Here's an excellent intro, Thereís Community and Consensus. But Itís No Commune. in the Jan. 20, 2018 New York Times.

Urban Village!

The vision: Let's create an urban village of our own -- a place where we want to live, the way we want to live.

(We used to call it cohousing but too often that conjured images of hippy communes which are not at all what we have in mind.)

We are middle-class professionals who want to know our neighbors, to conduct much of our lives in a smaller footprint, and to share some resources we couldn't afford by ourselves.


We had a Dynamic Governance workshop with John Schinnerer on September 29th and 30th, 2012.

We had a Getting It Built Workshop, led by Charles Durrett and Kathryn McCamant (our gurus Chuck and Katie) on March 10th and 11th, 2012.

So What Is Cohousing?

Chuck and Katie describe it succinctly:
  1. Participatory planning, design and development process
  2. Design that facilitates community/neighborhood
  3. Extensive common facilities
  4. Management is by the residents
  5. Non-hierarchical structure and decision-making
  6. Residents each have own income sources (not a shared economy)
This is the essence of cohousing. If you're considering it, be sure you love (or at least you can live with) all these things!

How Do We Pay for It?

Some of us have substantial savings or a retirement fund we can use for this purpose. Most of us don't. Rather, our financial resource is the equity we have in our houses. Our kids are grown and gone, we no longer need all those bedrooms, and we're thinking about a new way of living. Less isolation, more community, and a smaller carbon footprint. But we don't have much cashflow for a big mortgage payment on a property that doesn't yet exist. So how do we pull this off?

And there is another complication. We're willing to move from our existing homes to the new ones we'll design and build but not until they're built! Where do we live during the years (yes, years) it takes us to get that done?

The solution to both problems (finding the money, and staying in our homes until our new ones are built) is a kind of construction bridge loan (also called hard money) combined with a kind of reverse mortgage that can be arranged working with some creative and visionary bankers we've identified. It's not simple -- we'll pioneer this! -- but working with the right people, it is possible.


Our community will have:

A. A conventional ownership mechanism (condominiums)
  • So we can each get financing
  • So it's straightforward to buy and sell units
  • So the limits of self-governance of the community are clear

B. A rehabbed industrial core structure (if we can find one, start with an industrial building and convert it to housing/mixed use)
  • A "green" approach
  • Lends some character to the site

C. What if we can't find a building to rehabilitate?
  • Let's build our own!
  • How about starting with something cheap to build -- very minimal -- such as a cement shell, with industrial/commercial space below and an upper residential floor.
  • We'd each own a cube of it and could do its interior as we each choose.
  • Something like that. (This is all up for discussion... Share your own vision! Design your own space!)

D. A private living space for each participant
  • Yes, everyone has their own kitchen.
  • Each unit is a complete home, with bathroom(s), bedroom(s), living room(s), etc.
  • It is as conventional or unconventional as its owner chooses to make it.
  • Some owners may want to have some commercial space e.g. a retail shop downstairs; let's plan for this if possible.

E. Lots of shared resources, with a technology/arts orientation and environmentally conscious, such as:
  • A dining room and kitchen (a big shared one)
  • Art studios
  • A performance space
  • A server farm
  • A vegetable garden
  • Water catchment
  • Solar power
  • Solar hot water

F. And above all, good people. Quoting Chuck Durett's June 2008 article, The Social Side of Cohousing:
...If you can make the social side work, then it's easier to accomplish your other aspirations as well.

What It's Not

  • It's not an investment in the sense of speculation -- we're doing it not to make money or to create something for resale; we're doing it to create a community and a place we want to live in.
  • It's not a commune.
  • It's not an intentional community; there is no idealogical, religious, or spiritual theme, though those things may certainly be possessed by individuals who join us.
  • It's not a political movement. There is no litmus test.

How Much Does It Cost?

Raines Cohen, one of our Bay Area cohousing gurus, describes it thus:

Cohousing is not affordable housing.
It's not cheaper than conventional housing, just different.

Here are the price tags on the phases of cohousing:

  • 2-digit ($10s) for meetings, membership fees (monthly), childcare expenses, meals, getting going

  • 3-digit ($100s) for workshops, trainings, and conferences

  • 4-digit ($1,000s) for feasibility, consultants, assessment, legal advice, design, permit applications

  • 5-digit ($10,000s) for downpayments, investments -- what's needed for design and approval

  • 6-digit ($100,000s) for construction, mortgage financing, and purchase

Chuck and Katie wrote (July 22, 2013):

There is so much misunderstanding and false economy around the costs of growing older. I've asked over 200 people, who now live in cohousing, how much money they were saving per month, compared to what they spent before. Savings ranged from $200 per month to $2430 per month. The person who was saving the most sold one auto, moved from a house with an average of $300/mo in energy bills to one with an average of less than $50/mo, traveled less, and had 20 other monthly bills dramatically reduced.

