Should we stop calling ourselves co-housing?

As we have mentioned previously, a few of these cohousing folks can be a bit prickly.

When we began developing our ideas for a shared home some years ago, none of us had heard of the Danish architect Jan Gudmand-Hoyer and the concept he called “community housing” — a cluster of single family homes built around some common facilities and operating in a cooperative manner.

Some years later the American architect Charles Durrett brought the community housing concept to America and renamed it “cohousing.” We hadn’t heard of him either.

We did discover that there are a lot of different ways to describe some variation of cohouseholding.

But at the beginning, trying only to name our own vision, we settled on “co-housing” as an accurate description of what we were planning. We would share a home. We would be, literally, co-housed.

Fast forward to this week, when the eminent Dr. Durrett and his charming and knowledgeable partner, Kathryn McCamant (Katie) visited Toronto to present a seminar. The afternoon before, they paid us a visit at Wine on the Porch, and we enjoyed a few minutes of sharing ideas.

One of the less enjoyable parts was Charles’s insistence that we shouldn’t be calling ourselves cohousing. He was rather proprietary about it.

We thought perhaps we could just agree to disagree, but Charles has followed up with a sort of cease and desist order. He writes:

Great to meet you good people. Just want to request that you don’t use the word
co-housing. By definition it is not. It is shared housing or Coliving or Cohousing inspired maybe. It’s about truth in advertising and more clarity. So as the person that coined the word I’d really appreciate it. Thank you, Charles Durrett.

As a sometime journalist, editor, and occasionally prickly person myself, I’m tempted to point out that Jan Gudman-Hoyer described his model accurately when he called it “community housing,” or “cooperative housing,” and it’s not my fault if Dr. Durrett got the name wrong when he imported Gudman-Hoyer’s ideas.

But that would be churlish.

So I’m gonna ask for a ruling from the people. Vote on whether we should keep co-housing or not.

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The cost of things

Cost has been at the heart of several recent conversations and it seems like some comment may be useful.

  • We priced our recent co-housing workshop at $250/person, $300/couple. Some people thought this was too expensive and assumed we were trying to make a profit. Not so. It was a two-day workshop, in a rented venue, professionally facilitated, with catered coffee, lunches and a barbecue. We priced it in the hope that it would break even, and it almost did.
  • Similarly, the Associate Member sessions we’re planning now for March, will cost $250/person, $300/couple. That was enough to scare off one intended participant. Again, this is estimated to be cost-recovery. We’ve hired a professional facilitator for these sessions, to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to participate on an equal footing. We’ll also be paying resource people for some sessions to ensure, for example, that the most accurate legal and accounting information is available.
  • Not that we think profit is bad. A younger friend of ours, Kris Stevens at CoLiving Canada, is trying to make a business out of helping people with the ins and outs of cohousing. His recent workshop was similar to ours but priced at (as I recall) about $1200. I saw some comments sniffing about how “sad” it was to see people trying to profit off cohousing. I don’t agree. From what I’ve seen of cohousing activity in Canada at the moment, it’s characterized primarily by well meaning people with no idea what they’re doing, what options are available or what will work (exactly like us, except we’ve been at it long enough to figure a few things out). The only way for it to become scalable and sustainable is for people to learn how to make a decent living at it. We wish Kris and his colleagues every success.
  • Shares in Wine on the Porch, near as we can figure, are going to cost about $750,000, plus applicable taxes. If we wanted to live a couple hours outside Toronto (as many do!) we could do it for a third or less that amount, but we want to be in the city, in a walkable neighbourhood, on the subway, and that’s what it’s gonna cost. We’ve been asked at times how much money the four of us (two shares) are making on the development, and the answer is none. With a total investment so far just shy of $2.4 million (home purchase, land transfer tax, legal, and a few, immediately required maintenance items), each couple has invested approximately $400,000 in the project beyond what we expect our shares to cost at move-in date. We’re treating these investments as shareholder loans to Wine on the Porch Inc, to be repaid from the sale of additional shares. We are charging no interest on these loans, but that’s not because we’re particularly altruistic. We looked at this quite closely. If we charged the corporation interest, we’d also have to pay rent. (We reside in the premises pending renovation.) Looking at it from an after-tax perspective, the extra paper work didn’t seem worth it. Future buyers will be getting a bit of a break, we think, but not a whole lot. But back to the main point: nope, not making any money on it.
  • Finally, we have regular conversations about the nature of this product as a real estate investment. Because you’re buying a share in an equity co-op, your investment is protected to the extent that real estate is sound. You (or your estate) can sell your share and participate in whatever capital gain may have accrued. But, because there is as yet no track record for this type of real estate investment, the purchase is more speculative than most. Another way of saying this is that estimating “market value” is more of a crap shoot than usual. If demand increases for this type of housing, you might expect your share to increase with the market or even better; if there is limited demand, you might sell at a loss. Personally, I’m comfortable with this as an investment in real estate terms, but that’s not how I suggest people should look at it. What you’re acquiring is a share in a co-op, but what you’re buying is community.

