The purpose of Affordable Cohousing is to collect information and generate ideas for producing housing for 30% of a household’s income.
Not government-subsidized rental housing, but ownership housing for the 30-50% of households that are housing-insecure.
Affordable housing as defined by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is misleading and promises a standard that is still unaffordable for 30% of households. HUD defines affordable as 80% of the median house price in the area. This standard is too high to encourage the development of truly affordable housing or to help everyone obtain housing. Developing “low-income housing” doesn’t excite developers or zoning boards. It is too often associated with blighted neighborhoods, low-quality housing, poor schools, and an underemployed population. It is seen as destroying a neighborhood rather than enhancing it.
What is Affordable Housing?
The standard of most economists and financial planners is that a household should not spend more than 30% of its income on total housing costs. American sociologist Matthew Desmond found that low-income households were spending more than 50% of their income on housing, some even 70-80%, and 90% was not unknown. In Evicted, he analyzes how this cruelty affects health, relationships, education, and employment in households that are otherwise strong and successful.
In 2019 almost 70% of all Americans had less than $1,000 in savings. 45% had nothing.* For these households, renting is the only option. But the average monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment in 2020 was $1,468. The hourly wage required to afford this ranges from $14 an hour in Arkansas to $37 in California. But the higher-wage states have the highest housing costs.
The average minimum wage in 2020 was $7.30. There is no state in which a minimum wage worker could afford the rent for an average two-bedroom apartment by working 40 hours a week. A higher wage in California doesn’t make housing affordable.
What is Cohousing?
Cohousing communities are cooperatively owned and managed clusters of houses or multi-household buildings designed to encourage residents to be good neighbors and share resources. To encourage diversity, they include a variety of home sizes that may range from studio apartments to four-bedroom houses. After 30-years of swimming against the tide, cohousing is now (almost) familiar and accepted in many states.
Cohousers are overwhelmingly liberal and idealistic. The purpose that unites them is creating environmentally responsible housing for people of all incomes and ethnicities. And to replicate the traditional neighborhoods that developed organically in cities and towns and included multiple generations and lots of children.
Once established, cohousing communities have been overwhelmingly successful. They are financially and socially stable. Developers are increasingly interested. Even neighborhoods that launched zoning fights against new cohousing communities have been appreciative and supportive after the community is built and inhabited.
The Problem With Cohousing
In the 1980s, cohousing could only be built by households with sufficient incomes to build without conventional financing and with the social connections and experience to influence town planning boards. Zoning codes typically allowed only single-family homes in residential areas and required a minimum lot size. Some lot minimums are several acres.
These external requirements have set the tone for cohousing. They required building for residents with above-average incomes to clear all the hurdles—people who knew how to confront city officials, had sufficient funds for a high down-payment or personal funds, and able to afford to live in one house during the uncertain two-year process of building another.
As a result, cohousing is dominantly market-rate housing affordable only by those with incomes higher than 50% of the median salary.
What Might Affordable Cohousing Be Like?
The goal that cohousing has not been able to achieve is the inclusion of a wide range of affordable homes.
Some communities have been able to include a few government-subsidized units or homes donated by Habitat for Humanity but the vast majority of homes in cohousing communities are market-rate in middle-class neighborhoods. Creating communities that are truly diverse and available to all income levels has been elusive.
The purpose of Affordable Cohousing is to explore wider possibilities, serve as a center for sharing ideas and strategies, and to encourage new communities to achieve the dream.
*Except where otherwise noted, the statistics on this page are from Statista, an independent, global source of statistics and data related services for business.