In a senior cohousing we just finished in Grass Valley one resident just told me that he went from purchasing 4-5 tanks of gas a month to less than one. That has so many other benefits besides economics, less exposure by being less often on the road and less green house gases emitted.

People staying in their homes is expensive and wasteful. Having people institutionalized is expensive and distasteful. The challenge to seniors interested in community is to be a little proactive and entrepreneurial. The default, staying at home waiting to be institutionalized, is the proverbial frog in the pot of warm water. The greatest risk of all for seniors is to do nothing at all.

Location, Location, Location

The location will be urban -- San Francisco would be great if we could overcome its politics and economics. Several similar efforts have failed in SF. There are a half-dozen thriving urban villages (cohousing communities) in the East Bay (Oakland, Emeryville, Berkeley, Pleasant Hill) and affordable industrial-margin sites with at least some urban services (public transit, shopping). An East Bay location may be an acceptable compromise.

However, it looks like a new opportunity is emerging in San Francisco: India Basin:

  • In a recent article, the SF Chronicle described it as San Francisco's last frontier.
  • Here is the neighborhood association. They have meetings, walking tours, and lots of vision.
  • Here is the location on a map.
  • The now-defunct and de-funded San Francisco Redevelopment Agency has created Draft Plan for the India Basin Shoreline -- 76 acres stretching from the PG&E power plant (that has been razed) to the Hunter's Point Shipyard (which is long gone but is still being cleaned up and redeveloped) -- that changes: zoning, building heights, transportation, housing. It is just a conceptual document, but it gives a sense of what is possible here.
  • The residents of the neighborhood have a vision for their place and offer a draft document describing this vision. Recommended reading. They have also created a Facebook page with historic and contemporary photos of the neighborhood.
  • Right now it's undeveloped and underserved. But it's changing; there are people with their own visions and lots of energy. And a priceless resource like that will not sit still. If the community activists don't seize control the developers will. Let's "be the change"! (Gandhi)
  • It's got priceless things: waterfront, hillsides with views, some wetlands, and the possibility to realize our vision of joining and contributing to a new community, the way we dream of doing.
  • They sponsor occasional free walking tours of the waterfront that meet at Heron's Head Park at Cargo and Jennings:
    FREE. Join the India Basin Neighborhood Association on a 3-mile flat walk along our beautiful shoreline and hear about the community vision for the future. The San Francisco Redevelopment Agency has created a draft Plan for the 76-acre India Basin Shoreline from the PG&E Power Plant to the Hunters Point Shipyard. It addresses: Zoning, Building Heights, and Transportation. The plan calls for 1200 housing units. The community has creative ideas that take advantage of this unique location and include active recreation and entertainment areas, jobs and business opportunities, boating center, community farm, dog park, skate park, and family homes. Sounds interesting? Wear sturdy shoes. Walk begins and ends at the Heron's Head Park parking lot. The 19 Polk stops nearby. Check the India Basin Neighborhood Association web site for details.
  • Carl Nolte wrote an article about India Basin in the SF Chronicle.

    It's an amazing piece of San Francisco!

The Concept of the Urban Village

An urban village has three features that distinguish it from ordinary housing developments in the USA:
  • Its residents participate in the development process from the very beginning. With the help of experts, they do the planning and design and financing and construction. They don't just buy something some developer developed; they are the developer.
  • They don't do it to make money (as an investment); they do it for themselves because they want to live there.
  • It has more shared resources (see above) than typical housing which might share only a pool, a lobby, and a driveway.

Wikipedia has an excellent description of the concept of cohousing. Give it a read!

Cohousers in San Francisco

Here is a group with similar ideas: SF Cohousing who writes:
What would it be like to own your home in a thriving community, close to work and school?

Cohousing is housing created with the design input of the residents, according to common goals such as sustainability, community, and simply living well by sharing more. It includes individual homes supplemented by shared facilities and common areas. Management is consensus-driven and done by the residents.

There are over two dozen cohousing communities in the Bay Area to date, and it is time to build the first community here in San Francisco! Together we can make it happen.

We hope for residents of all ages and backgrounds, singles, couples, and families. A diversity of uses, including residential, work/live spaces, and retail storefronts, will enable residents to run businesses within the community. Shared gardens, open space, and a common house provide opportunities to know your neighbors, get involved, and live the good life, right here in the best city in the world.

