Most cohousing projects fail

That’s why you should buy in one that exists and by default, that means affordable.

I have no words about this article but I”ll look for some comments to add – from those who added comments. I shamelessly promoted my blog.

First Comment I grabbed:

I’ve been following co-housing for years after seeing it in Denmark 25+ years ago. I have looked for opportunities to join communities, but far too many are in the country and it’s unrealistic for me to be miles outside of town. Also, the consensus decision making can slow things down – a lot. I visited one in WA state that took years to decide if a resident could cut a tree down in front of their house. It’s also very expensive in the urban areas & therefore attracts mostly white, well educated, upper middle class or retirees. Still..it’s a wonderful idea. I’d love it if it was an affordable solution to the housing crisis in the USA.

Another:

I was interested in cohousing ever since the early 1990’s when I learned about the Danish model. It seemed like a delightful model for retirees, other couples and single people, and families. Over the years, I looked into the available cohousing communities. Many sounded amazing, with a mix of generations and the weekly meals and social events and community workdays. Unfortunately, many of them seemed quite expensive for a one bedroom home, if they even had them. And, I wondered how well everyone would get along. So, my current thinking is to live in a reasonably priced rental [if such even exist] and continue to find community nearby. It doesn’t have to be in a dedicated common space with weekly shared meals. That said, cohousing still sounds lovely!

A cheaper solution for loneliness (and aging):

Here’s the best remedy I’ve found for that problem and it’s cheap. It’s pickleball, the fastest growing sport in the country–or was till covid hit, and likely will be again, soon. Perhaps I just stumbled upon a particularly gregarious group, but I don’t think so. Go stand wistfully at the edge of a pickle ball court just about anywhere, and mention that you’ve never played, but you’re interested, and it’s likely someone will thrust a racket into your hand and tug you out onto the court. It can be athletic or gentle. The oldest players in my group, about a third of us were 70+, up to about 85. You tend to hear a lot of laughter. You can often find these groups at YMCAs or senior community centers. Last time I played, I met a gentleman who had flown in on his private plane to play. Just wanted to expand his friendships and playing skills, so he ventures to surrounding courts often. It won’t solve your housing problems, but in the meantime, you can still find some joy in your life.

Bob the Builder, Can he built it? Yes!  Does he want to? Heck no!:

It’s interesting. I , and my brothers, were builders. I am now retired and moved as far away from other people as I possibly could and built my house in the middle of the woods. I can’t believe that these amateurs would attempt such a project as described. This is why I have moved so far from my fellow men ( and women ), people this naive are dangerous.

I too understand why being a hermit seems nice after a burn – this person was burned in a coop but me, in cohousing and it was like she says – loudest voice wins, and sometimes the most narcissistic (or one and the same) ::

This article makes me a little sick and my heart goes out to the people who lost their savings. Sadly, though, it does not surprise me. One of the worst experiences of my life was being part of a co-op in New York City, where the biggest bullies and the loudest voices always prevailed, often using unfounded personal accusations to get their way. I was once a pie-eyed optimist, but no longer do I believe that cooperative ventures who put idealistic values, like giving every person a say in every decision, can succeed. You have to make sure expertise and hard financial realities outweigh idealism when it comes to decisions or you are doomed. Dollars to donuts, the most idealistic members of this community had the most money And thus the least to risk. 

I have avoided all forms of common ownership or co-op associations ever since my first experience. You only have to go through a bad experience once to understand that, sadly, humans today are not wired to put the common good off a group over individual economic interests. 

As for the behavior and delays on the part of local government? You can bet your last dime that oversized egos, financial interests, selfishness, and political grandstanding caused those problems. 

Being a hermit has never looked more attractive.

Take me to your leader:

A project like this is not for amateurs. Even dreamers have to be practical. Why did they not know the place was all ledge? Why did they not know they would be required to have a water system, not a bunch of wells… each one of which must be a required distance from septic, and must not drain the underground water? “Caring communication” is worthless if you don’t (a) have a leader or (b) know what you are doing. Everyone had their own special reason for investing, but no one seemed to be looking at the overall project!

Another way to do it:

I don’t understand why all of these projects seem to be based on the idea of building a bunch of custom houses on remote parcels of land. It’s cheaper, faster and more environmentally friendly to use houses that already exist. You don’t have to control every detail of your surroundings to form an intentional community – you could do it in a 60s apartment complex if you let go of your attachment to the “co-housing aesthetic”.

This comment makes me wonder if targeting seniors and telling them you will be lonely if you don’t do this is really a scam? I know I fell for it.  This person seems to get what I couldn’t see until it was too late:

One of the most worrisome clauses in a construction contract is the one that says : ” If we hit rock , the costs will go up.” Evidently they hit a huge ledge. It seems to me that a huge ledge could have been competently mapped and assessed beforehand. While I think that co-housing in theory might be beneficial I have not seen it become affordable yet. I spoke with a woman recently who had developed and spearheaded such a project locally. She had solid middle class savings. ” By the time it was finally built, she said, she could no longer afford to buy one of the houses. I am so sorry for those who lost their savings or sold an existing residence just in time to be priced out of buying something new. I hope that somehow the project can be salvaged. At my age, also, I would be reluctant to volunteer to deal with so many personalities who could impact my comfort, security and peace of mind. I want peace and serenity in my old age. Currently a small house and mid size garden are still working fine although I can’t do any of the heavy work anymore.

