Learning from the cohousing model

For many, the image that first pops into people’s heads who have heard of cohousing is one of boomer hippies sharing communal meals every Sunday in their housing complex. The thing is, it’s a fairly accurate assessment for many of the only 110 cohousing projects in the U.S., and while it’s far from desirable for most people, there are some good lessons from its creation process, which is very relatable to crowdsourced placemaking. Here’s one Brooklyn story:

When a plan to build 40 courtyard-oriented apartments within an long-abandoned Episcopal church, its former rectory and a new building fell through, a group of cohousing advocates incorporated themselves as Brooklyn Cohousing LLC and bought the rights to the site, plans and city approvals. To date, 14 member households have committed $20,000 to $40,000 (and sometimes more), and 25 ‘associates’ that have invested $500 (nonrefundable) and agreed to attend weekly meetings. The goal, naturally, is to secure enough members to get a construction loan to start building next spring so people can move in by early 2010.

Decisions are made by consensus, often with members holding up one of six colors to express their opinions objectively: green = agreement; blue = neutral; yellow = unsure/unclear; orange = serious reservations but will not block consensus; red = will block consensus; white = don’t know enough because I didn’t do my homework.

One of the decisions the group immediately made was to reduce housing prices, such as smaller kitchens and living rooms in lieu of a larger common space, minimizing spare bedrooms with the use of guest rooms within the building, and providing a range of sizes and configurations from studios to four-bedrooms. No word on parking, but the website does emphasize green and sustainability prominently.

Read more about the decision making process in the NY Times article, A Village Down the Block and accompanying slide show. The most interesting element in the article is that the group has now been approached by four other Brooklyn developers looking to sell their projects, as the development’s project manager states, “There are developers telling me they cannot get construction funding because they don’t have buyers they can point at and show the banks.”