Cohousing in the Context of a State-of-the-Art Affordable Urban Ecovillage

By Tom Braford


Cohousing is now well established in the US with a successful history of twenty years and close to 120 established communities with many more on the way.  This plus a much longer history in Europe guarantee that the movement is here to stay.  The US movement is also now sufficiently mature and stable to begin innovating on its own, especially where it overlaps with the ecovillage and the affordable housing movements.

Most of this innovation to date, however, has not yet become an integral part of the challenges presented by these two other movements, resulting in both higher costs and the need for higher subsidies when neither is in abundant supply.

Culver Way Ecovillage is addressing this with a full suite of innovations that both maintain the essential social breakthroughs of cohousing, like resident participation in planning and design, design for community that includes private homes situated around a shared common house, consensus decision-making and resident management.  We are also addressing the financial challenges associated with affordability and sustainability.

Green housing costs more because of the provision of both higher quality construction and alternative energy.  We have tried to address this as a culture through tax credits and subsidies.  Cohousing has made it easier by achieving better design and some economies of scale, but it still usually costs more.  The approach to affordability has been similar.  Communities have relied on traditional subsidies and have done some differential pricing, i.e., charging those who can better afford to pay more for capital improvements, condo fees and even units.  This is a band aid, however, that addresses the symptom rather than the cause.

The causes are inefficient resource use and lack of income opportunities.  There is also a structural problem with the way that housing and almost everything else is traditionally financed.  Both terms and interest rates are capricious, reflecting more what the market will bear than any relationship with the productive use of resources and time.  We are addressing that by first forming a Mutual Benefit Trust, i.e., essentially a partnership with our investors, and then a Technology Credit Obligation bond Issue as the project grows.

We are addressing the first by a thorough overhaul of what it means to live and work in a community.  For starters we will provide all our own utilities, including water and waste treatment and provide most of our food and power.  Secondly we will utilize community space as intensively as practical.  This will mean more simultaneous shared use space and sequentially shared use space.

We will have an eco center that serves as shared business space during the days as well as co-working space on an hourly basis and a cafe on evenings and weekends.  Likewise parts of the common house will serve as a Charter School and other enterprises during the day and a typical common house evenings and weekends.  A micro utility and urban farmers’ co-op will process water and waste and intensively farm roofs, sidewalls, greenhouses, courtyards and portions of basements.

The result will be a decoupling of core private housing costs and community amenities from economically productive activity which itself can be spread over many enterprises.  This will result in both lower housing costs up front and stable and possibly even decreasing costs over time as well as a diversity of income opportunities.

For more detail, see www.CulverWay Cohousing.com or visit us on the third Saturday of any month for a tour and orientation, as well as a potluck lunch, beginning at 11:00 am.