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 50% of households that are not housing-stable and do not have the housing-security the other half has.
What happened to Sustainable Cohousing?
Affordable Cohousing began as Sustainable Cohousing because the usage of affordable by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is misleading and promises what it doesn’t deliver. HUD defines affordable as 80% of the median house price in the area with no reference to actual income. Since low-income is often associated with blighted neighborhoods, low-quality housing, and an underemployed population, low-income was not a good alternative. Using sustainability was a try at creating a positive alternative. But sustainability is most often applied by environmentalists’ efforts, for example, to replace non-renewable oil and gas with the renewable energy sources of air and wind. It was an uphill battle to explain that sustainability also meant that a solution had to be affordable for everyone. Housing is a universal need.
After many questioning comments, it became clear that the better choice was not to try to find a new word. It was to confront the misleading use of affordable by simply using it to mean what it means—within everyone’s budget.
What is Affordable Housing?
The general consensus of economists and financial planners is that a household should not spend more than 30% of its income on total housing costs. But Matthew Desmond as reported in Evicted found that low-income households were spending more than 50% of their income on housing, some even 70-80%, and 90% was not unknown.
For everyone to be housing secure, affordable housing needs to defined in terms of 30% of income. Period. A democratic society has to meet that need at that level.
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 wages are also in states with the highest housing costs. Moving to California for higher wages also means higher 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.
What is Cohousing?
Cohousing communities are cooperatively owned and managed clusters of homes or multi-household buildings designed to encourage residents to be good neighbors and sharing resources. To encourage diversity, they include a variety of home sizes that may range from one-bedroom apartments to four-bedroom houses. After 30-years of swimming against the tide, cohousing is now (almost) familiar and accepted in many countries.
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 have been appreciative and supportive once a community is built and inhabited.
In the 1980s and to a lesser degree now, cohousing could only be built by households with sufficient incomes to build without conventional financing and with the ability to influence town planning boards. Town and city zoning requirements typically allow only single-family homes in residential areas. To build multi-household buildings or a cluster of houses on a smaller lot requires approval. These external requirements have set the tone for cohousing because meeting them was the only way to build a cohousing community. It required middle-class well-educated residents with above-average incomes to clear all the hurdles—people who knew how to confront city officials and able to take the financial risk. Thus contrary to its purpose of diversity, cohousing has resulted in market-rate middle-class housing.
What is Affordable Cohousing?
Affordable cohousing is a dream and was always included as one purpose of cohousing. But it is the one promise cohousers have not been able to keep—truly 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. 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.