Mission: To present affordable, sociable and secure alternative housing models such as cooperatives, cohousing, home sharing and even dormitory housing that may be more appropriate for vulnerable populations at various life stages.
Nobody has ever before asked the nuclear family to live all by itself in a box the way we do. With no relatives, no support, we’ve put it in an impossible situation.
- Margaret Mead
We have myriad, intertwined crises: an economy in the throes of wrenching change, environmental degradation, housing collapse, families under extreme stress, and children not getting an adequate—much less a quality—education. Caring for an aging population, and paying for it, stretches our resources. A great solution would take a whack at all of the dysfunctional elements.
Bolstering our families and communities, i.e., our social infrastructure, can make a huge dent in these thorny problems. Shifting how we think about housing is a good place to start.
Our current model, the nuclear family, is recent in human history, having become the de facto standard only since World War II spawned the baby boom, which spawned the housing boom, which spawned the scourge that we know today as sprawl. Even when we had close to full employment, a housing crisis was bearing down working people. To cope, many moved far from their jobs and commuted an hour or two each way at great personal cost. A two-hour daily trip adds up to 40 hours a month. The economic collapse has compounded the misery.
Housing cooperatives, cohousing and shared housing models can be affordable, sustainable and community oriented. When participants are aware of and resourceful to each other, communities that provide an actual safety net, rather than the mythical safety net of the Bush years, are not just possible but probable.
Housing cooperatives provide residents with democratic control over their housing environment by creating a corporation that owns or leases a residential building. Each resident owns a share in the corporation that owns the property. The share ownership conveys the right to live in a unit. This arrangement can be more affordable because it provides members (residents) rents that need not produce a return on investment, or income, for an owner, resulting in greater affordability. Successful housing co-ops range in price from Section-8 to the famous Dakota on Central Park in New York.
Cohousing originated in Denmark 30 years ago and is gaining momentum here. Over 100 developments are in some stage of formation in the United States. Cohousing is collaborative housing in which residents actively participate in the design and operation of their neighborhood and consciously commit to living as a community. Inherent to cohousing design is a common house and outdoor space that serve as the fulcrum of the community. Private homes contain all the features of conventional homes but need not be large or elaborate because the gathering places are typically with others. The common facilities are designed to suit the community—perhaps a kiln, exercise equipment, a playground, a garden. The possibilities are limitless.
House sharing, common during the depression, is a model that can serve us today. Although inter-generational, non-familial house sharing is far from mainstream, when it is successful, it has great potential for harmonious, supportive and economical living. The trick is getting the right combination of people with realistic expectations and clear communication to happily cohabitate under one roof. The National Shared Housing Resource Center is a clearinghouse of information for people looking to find agencies that can facilitate shared housing in their community or help to start a program.
Shifting our housing models to be community oriented, gives us the infrastructure to make headway on our other social problems as well. A healthy community will have people of every stripe, color, and talent. It would also have the broad, deep experience to help with homework, listen to a confused or angry teenager, teach a kid to fish or get someone’s electronics programmed correctly.
Another benefit is strength in numbers: concentrating the number of like-minded people in a geographic area to share resources and pollinate ideas, neighborhoods will become pockets of light and action. These communities can more easily address environmental issues by composting, car sharing, or undertaking initiatives that could make a significant difference. A household could easily improve its budget, environmental, health impact by cooking healthful meals at home rather than resorting to fast, junky food that seems cheap but is very costly.
I have a vision of monthly gatherings at which communities explore solutions to their common problems, including housing. The people we need now are experienced at developing cooperatives and cohousing, and counselors to screen, evaluate and match people for shared housing. Depleted budgets have taken a toll on the social service sector so many skilled people are available for training. People who have the expertise, or can be readily trained, to foster healthy communities and households will facilitate smooth transitions.
Looking to the past for solutions to today’s problems does not work. The economy that we knew has morphed into something unfamiliar and threatening. The rules have been re-written by the completely of touch banking industry, well compensated lobbyists and a compliant Congress. Given our gridlocked political system, leveling the playing field may take a long time.
Now, more than ever, the fresh ideas are coming from the grass roots. New Community Vision is doing its part to inform and educate the public about affordable and sustainable housing models that serve the needs of today’s demographics: the economically vulnerable single-family households, single parent households, young people starting out, and older people winding down. Everyone could benefit from communities and households that are aware of, responsive to, and supportive of, their members.