New York State of MInd:

t’s just a co-op. I once lived in a co-op. Horrible. The trap was the underlying mortgage, same as here. Also it was rumored the president got huge kickbacks from every contract. I only believed it years after I lived there. The board was always at each other’s throats. I would never do it again.

The Devil is in the Details:

I, too, once felt the pull of communal living in a co-housing development. Then I bought a condo in NYC, with a sadly inept management company, plus a condo board, and have reassessed that desire.

And a reply to the Devil:

sometimes it’s the luck of the draw. I’ve owned 3 coops in NYC. The 1st was a direct purchase from an inept developer. we formed a group, sued and were able to have all concerns addressed. The second was a small self-managed non-evict conversion project. My fellow co-opers were insane and I had to tolerate them for 20 years. 3rd times a charm. I now live in a professionally managed well maintained coop. we are all tremendously grateful to live in such a great building. Owning individual houses is also no picnic.

MORE COMMENTS SINCE PUBLISHED ON SUNDAY

One person saw how hard it is to lose their money and their dream. That’s what hurt me – the losing of the dream. Now, I hope to recoup my money at least.  (I just decided to try to house for sale, again).

Some other nuggets from the comments:

Leaderless democracy inevitably leads to the emergence of demagogues and charismatic charlatans.

Real experience:

One of my friends moved into cohousing to the tune of $900K for a “condo” in a building with common rooms. Whenever I’ve visited, there has been no one in any of the common rooms (this was pre-pandemic.) I don’t honestly see what difference there is between this and living in an apartment building with common space? Many buildings now have common kitchens, libraries, gardens, and playrooms. 55+ communities have small houses with common buildings. Why would you take on the financial risk of a cohousing community? P.S. The residents have to shovel snow off the roof in the winter. No thanks. P.P.S. If you’re buying a unit for $900K this also seems the opposite of anti-consumerism

EXPERIENCE FIRST HAND:

I take issue with Karen Gimnig’s claim that it is “really, really rare” that “things could happen.” Hah! My partner and I moved into a new cohousing community in June of 2020 that I will not name because we are considering suing our general contractor. This place was slapped together by incompetent and/or uncaring workers using the cheapest materials possible. As time passes, we continue to suffer as the shoddy construction reveals itself: plumbing leaks, HVAC problems, electrical problems, improper grading of the land, improperly installed insulation, fire alarm and sprinkler problems, etc. The list is endless. In one house, it was discovered that the dryer vent simply stops somewhere inside the wall and does not in fact extend up and through the roof. A fire hazard if ever there was one. Some advice for those intrepid enough to try this way of living. (1) Never, never, never hire an architect who lives thousands of miles away. (2) Sociocracy sounds great on paper but to say that it is frustrating in practice is the understatement of the century. Choosing to live here, for these and other more personal reasons, was, for me, a colossal blunder.

More first hand red flags:

Having been a real estate investor for forty years and a sometime dreamer I often dreamt of buying into a co-housing development just outside the Bay Area on the way to Sacramento in California. The meetings I attended as an observer at several cohousing ‘open’ houses revealed how closed-minded many of the leaders were to new ideas rocking the boat. There were some ‘leaders’ who seemed to control the rules at different developments across the state which turned out not to be by chance as much as it appeared. In the long run I decided collecting rent checks was a much better approach to real estate than cohousing.

Not in my Backyard and still not impressed (and some of the environment effects though most coho people want a lighter footprint):

Some have pointed out obvious problems – need for an expensive septic system, rock ledge, lack of a project manager. Others lacked more attention. “Sociocracy”: another name for consensus. Although it can work for those with similar views, it takes enormous amounts of time, as some noted. It it NOT a way to take on big, expensive projects with significant risk, like this one. Real estate developers -routinely- face multi-year delays from local zoning and planning boards. There are both good and bad reasons for such delay. Good: Private property has such extraordinary rights that you want to be careful what you allow. A projecct has to be OK with the community. Bad: It’s a way to keep people out. Either way, these delays are routine. The project manager that they failed to hire could have told them that. Beyond that, I’m wondering: Did they have lawyers or other people who represented them at these boards. Did they have experts in law, finance, and construction among their members, all of whom could have given valuable advice. I once opposed a co-housing project in my neighborhood. It was too dense for an already-congested area. The members adopted a “we know better than you do” attitude with the community. There were environmental contamination problems on-site. It eventually got built, at the cost of much rancor with the community and over far more time and at far greater expense per unit than any of their members expected.

