Why one kitchen?

In a comment on the preceeding blog post, Lisa asks how we came to agreement on the shared kitchen. She’s not the first. It’s a puzzlement and a stumbling block to many. I won’t “give up” my kitchen is something we’ve heard more than once.

And I was startled, in looking back through other posts, to realize that since we started this blog, it’s always been a given — we haven’t really tried to explain it. I guess it’s time to do that!

The shared kitchen goes back to our initial retreat in March of 2016. The four of us drove together to the Inn where we intended to spend the weekend making plans. Along the way, we were still discussing the only model that had occurred to us to that point: that we would all buy condo units within the same building and, when there were enough of us, jointly buy an extra condo to serve as a common facility.

This model had the benefit of simplicity and allowing for growth over time, but when we analysed the costs we felt it was likely prohibitive. Ultimately, though, it wasn’t the matter of cost that changed our minds. It was the fact that, over the course of our weekend together, we realized that’s not the kind of arrangement we want. We’re looking for something that more closely resembles the idea of “intentional community,” which is best served by closer contact.

In my research on existing, traditional cohousing communties (by which I mean those that have self-contained, independent dwellings plus common facilities) I have not yet found one that manages to have a meal together even once a week. A few get together every two weeks; the vast majority seem to eat together once a month or less. And we found ourselves thinking, “Why bother?” Why invest in those extra facilities if you’re only going to use them once a month?

And, conversely, if we each had our separate kitchens, we could easily imagine ourselves falling into the same pattern as all the others. Would you really be able to sustain the effort of cooking together as a group if you had the choice of just fixing something quick on your own? We imagined ourselves in our separate condos, having uprooted our lives for the sake of very little change. If all we want to do is get together once a month, we can do that now.

No, we want something more. As we see it, the dominant forms of elderly housing in North America these days tend toward a harsh choice between life in an institution, or a life of increasing social isolation.

We reject both choices, and a shared kitchen is integral to our view of a better alternative. The kitchen is often the very heart of the house. It’s where people gather — how often have you been at a party and suddenly noticed that everyone has gravitated to the kitchen?  It’s no accident that most religious  and cultural traditions have sacred rituals associated with eating together. It’s part of what binds us as human.

So for us, one kitchen symbolizes the kind of community we want. We’re not completely rigid about this: We will make additional facilities available, either in-suite or between two suites (TBD) so that, as one of us puts it, we can “make a cup of coffee and a piece of toast without going downstairs.”

But for us, the thought of sharing a kitchen, cooking together and, normally, sharing an evening meal together, is part of what we look forward to.  It’s not a sacrifice, it’s a benefit of community.

 

Toronto has too much housing???

Just came across this report from a couple months ago. Two young planners, Cheryll Case and Tetyana Bailey, have done a study called Protecting the Vibrancy of Toronto Neighbourhoods.

According to census data, “30 [Toronto] neighbourhoods actually declined in population and another 65 were essentially frozen, gaining less than one person per kilometre despite the city’s 7.6 per cent population growth between 2001 and 2016,” says a feature report on their work in the Toronto Star.

Toronto density graphic star

In other words, we have whole neighbourhoods of housing built to accommodate substantial families of four, six or eight people, and now many of those houses have only one or two people rattling around in them. Sure there are construction cranes everywhere, but average household size in many parts of Toronto has actually been shrinking.

So there’s an increasing mismatch between the kind of housing the growing (and aging) city needs, and the kind it has available. In turn, one of the factors driving this mismatch is a set of restrictive zoning regulations that make it difficult for residential neighbouroods to evolve as their demographics change — for example, by converting a big single residence into two or three, or by adding midrise developments to some of the streets now occupied exclusively by detached residences.

One of the policy arguments we’ve been making in relation to our co-housing proposal is that it is precisely the sort of “gentle density” the city needs to redress declines in household size.

Additionally, if those of us currently occupying family-sized dwellings are able to move into co-housing situations, it will free up important housing stock for younger or larger families.

This in itself won’t solve Toronto’s housing issues, of course. It’s only a small piece of the puzzle, but certainly a step in the right direction. Let’s hope planners and, especially, political leaders, are paying attention.

 

 

A new beginning…

Hard to believe the last post was four months ago. At that point I spoke of the reduced size of our group, to four couples, and looked forward to a retreat in early June when we would assess how to move forward.

It was a good retreat. We rented an old farmhouse south of Guelph and spent a weekend in conversation, interspersed with cooking for each other and enjoying walks in the forested countryside.

Over the course of a weekend, we worked through a draft memorandum of understanding (MOU). It was an attempt to codify the discussions we’d been having over the past several months and make sure we were all ‘on the same page’ about the project.

It’s a ten-page document that lays out:

  • goals of the project
  • how it will be financed
  • how we will operate as an organization, including methods for settling disputes
  • what happens when there’s a change in membership, through death or departure
  • what’s included in the common facilities as a core requirement, and what additional facilities may be considered, depending on specific circumstance
  • guidance to a real estate agent about what would make an acceptable property
  • a rough outline of cashflow needs as the project proceeds.

The idea was to agree on the MOU in principle, get it to the point where all of us felt comfortable signing it, then, over the next couple of months, have our lawyer work it up formally into the articles of our not-for-profit corporation.

Looking back, it’s difficult to convey the quality of our discussion on the MOU. Over the past several months we have come to know each other deeply and to care for each other. So, while the discussion was intense and often included disagreement, there was no trace of rancor. No one was trying to “win.” All were working toward common solutions.

The common kitchen (or rather, the lack of individual kitchens) was a big sticking point for one person in particular. “If I really just don’t want to have to interact with people over a couple of days I want the ability to do that,” she said. “I’m not prepared to give up that much independence.” Over against that was our common desire to reduce our environmental footprint and to promote our interdependence.

