The cohousing ‘Secret Sauce,’ affordability, inclusion and a new ‘American Way’

american-way

Superman’s “Truth, justice, and the American Way” is based on bigger is better than smaller; winning is better than losing; richer is better than poorer. What if that was refocused through a multicultural lens?

Cohousing Nation, by definition, lives a “New American Way” that balances the good of the community over that of the individual; accepts all people as different and all welcomed and valued; power and strength of a few are replaced by consensus and shared decision making among all.

As such, I’m convinced that cohousing communities – as well as other intentional communities like housing cooperatives – have the potential to bridge cultural divides that continue to plague our country today.

The average cohouser has at least some social justice blood running through their veins. I think change will have a better chance of happening by efforts by cohousers.

What if cohousers, turned out to be gatekeepers who work together and become allies with marginalized groups, rather than marginalized groups trying to break through the glass ceiling, with few allies there with a hammer.

Inclusion of diverse people will bring about more affordable housing organically as the dominant culture becomes more inclusive based on what I call, “c🕉munification” (cOMunification) that focuses on cultural and societal power and privilege dynamics and how only personal change can balance those out.

Remember the old 1950s TV show, The Adventures of Superman? The narrator told my friends and me to model Superman’s can-do behavior because, “he fights a never ending battle for truth, justice, and the American Way.”

Superman’s “American Way” is based on rugged individualism; cultural divides narrowed by assimilation; and quests for power and control.

There isn’t anything inherently wrong with the “Old American Way,” I think it needs to evolve along with society and one way that can happen is through a collaborative approach that results in truth, justice and a “New American Way.”

I continue to believe that racism, as we know it today, began in 1526 when the first people from Africa were enslaved to work at a short-lived settlement in South Carolina.

Public awareness of differences among people, particularly since 1964, enflamed simmering racist attitudes that continue to exist today.

I think people want to change and do what’s right, but based on the audiences I’ve met over the years, most people don’t know how to go about it. Personal change doesn’t happen over night and like anything else that requires better skills, it takes practice, and letting go of personal privilege isn’t exactly something people are too crazy about.

lincoln emancipation

It’s been just 154 years since Lincoln signed the emancipation proclamation.

The current political climate didn’t create racism, it makes it socially acceptable to reveal previously hidden beliefs that oppression of the weak was what, historically, made America great.

Considering America has a 339-year history enslaving people (1526 to 1865) that’s more than double the 155-year history, at least on paper, since President Abraham Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation (1865 to 2020).

There has been social change, but reinventing the American Way won’t happen over night

secret sauce

Cohousing secret sauce can undo the Old American Way.

A part of that reinvention is cohousing, which is a market-based solution. Cohousing brings individuals together to form communities.

Housing is housing, but what differentiates cohousing from other housing configurations is the “secret sauce” that mixes several ingredients. The recipe can be altered to meet differing tastes:

  • Relationships – Neighbors commit to being part of a community for mutual benefit. Cohousing cultivates a culture of sharing and caring. Design features and the neighborhood size are typically between 30 and 40 homes that promote frequent interaction and close relationships.
  • Balancing Privacy and Community – Cohousing neighborhoods are designed for privacy as well as community. Residents balance privacy and community by choosing their levels of community engagement
  • Participation – Decision-making is participatory and often based on consensus. Selft management empowers residents, builds relationships and can save money.
  • Shared Values – Cohousing communities support residents in actualizing shared values.

A certain ilk of the citizenry, mostly Baby Boomers and older, who experienced the Cold War, will try to reposition the conversation by clumping intentional communities together as “communes” and “creeping socialism.

I’m not talking about over throwing out social norms or the government, but rather reacting to how the general market is changing because it’s basically less expensive to live more collaboratively (higher density neighborhoods) and sharing resources (five households don’t each need a lawnmower).

The rugged individualist and free-market capitalists are unwilling to share their wealth and as such, the market reaction is toward c🕉unification.

Student Loans

As of June 2018, Forbes reported that total US student debt was $1.52 trillion and that 44.2 million people owed debt. The average student debt is $38,390.

My observation, Millenials and GenXers who are a generation or two removed from World War II are more accepting of individual differences and more supportive of the collective good out of a need to survive.

Being saddled with the the national debt of their parents, grandparents and great grandparents; forced into a college tuition system that will keep them under the thumb of Wall Street until they are old and gray are two reasons why young people are de-commodifying the American Way.

The tenets of a New American Way would say a home is where we live, not an investment. The only time a house should be commodified is when it’s time to move.

Rather than saying, “The yard needs more trees because it will increase our property values,”  The New American Way perspective is, “The yard needs more trees because they will improve the places where kids can play.” As a side benefit, property values may increase.

The cohousing brand of community development is also a hedge against unchecked gentrification, which is one of those jargony terms that get thrown around and used in various contexts.

I define gentrification as what happens when people or businesses look for real estate deals, purchase urban property that may or may not be distressed and update them without much collaboration with existing neighbors.