Ultimately, then, it’s really not about cost. It’s about value.

One final word. Right below this post, there may be an ad (I don’t know, I never see them). WordPress puts them there in exchange for giving us this free blog. At least one reader was offended by a credit card ad she saw there and wrote to me about it. I have no control over the ads and (contrary to her assumption) derive no revenue from them. I suspect there might be enough people willing to pay $5 or $10 for a subscription so that we could cover the costs of moving this site to a non-free platform and maintaining it there, but it would certainly exclude many others and I’m not sure it’s worth it. Comments welcome.

Re-imagining homes for seniors

I took part in an interesting exercise a couple weeks ago. “Re-imagining Homes for Seniors” was sponsored by SE Health and Sidewalk Labs.

SE (formerly Saint Elizabeth) is a home care provider and Sidewalk is partnering with Waterfront Toronto to develop part of the eastern waterfront. Together they’re looking at models to provide affordable housing for seniors.

They lured a few dozen of us to Sidewalk’s offices down on Lakeshore East with the promise of a free breakfast, then put us in table groups and picked our brains about the kind of facilities and services we would want to see in a new development.

The premise was that we were communicating our housing needs to our real estate agent. We were asked to address options in seven categories:

  1. the nature of the physical space, whether fully self-contained apartment or what they called “cluster co-living”)
  2. is social or community programming available? If so, are there staff to organize it or do residents organize it themselves?
  3. what care options are there, from home care to onsite medical staff
  4. what support options exist, from community watch to
  5. options about living arrangements like home sharing and inter-generational facilities
  6. transportation options
  7. additional amenities.

What made it interesting was the use of a fixed “budget” of four points. For example, if you chose onsite medical staff, the Cadillac option in the health care category, that would cost you 2 points. Self-contained apartment? That’s another point. Your own parking space? One more point for a total of four, and you’re done. Don’t even think about any additional amenities.

Paolo Korre, SE Health’s director of Service Design, explains: “Over much of the last year, we’ve been doing research about emerging trends, innovations, and leading examples of senior living across the world. Along with Sidewalk labs, we compiled a list of the categories from this research that we felt haven’t been as well explored or discussed in Canada (at least not in Toronto), such as co-housing models. ” 

“The budget was intended to prompt conversation about priorities. By restricting the budget we would force participants to outwardly identify their priorities or at least identify what they value and where the conflicts are. This gave us insight into the trade-offs and compromises people might make.

“In general, if an option would increase the cost of rent, or would require investment, it was given a point (or 2 in the case of very resource-intensive options, like an onsite medical clinic). Some of the options, have the potential to save costs to the individual, e.g. co-housing or cluster living, so they were given a -1 point score.”

Each option was represented by a card. Pick your option and glue it onto the provided template for each category. I’m not sure if they saw this as an arts and crafts activity or just an easy way to collect data, but hey, everybody likes a glue stick.

In my case, the exercise affirmed the value of our Wine on the Porch model. With my template complete, I had the following choices:

  • Physical space: Cluster co-housing      -1
  • Social programs: self-organized           -1
  • Health programs: Home Care                  0
  • Support: Community watch                       0
  • Living arrangements: 50+                        0
  • Transportation: walk to subway              0

In other words, in the first six categories I totalled minus 2. So when it came to additional amenities, I could select all three — private outdoor space, onsite storage and guest suite, 1 point each — and still have a net total of only 1 point. Waaaaay under budget.

In fairness, our per person capital cost is probably higher than SE Health and Sidewalk Labs would project, because we’re not operating at similar scale. But it still makes the point that co-housing, in addition to its other benefits, delivers a lot of economic value.