Others Doing Urban Villages

In some European countries (notably Denmark) the cohousing movement is mature and well-established. Some cohousing communities were begun there four or five decades ago. Much can be learned from them.

Katie McCamant and Chuck Durrett are leading this movement in the United States. I've heard them talk. They're great people doing important work. Here is An Interview with the Pioneer Couple of American Cohousing. A quote:

It was very evident how advanced the Danes are in the art of housing themselves, with lots of clustered housing based on sociological research about what people need. What we saw there seemed very applicable to the American lifestyle, especially the idea of balance between privacy and community. Privacy is very important, but in America, come to an extreme point on it, losing community along the way. Sure, you can get in a car and drive to find community, but that gets really old after awhile. The idea of spontaneously finding community just walking out your door, running into neighbors, and being able to go to a movie with them, or sitting down with them and talking about what a tough day you had at work -- that's hard to find these days. People interested in cohousing are trying to find a balance between privacy and community again. Without losing their sense of autonomy, they want to come home to something bigger than an empty house.

There are already a few dozen cohousing groups in the USA. Several are in the Bay Area. Here is a directory.

It's happening in New York City, too -- my cousin Elsie attempted it there. Here's an article from the New York times of 11/30/2008 about it (and her). They made great progress but the project ultimately failed when the banks would not provide financing. What a stupid decision by the lenders, and what a shame so much time and energy was wasted. A cautionary tale, I guess, for anyone who thinks these projects are easy.

Near Sacramento in Northern California, a community named Glacier Circle has succeeded (see article in the Sacramento Bee) and so has another named Wolf Creek Lodge in Grass Valley.

Another approach is to create a "village" -- See the Feb. 9, 2010 article For Senior Care, Sometimes It Does Take A Village in Kaiser Health News. It starts:

Nearly three years ago, Harry Rosenberg and his wife, Barbara Filner, met with nine of their neighbors about starting an aging-in-place "village" in the Burning Tree community of Bethesda, Maryland. The idea: If neighbors could help one another with basic services such as transportation and simple home maintenance and with friendly visits, people could stay in their homes longer as they aged. It took 19 months of planning and organizing, but Burning Tree Village accepted its first request for assistance in November of 2008: helping an 81-year-old widow take out her trash and driving her to the doctor.

Here's an excerpt from an article from the AARP Bulletin: Elder Cohousing -- A new option for retirement -- or sooner!.

Pat Darlington, 59, realized that when she got older, she didn't want to live like her 83-year-old father. It struck her when she was visiting him in Florida and realized he should no longer be driving, only to be told his neighbors had come to the same conclusion long ago. Why hadn't they let her know, the Oklahoma psychologist asked? "We didn't want to get involved," they said.

Their hands-off attitude became the driving force behind Darlington's decision to help create Oakcreek Cohousing Community in Stillwater, Okla. Across the country, senior cohousing, like the one Darlington is planning, is turning into an increasingly popular option for boomers and older adults. In these communities, a group shares a property, lives in condos or attached homes clustered together, and shares some weekly dinners, outdoor space and facilities.

On the grounds is a common house, a feature of all cohousing projects, containing a kitchen for preparing communal meals or potluck, a dining and living room, and other rooms, depending on what the group wants. Options might include a media room, an office, a workshop with a kiln, or a fitness or art studio. The common house always has two or three bedrooms for guests and caregivers should aging residents need them.

The social interaction often extends beyond the property. If someone wants to go to the movies, for a hike or to the theater, they can send out an e-mail or ask around. There's always an instant buddy, or the space to be alone.

People in Darlington's world are buying into the concept of elder cohousing. So far, at Oakcreek, 12 one- and two-bedroom houses costing $150,000 to $265,000 have been spoken for by residents ages 57 to 84; the group needs to find another eight people to commit to houses so it can break ground this June.

Great expectations

When she reaches her dad's age, Darlington expects to be surrounded by loving, supportive neighbors. She hopes never to be in assisted living or a nursing home.

Darlington has seen, firsthand, the life she doesn't want. "I have patients with a ton of money, long-term care insurance and round-the-clock caregivers, and they sit in their lovely homes bored and lonely," says Darlington, a widow whose four children are scattered around the country. "I saw my dad isolated in his own house and that is not how I want to spend the rest of my life. When you go to a financial adviser, you're told to have a diversified portfolio. Cohousing is my social portfolio," she says. "Some people say, 'Why are you doing this? You're only 59.' I want to invest in relationships now so that when I need help, I will already have them. We have choices and don't have to do 'aging' the way it has always been done."