The data are these.

Cohousing communities consist of members who predominantly liberal, highly educated, high income Caucasians women with high perceived social class who, I think, are a more open to bridging cultural divides by “undoing” the Old American Way from within.

That is to say, members of the dominant culture who live in cohousing, have agreed among themselves to change their perspectives towards a New American Way.

Communification logo-1

“Om” is sanskrit that basically includes everything – past, present, future; beginning, middle end; emotionally and physically.

The end result of c🕉unification, by definition, is an attitudinal paradigm shift by members of the dominant culture who have agreed to increase cultural diversity in the wider culture, one cohousing community at a time.

This doesn’t happen by public policy but by community-based societal change:

  • There’s balance between the group and the individual;
  • smaller and less are better but all share in abundance, that isn’t always about bigger and more;
  • decisions are by consensus giving a voice to all, including minority positions;
  • there is recognition that everyone is different and all are included as themselves

While the tenets of cohousing are noble, they are easier said than done since the American Way is pounded into our heads from the moment we pop out of the womb.

melting pot boiling

The melting pot is no longer a relevant metaphor.

In the 20th century, the United States was metaphorically characterized as a “Melting Pot” in which races and ethnicities would learn English and assimilate themselves into homogenous Americans.

That was true during racial segregation when the pot contained white cheeses like swiss, edam, gouda, and feta, they blended together to make a mixed pot of white cheese.

Immigrants from Europe who all looked like each other, had the old American Way ahead of them after they learned English and otherwise assimilated.

These days, the country has become racially and ethnically multicultural as a result of immigration and can be a part of the New American Way.

Today, the blended food metaphor would be more like a “Tossed Salad” consisting of separate fixings like frijoles, cassavas, napa cabbage, and all kinds of lettuce that are unified with a common dressing.

In my mind, that common dressing is the “Cohousing C🕉unification” secret sauce, soon available at a farmer’s market near you.

Tiny House Cohousing?

wee casa

WeeCasa is a tiny house resort in Lyon’

Seems everything has a cohousing reference to me these days. On a quick trip up to Estes Park last week, there’s a place to stay over in Lyon’s Colorado called WeeCasa. It’s a tiny house resort. They rent for the the night or extended stay. It’s laid out like an RV park with a community room.

Now that would be a place for cohousing secret sauce, but how realistic is a tiny house cohousing community?

A couple years ago, I was on the road in Wyoming and spent a night at the Green Creek Inn and RV park. If you’ve stayed in camping / RV parks there’s, generally, an area set aside for semi-permanent places for longer-stay RVers.

In Wyoming, they are seasonal park workers, oil and gas field workers, hard-core hunters and fishers.

green creek rv park

The Green Creek Inn and RV Park between Cody and Yellowstone offers a low cost housing option for RVers.

There’s been talk about low cost housing types for Millennials paying off student debt, seniors seeking nursing home alternatives and marginalized populations like homeless vets.

As housing configuration alternatives come up, cooperative and collaborative approaches float to the surface. Tiny houses are low-cost to construct and lots of them can be crammed onto a piece of ground. As such, there are cities that are building tiny houses for the homeless population.

Tiny houses make some sense for an intentional community but developing one has more challenges than appear on the surface. The main one being counter to the American Way culture – smaller is better than larger; less is better than more; the group is more important than the individual. But I digress.

This is tiny house that is 21' by 8.5' in size with a fairly tall ceiling.

This is tiny house that is 21′ by 8.5′ in size with a fairly tall ceiling.

In a past life, I used to be a city planner in Wyoming, later a member the Boulder Planning Board in Colorado, as well as the Executive Director of Habitat for Humanity of the St. Vrain Valley in Longmont. I studied ecological biology and environmental politics as an undergrad and grad student. How to live a balanced life in both the human and natural environments has always been an interest of mine and why I live in cohousing.

The cohousing idea is a little bit about the buildings, but it’s more about setting up an old fashioned sense of community in which residents participate in the design, character and culture of their neighborhoods. With an itinerant population like homeless people, creating a sense of community would be a challenge. I would think tiny house cohousing would have quite a bit of turnover, at any rate.

Cohousing originated in Scandanavia, which is a bit more communal and socialistic than in the US. Here, cohousing tries to adapt communal tenets into the “rugged individualism” of America. The mobile American would fit this mold.

cohousing2

This is a 500 sq ft tiny house that has a 1-car garage and a balcony.

Over the past few years, interest in “tiny houses” has been growing. That is, people choosing to live in homes that are from 200 to 600 sq ft in size. There are a couple cable TV shows dedicated to the topic.

They are generally built on a “flat bed” and can be wheeled around from place to place, but also can be built on a foundation, but that kicks in an entirely different set of building requirements. Tiny houses on skids or wheels fall into the land use category of mobile homes or temporary housing. There’s technical jargon that defines a tiny house. In Boulder an accessory dwelling is not is highly regulated so as to prevent too high of a neighborhood density.

