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.

Our 15 minutes of fame on Metro Morning

We were up at 4:30 making coffee. We left the house at 5:30 to bike along the dark lake shore to the CBC building downtown. Really not much traffic then! Got to CBC about 6:30, cooled our heels in the “Green Room” for a bit and then had an interview with the capable and charming Helen Mann.

Gentle density

Shawn Micallef’s column in today’s Toronto Star, “Toronto’s grudge against apartments,” makes a strong argument in favour of co-housing, even though he never mentions it.

The column explores one aspect of Toronto’s outdated zoning bylaw, which designates the great majority of the city as  detached or semi-detached residential only,  leaving a downtown pocket as the only place where apartment buildings and condos are allowed to grow.

Not surprisingly, in those areas, they tend to grow very high. The city becomes a place of extremes, torn between the condo canyons of downtown and the residential neighbourhoods that, in their basic layout, often look a lot like suburbs.

Established neighbourhoods fight furiously to prevent development which they assume (most often correctly) will bring more ungainly towers to dominate their two-storey streets.

What’s missing is smaller scale development, from duplexes and triplexes to mid-rise buildings (usually six to ten storeys). “Don’t like tall buildings?” asks Micallef. “Then fight for density to be spread across the city.”

Density is the thing that makes great cities vibrant and liveable. We may, arguably, have too much of it in the downtown core, but we need more of it everywhere else. More density means more cultural activities, more restaurants, more shops, more diversity, more of everything that makes life interesting, if you’re an urban person.

Micallef quotes Sean Galbraith, an urban planner: “Everyone complains about tall towers downtown and everyone wants midrise, but part of the problem is an inability to unlock additional small scale intensification in existing neighbourhoods…. we should provide more smaller scale housing options everywhere in the city.”

There it is.

Humbly, we offer co-housing as a partial solution. Our view of housing includes a shared home for about 10 to 12 people. We expect the home to be about 6,000 square feet. That’s a rather large structure, especially in a residential area, but at 500 to 600 square feet per person it’s actually higher density than most condo buildings and certainly higher than a neighbourhood of single family dwellings. Higher density, but on a smaller scale.

By adding such ‘gentle density’ we argue that we improve the neighbourhood with our shopping, entertainment and recreational pursuits. We, um, look forward to having this conversation someday soon with a city planner.

Our co-housing model moves ahead

Thirty people joined us October 23 for an information session on our co-housing plans. Over the course of two hours we:

  • provided a presentation exploring our ideas in more detail
  • gave people a chance to discuss with each other their own ideas for co-housing
  • engaged in a q&a session
  • and explored next steps.

We’ve now sent a survey to the participants to identify their interests in proceeding. Some important considerations.

  • our house will ave a shared kitchen, not individual kitchens. For some people, that’s a little too close. They’d prefer co-housing (cohousing) organized around fully self-contained suites. That’s not our model, but we’ll try to help them find each other.
  • our house will have a no pets rule, at least initially. Understandably, that’s a deal-breaker for some.
  • a couple people find our model too costly, or would like to pursue a different timeline.

And we’re delighted that several people have said they want to meet with us regularly and explore our model in more depth.

These are preliminary results with about two-thirds of the questionnaires completed.

We’re holding another information session November 13 to accommodate those who couldn’t get in to the first session. We do not expect to hold further sessions after that. However, we will continue trying to make connections among people wanting to pursue co-housing.