to cram a community:
In exchange for the leeway provided by its comprehensive permit, 40B requires that at least 25% of a development’s units be set aside as affordable housing, based on income and price restrictions set by the state.
It’s not leeway, it’s superseding zoning!
Is planning when I get to decide that you’ll do?
Of Sawyer Hill’s 68 units, 51 are under purchase agreements. And of the 17 still for sale, 10 units are earmarked as affordable.
So congratulations to them – they’ve made it past the development danger point of having a large unsold inventory. Now they have the challenges of operations:
As green living becomes mainstream ethos, cohousing may skyrocket.
Oh, you think it’s green?
I don’t think so
[Continued tomorrow in Part 2.]