They are far different than your standard mobile home. Regular mobile homes can be the size of stick built houses that incorporate some space saving design features. Mobile homes are regulated and have design standards and have a strong lobbying presence. Tiny houses, if too popular, infringe on the mobile home monopoly.

If you google “tiny house” lots of websites and images pop up. There are several cable TV shows dedicated to the topic. The host / developer and an innovative builder work with people – mostly seniors and Millennials – to build their tiny house. The stories are about space saving innovations – steampunk trailers.

The biggest hurdles for traditional cohousing, as well as regular housing, for that matter, are government regulations and money. From a zoning code standpoint, tiny house communities will likely be a land use without a zoning designation.

Cohousing homes are houses with no lot lines with the development and individual houses

Cohousing homes are houses with no lot lines with the development and individual houses “designed” with input by the resident / community members. This home in Silver Sage Village recently sold for $750,000.

Money for land, money for the development are also typical impediments. Because cost is such a huge factor, stick built cohousing homes are constructed to maximize profit. This generally means expensive houses crammed onto a tiny space. How about the opposite – inexpensive houses crammed onto tiny spaces, that results in more open spaces?

Tiny houses cost anywhere from $20,000 to $60,000 and can be parked in friends’ back yards. They are often built with sweat equity. Check out one of the cable tv shows to get an idea about downsizing baby boomers, young couples and individuals making the move to drop out of the “bigger is better” society. The guy who comes up with the tiny house gadgetry is Zack Giffin, who is from Boulder.

Some tiny homeowners want to be more mobile, others are sedentary.

With tiny houses, a cohousing organizing “burning soul” wouldn’t need near as much space as a typical coho development. It would depend on the rules, but a tiny house development would likely be more transient. How to raise money? The organizational community structure during the development stage could be a corporation or LLC, maybe an HOA, if allowed by the state laws. It’s likely to be a commercial venture as opposed to residential, so may be more expensive.

It could be a subdivision with private lots that are sold, some may be rentals owned by the community. Is a tiny house a mobile home, an accessory dwelling unit? How do the uniform building codes apply?

Utilities could be “hook ups” like in an RV park. Decisions would have to be made, based on political jurisdiction about individual septic or a septic field or central wastewater collection; individual water cisterns or central water; city spec water and sewer.

I would think there would be some amenities like streets, sidewalks, open space, in addition to the common house.

This is the interior of a tiny house that through innovative design maximizes the space.

This is the interior of a tiny house that through innovative design maximizes the space.

At the typical RV park, the longer-stay “residents” have access to the common showers / restrooms, laundry, the little store and breakfast available to the overnight campers.

I can envision a common house that is more permanent, though. As a monetary hedge against potentially higher turnover rates, the common house, like at a KOA RV park, could be mixed use with community amenities like the open dining area, kitchen, laundry facilities, TV room, guest rooms, with business tenants or owners like a convenience store, coffee shop, business offices, laundromat and the like.

Because tiny houses are small, neighbors would be more likely to frequent the common house, compared to some traditional cohousing communities in which homes are the same as in suburbia with large living rooms, utility rooms, large kitchens. Cohousers go into their house and you don’t see them again.

Sarah Susanka says that buying a home strictly for

Sarah Susanka says that buying a home strictly for “resale” value isn’t the best choice.

There are the unfounded housing characteristics necessary for resale, as espoused by Sarah Susanka author of “Not So Big House.”

Susanka, who is also an architect, says that the sense of “home” has less to do with quantity and everything to do with quality. She points out that we feel “at home” in our houses when where we live reflects who we are in our hearts.

I heard her speak at Denver University a few years ago. The examples that stuck with me are those of the “den” and “dining room.” She asked the huge audience about who uses their den and who eats in the dining room. Not many hands went up. Dens and dining rooms, supposedly, increase resale value, but if nobody uses them, what’s the point.

I’d say that, for the most part, cities still have a bias AGAINST mobile home parks and hold the “trailer trash” stereotype. In a place like Boulder, there would be an uproar about this as a form of affordable housing. The best place to try this out would be where land is inexpensive and there is less of an elitist attitude.

beloved tiny home

The Beloved tiny house community organized by the Colorado Village Collaborative has been beset with zoning code problems.

Denver has a tiny house village called “Beloved” for homeless people. It has a common house and is self-governed. The community consists of 11 small houses and has met with some success. Beloved only had a six month temporary zoning permit for the current location and forced to move the entire village.

There’s the social stigma of housing for homeless people. Local mainstream cultures should be open to tiny houses for “regular” people. If the concept works here, why not in another setting? WeeCasa figured it out.

I’ll plant the seed, but it may take me developing the idea in order for me to make a documentary film about it. Anyone interested in organizing a tiny house cohousing community?

*****************

This article was originally published in December 2014, updated again in 2017, in part due to a wordpress glitch that obliterated the story.