We worked it through.

Another was concerned about the wording of the clause related to construction standards for reducing energy use and greenhouse gas production. Would it lock us into unsupportable expenditures?

We found language we were all comfortable with.

We recognized that we needed a process for assessing new members that would give existing members the right to choose who could come and live with them — a screening mechanism — and also be equitable and non-discriminatory. We also agreed we would each open up our financials for review by a third party to assess whether we had the financial capacity to participate in the venture (a procedure that in North American culture leaves many people feeling more naked than, well, being naked).

We agreed on a process.

In the end, there were only two items we felt needed further work, including some detailed financial work on pricing shares for additional members. The concern was that those first in should be fairly compensated for advancing their funds to initiate the project, and we had a lengthly conversation about how to do that while also being fair to subsequent buyers. Ultimately, we left that discussion over for a couple of our members to do further work.

We agreed to polish up the MOU with amendments as discussed, do our homework on the outstanding issues, and meet again in two weeks.

And that’s when two of the couples withdrew.

One felt they just weren’t ready. The other had some emergent personal issues that needed dealing with. Both of them indicated their disappointment. The rest of us shared it. We finished our lunch and then segued into a series of smaller conversations. It felt to me like a palpable reluctance to let this go.

Ultimately, the ones who were leaving, left, and four of us — the original two couples — remained behind.

There was no whining, but there was much wine.

And then, as we continued to meet regularly over the next few weeks, we began defining a new approach to our goal.  We considered various types of housing, different legal forms, different approaches to community. We spent some time looking at potential properties with a sympathetic real estate agent,  getting a clearer sense of the current state of the market. We did some increasingly detailed work on financial projections, trying to discern whether the four of us alone might be able to proceed.

We think we may have a plan.

Ultimately, our goals have not changed. But our inital approach was to form the community first, then collectively work toward building the shared home. Now, we’re just going to go ahead with the development on the theory “if you build it, they will come.”

As far as we can tell, that’s not just wishful thinking. We’ve learned a lot over the past year about how people respond to this concept, what they’re looking for, what attracts them to it and what holds them back. Repeatedly, we’ve seen people stumble over making a commitment when they can’t visualize what they’re commiting to. “Where will the house be?” is often the first question. “What will it look like?”

Cost is also another barrier, and it’s not so much the actual cost as it is the uncertainty. We’re approaching this as people who have been fortunate enough to be participants in the Toronto real estate market for many years. We can sell our existing homes, convert the proceeds to a shared home, and come out ahead. But much of the budget remains speculative until we have an actual property and an actual set of plans, among other factors. For some, this uncertainty is too worriesome.

And so we propose to reduce the uncertainties. We will proceed to acquire property, produce architectural drawings,  begin construction and — if need be — complete it. Our prospectus for potential new members will move significantly beyond a discussion of concept, to: “Here is the address. This is what it will look like. This is what it costs.”

We have begun having discussions with an architect about producing conceptual drawings to help us with this process.

Watch this space.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Setbacks

Well this is some tough stuff. When last I updated our status, we were eleven individuals representing a potential seven units — four couples and three singles.

One by one, we’ve lost our singles. One still had young adults not fully settled and wasn’t ready to give up her home.  One, I think, felt not quite enough affinity in terms of interests and lifestyles. One came to the reluctant realization that her capital resources weren’t sufficient. (Our planning to date has been based on self-financing with a per-unit capital buy-in of $600,000.)

So we’re down to four units, all couples, at the moment, and it puts us in something of a quandary. After the first individual bowed out, we made a decision that we would not re-open recruitment at that point. The difficulty is that each new person puts us back to square one in building relationships. We don’t want to spend months or years in serial dating and never get to the point of commitment.

On the other hand, we’re not sure that a four unit community is sustainable, or that the four of us have the financial capacity to achieve our goals on our own. The continuing steep climb in Toronto housing prices doesn’t help.

It is, as one of our members put it, “a big conversation.”

Fortunately we had already planned a weekend retreat for early June. Here’s hoping we can find a way forward.

Momentum builds

Let me just acknowledge there have been fewer posts recently as our attention has been focused more inward on building our group. We are currently 11 individuals representing a potential seven units. We meet about every three weeks to get to know each other better and continue to firm up our plans.

It’s fascinating to see how much sustained interest there is in what we’re doing. A couple months ago we did a 20-minute segment on Metro Morning just because we’re thinking about co-housing. We don’t have a location, a formal organization or any details, but the program’s producer still thought the conversation was interesting.

Yesterday, a feature on the front page of the Star’s Business section promoted a co-housing/co-ownership session organized by Lesli Gaynor, a Toronto real estate agent.

csi-cohousing-session
Overflow crowd for a co-housing/co-ownership session at CSI’s Bathurst Street location, February 8. Affordability was a major concern.

Co-ownership is in some ways a simpler concept than the co-op model we’re promoting, but it still has challenges. Many lawyers don’t understand the intricacies of a co-ownership agreement, and the financing can be challenging (how does a bank foreclose half a house if one of the co-owners defaults on the mortgage?).

Lesli has founded a company to help people learn more about co-housing, have ready access to legal and financial expertise, and make the purchase.

A large crowd turned up for an open session last night. We were among the panellists. Seeing the  relatively young audience, we thought the focus might be exclusively on affordability. It was of course a major concern, but we also found a lot of interest in our project and its goals of community and sustainability.

The cost of housing in Toronto is creating significant challenge and hardship for many people, especially younger people. There’s a small silver lining, perhaps, in what we saw last night. People are bringing energy and creativity to the overlap between housing and community.