Not that trailblazing boomers, now in their 50s and 60s, would settle for the status quo anyway. They watch their parents decline in institutional settings or cut off from society and vow not to wind up like that. "People are creatively and proactively saying that there are options that might be better," says California architect Charles Durrett, who, along with his wife, Kathryn McCamant, brought the idea of cohousing from Denmark to the United States in the late 1980s. "The trend of senior cohousing is just getting started."

Copyright 2012 © AARP

Here's an article from the New York Times: A Grass-Roots Effort to Grow Old at Home.

August 14, 2007

A Grass-Roots Effort to Grow Old at Home


WASHINGTON -- On a bluff overlooking the Potomac River, George and Anne Allen, both 82, struggle to remain in their beloved three-story house and neighborhood, despite the frailty, danger and isolation of old age.

Mr. Allen has been hobbled since he fractured his spine in a fall down the stairs, and he expects to lose his driver's license when it comes up for renewal. Mrs. Allen recently broke four ribs getting out of bed. Neither can climb a ladder to change a light bulb or crouch under the kitchen sink to fix a leak. Stores and public transportation are an uncomfortable hike.

So the Allens have banded together with their neighbors, who are equally determined to avoid being forced from their homes by dependence. Along with more than 100 communities nationwide -- a dozen of them planned here in Washington and its suburbs -- their group is part of a movement to make neighborhoods comfortable places to grow old, both for elderly men and women in need of help and for baby boomers anticipating the future.

``We are totally dependent on ourselves,'' Mr. Allen said. ``But I want to live in a mixed community, not just with the elderly. And as long as we can do it here, that's what we want.''

Their group has registered as a nonprofit corporation, is setting membership dues, and is lining up providers of transportation, home repair, companionship, security and other services to meet their needs at home for as long as possible.

Urban planners and senior housing experts say this movement, organized by residents rather than government agencies or social service providers, could make ``aging in place'' safe and affordable for a majority of elderly people. Almost 9 in 10 Americans over the age of 60, according to AARP polls, share the Allens' wish to live out their lives in familiar surroundings.

Many of these self-help communities are calling themselves villages, playing on the notion that it takes a village to raise a child and also support the aged in their decline. Some are expected to open this fall on Capitol Hill; in Cambridge, Mass.; New Canaan, Conn.; Palo Alto, Calif.; and Bronxville, N.Y.

``Providers don't always need to do things for the elderly,'' said Philip McCallion, director of the Center for Excellence in Aging Services at the State University of New York at Albany. ``There are plenty of ideas how to do this within the aging community.''

Although not a panacea for those with complicated medical needs, the approach addresses what experts say can be a premature decision by older people to give up their homes in response to relatively minor problems: No way to get to the grocery store. Tradesmen unwilling to take on small repairs. The isolation of a snowy winter.

As these small problems mount, sometimes accompanied by pressure from adult children, experts say, the elderly homeowner is caught off guard. Remaining at home without sufficient help is frightening. But moving to an assisted-living center is often an overreaction that can be avoided or postponed.

``A few neighborhood-based, relatively inexpensive strategies can have an enormous effect,'' Mr. McCallion said. ``If people don't feel so overwhelmed, they don't feel pushed into precipitous decisions that can't always be reversed.''

For inspiration, the nascent groups looked to Beacon Hill Village in Boston, which pioneered the approach six years ago. Beacon Hill's 400 members pay yearly dues -- $580 for an individual and $780 for a couple, plus ŗ la carte fees -- in exchange for the security of knowing that a prescreened carpenter, chef, computer expert or home health aide is one phone call away.

Experts in aging say the self-help approach provides a sense of mastery, often lost with the move to an institution or even an adult child's spare bedroom. That can-do spirit is attractive to baby boomers like Alisia Juarrero, 59, who is a board member of the Allens. group, which spans the Palisades neighborhood, an enclave of single-family houses northwest of Georgetown, and Foxhall, an adjacent area of attached Tudor homes.

Ms. Juarrero is mindful of the future because of the struggles of her 89-year-old mother and 92-year-old aunt in Coral Gables, Fla. ``This is where we're all headed,'' she said. ``If I help set this up, it'll be there when I need it.''

So far, most of the villages are in places where residents are well connected and skilled in finance, law, medicine and philanthropy as a result of their own careers. That raises the question of whether the model is viable only in neighborhoods of privilege. But experts point out that most care for the elderly is already out of reach for all but the wealthy.