The C word comes out:

As someone who really agrees with many collaborative living goals I would recommend moving into city centers. Stop trying to reinvent the wheel! These things seem borderline cults. And they are difficult to sustain even if they can be successfully launched. I’ve looked at these things from a professional and personal perspective. Even “successful” communities are constantly in strife. As someone said earlier, when everyone is in charge, no one is. Move into a town center. Get to know your neighbors. Live in and enhance a community that already exists.

View from where one of the US pioneers live – the architects who wrote the book, and still do, on cohousing lives here:

I lived in Nevada City co housing for 7 years. I have some good memories of my community living there, and some bad memories. It was nice to have so many friendly neighbors. I knew every person in the 33 home community. I did not need to lock the front door of my house in the 7 years I lived there. I did not even carry a front door key on my car key chain. It was nice to get home from work in the evening and walk over to the common house and sit down to a nice dinner that had been prepared by a neighbor and visit with neighbors. What was bad was the consensus decision method for making group decisions and policies. That was dysfunctional. It seemed to be such a struggle to come to an agreement on things. What was really frustrating was community rules that we had all agreed to. They were not enforced. Nobody wanted to be the “bad cop” and confront a neighbor about a rule they were breaking. For example it was a rule that garages needed to be for parking a car in and could not be used for storage. But walk around the parking area and half of the garages were full of boxes, furniture, bikes and junk. 

Another frustrating thing, it seemed like 20% of the people did 80% of the landscaping work and maintenance around the community. There were a lot of lazy people who preferred to lay around the pool or do something else on a work day. Making group decisions involving money was hard. Some people on tight budgets did not want to raise living costs by spending $$ on things.

Commune turn off:

In the 1960s communes began popping up around the country, often in or near college towns, based on principles similar to those described in this article as collaborative living, though without the big financial buy-in of a separate dwelling unit. I was invited to join a suburban commune where several faculty and grad student couples would all have their own bedrooms and bathrooms in a very large home and share the use of the kitchen, living room and other common areas like a basement rec room. I knew many but not all of the commune’s members, and after meeting with them to discuss the rules and requirements decided not to join. All of the members were smart as could be but some were slovenly in their living habits—who would clean the kitchen and other common rooms? Not these people. Who would cook, and whose dietary preferences would prevail? Who would manage the finances for common expenses like utilities? How would those in arrears be forced to pay up? How would disagreements be resolved? Could shirkers or obnoxious people be voted off the island? Was a constitution or rule-book or legal agreement needed to spell out all of these pesky details? Imagine all of these issues laid atop the financial, legal and real estate issues involved in collaborative living, and I think one can see why the failure described in this article occurred. Repeats of the failure should be expected unless required levels of expertise and experience are baked in from the beginning.

Many Universalists love cohousing but yes, church is faster, cheaper, easier:

Fascinating comments on this! But other than a couple of shared meals every week and a signed statement of values, I don’t see what’s on offer. It seems like a massive organizational effort and financial risk for what I can easily and cheaply obtain by joining my local Unitarian-Universalist fellowship.

It is an investment:

Well, there’s a reason for the saying, “Fences make for good neighbors,” beyond just the social implications. Ceding direct control of your assets is fraught with unpredictable results, regardless of good intentions. For the same investment you can own a small home and not have to rely upon a group. Just too much uncertainty here for me.

And one more person quoted from the movie Wall Street saying Never Get Emotional About Money.  

About CJ

I was a Spanish teacher for 5 years in the Public School system in 3 different states. I homeschooled and taught at a democratic free school. I heard about cohousing in 2010 and wanted to move in right away. I met a group building one in 2018 and got to move in the summer of 2019. It only took a year to want out.
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2 Responses to Most cohousing projects fail

  1. Flower says:

    I see you covered the article here. I tried looking in your blog, but found the other article you posted. I found this comment on another site, not on the NYT as I don’t read it. I found this interesting:

    “Apologies for the belated comment. As the former spouse of one of the people who lost their entire life savings, I think it’s important to highlight that ultimately, this is a story of failed project management by the people who happily took her money. The sad and discouraging thing is that they appear not to have learned from their mistakes. If you read their updates on their website, they are still blaming everything on nefarious outside forces. One of my guiding principles throughout my career was, “You can delegate authority, but you can’t delegate responsibility.” The group running things still accepts no responsibility.

    Example: They now say that the powers that be, who supposedly don’t want projects like this to succeed, “conjure” obstacles and roadblocks. What did that mean in this case? They were building their project on an old urban junkyard, where the soil and the groundwater were full of heavy metals and other toxic materials. The group assumed that they could simply dig wells for their water supply. The evil powers that be “conjured” a requirement for that water to be treated, and thus made non-lethal. While this was being resolved, grant funding was naturally held up. There were other, similar issues which cropped up. But the group still refuses to take ownership, simply blowing these things off as something that someone else should have taken care of.”

    It was a recent comment made in May by Ava.

    I don’t know how to link to these sites or if I should. It’s a sad story though. Imagine being in you 70’s and losing your money like that.

  2. CJ says:

    Thanks for finding and posting that quote. Yes, it’s important to look at how the group reacts, esp. when things go wrong. And that’s another reason cohousing is hard – it is self managed and not everyone can manage.

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