The amenities of an assisted-living center are far more expensive than a village's membership fee. Medicare does not pay for long-term care, and private help is costly. Only the destitute are protected in old age because Medicaid pays their nursing home fees.

A few villages are cropping up where low-income families live, such as in the Richmond District of San Francisco, with its recent wave of Russian immigrants; Falmouth, Mass., where year-round residents struggle when the summer crowd is gone; and in pockets in Westchester County, like Yonkers, with diverse populations.

In such locations, social service organizations are likely to organize the project, instead of the older residents, and they rely on volunteers or bartered services to keep fees down. One member fixes another's faucet, banks the time and in exchange gets a ride to a medical appointment.

Groups also share expertise online and at local and national conferences, including several this past spring. Some have access to regional resource centers that help with matters like hiring an executive director or buying liability insurance.

In terms of government support, New York State is at the forefront, with a 20-year-old model known as a NORC, or naturally occurring retirement community. Since 1995, the state has financed social services, including nurses and case managers, in many apartment buildings with a concentration of residents over 60. Last year, it added a few suburban neighborhoods, so-called horizontal NORCs.

On the federal level, Congress authorized experiments in aging in place in the 2006 Older American Act but did not finance them.

The sprawl of suburbia presents challenges to the elderly once they cannot drive. Amid the rolling hills of Fairfax County, Va., one group is grappling with how to serve prospective members in a place with a single general store and five-acre lots. Taxi vouchers may be too costly when running errands can take hours. Recruiting volunteer drivers from 118 home owners. associations and 17 churches presents liability issues.

.The question is distance and time, and the money that relates to that,'' said William Cole, 77, the founder of the group. Mr. Cole anticipates yearly dues of $1,000, which may be prohibitive for neighbors who are real estate rich but cash poor. One likely service, Mr. Cole said, will be advice about reverse mortgages.

Many of the villages are concerned about whether they can provide adequate support once the founding members, who tend to be vigorous regardless of age, decline either physically or cognitively. In this regard, the New Canaan group, with annual dues of $360 and $480, may be less vulnerable than most. The suburb already has a home health care agency, an assisted-living center and a nursing home, thanks to years of advocacy by a local physician, an 87-year-old board member.

Because of that, ``we have the confidence to live without these problems getting the best of us,'' said Tom Towers, 69, the board president of the group, Staying Put in New Canaan. ``And if they do, we can take care of it right here.''

The first village in the Washington area is expected to be on Capitol Hill. When it opens for business on Oct. 1, annual memberships will be $750 for a couple and $500 for an individual.

Among those eager to join are Marie Spiro, 74, and Georgine Reed, 78, who share a rambling house that they insist they will only leave 'feet first'.'' Between them, Ms. Spiro, an emeritus professor of art history and archaeology, and Ms. Reed, a retired designer of museum exhibits, have already endured three knee replacements and an array of other ailments.

Ms. Spiro describes huffing and puffing while grocery shopping; Ms. Reed is increasingly reluctant to visit friends across town. Both women, who are childless, would already welcome help with meals, transportation and paperwork. If they need home care, Capitol Hill Village will be able to organize that.

``I've never had to rely on other people, and I never wanted to,'' Ms. Spiro said. ``But I'd rather pay a fee than have to ask favors.''

Members of all these groups share an independent streak -- and the willingness to plan for the future. Those characteristics were on view recently in a living room in Hollin Hills, a post-World War II development in Alexandria, Va., where a half-dozen neighbors who once organized baby-sitting co-ops are now organizing for their final years.

Now, in their 70s and 80s, they still drive, play tennis and travel the world. None has yet lost a spouse, but they fear what will happen to the one left behind.

``The vast majority of people don't have the capacity to be realistic,'' said Ruth Morduch, 71. ``We don't know what's going to happen in X number of years, but we know we're going to need help. In my own home, that's less likely to be humiliating. And an organization like this gives me a sense that we're all in this together, our last grand adventure.''

Copyright 2007 © The New York Times Company

Dynamic Governance

One of the biggest challenges of all-volunteer groups like these is self-regulation. How do we manage ourselves to minimize squabbles and to get hard work done?

This is no mean feat and has sunk more than one well-intentioned group. Especially when the topic is money -- lots of it, often one's life savings -- discussions can become scary and contentious.

The answer, we have concluded, is a system (pioneered in Holland) named Dynamic Governance. We think it's an essential component for projects like cohousing.

Here are some documents that describe it.

-- Dan Keller   
(415) 861-4500   
Updated Tuesday, 23-Jan-2018 16:50:41 MST   


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