In my 20s, I lived in two different housing co-ops, both emphasizing sharing, self-management and community. A seven-year-old neighbour dropped by almost daily with impressive anecdotes of conquests real and imagined. A couple in their 80s left anonymous care packages at the doors of families who had fallen on hard times. We knew each other, and cared for each other, in these communities.
Many years later, when my children were in places of their own, I found myself living alone, in a house that was too big and quiet, and no longer suited my needs. I’d recently retired and was wondering what would come next.
After reading a newspaper article on cohousing — where interested parties join together, form a development group and build housing that will suit them and their community-minded goals — I was intrigued. A Google search turned up something worth looking into: a group calling themselves Compass Cohousing had just inked a deal on some land in Langley, B.C., on a site that would work for me.
Cohousing communities, which emerged in Denmark in 1972, are planned and designed by the people that will live in them. The first such community, built by 27 families near Copenhagen, valued environmentally sensitive and pedestrian-friendly designs and set the standard for all subsequent communities. Self-sufficient, individually-owned homes are complemented by a common house with shared amenities including a community kitchen and dining hall, play spaces, workshops, guest rooms, laundry facilities and more.
Child-care costs can plummet when families share in the work. Energy savings can be substantial, especially when renewable energy sources, like Vancouver Cohousing’s solar panels, are included in the build. Maintenance and landscaping costs are reduced because residents often take that work on themselves. Guest rooms and offices become more optional, as the Common House often includes guest rooms and shared workspaces. Gyms, workshops and music rooms mean people can lose their garage, or gym membership, but maintain their hobby. Families share group deals on internet and cable.
Our cohousing project will include a car share club, which saves families from the cost of a first or perhaps a second car. At Compass Cohousing, we’re planning to skillshare in order to run a nonviolent communication group, and offer free guitar lessons, card-making classes, and woodworking lessons.
British Columbia has 11 existing cohousing communities and four under construction. Roberts Creek Cohousing, on the Sunshine Coast, consists of 31 detached and attached units sitting on 20 acres. Quayside Village in North Vancouver and Little Mountain Cohousing in Vancouver, currently under construction, are examples of dense urban cohousing projects. Quesnel, Sooke, Nanaimo, Chilliwack and Nelson are also all home to cohousing developments, each one reflecting the input of its original members.
If you build it, will they come?
During the early stages of any cohousing community, a development company is created. Members contribute funds to the company, becoming both a shareholder and a director of the company. The funds members contribute will be applied to the price of the unit they later select, and the order in which members join the company is the order in which they’ll select their units.
In an effort to be multigenerational, we have 15 distinct unit designs that go from 450-square-foot studio units to 1,500-square-foot four-bedroom units. We’ve designed units under 1,000 square feet that can either be large two-bedroom units or small three-bedroom units — aiming to provide more affordable options for families with kids. We are adding office space to our Common House so that people who work from home can have a quiet place away from but close to their family, possibly reducing the size of the unit they will need. The smallest units are designed to make space for single members of the community, like me.
We are also in talks with Inclusion Langley Society, a non-profit that provides support services to help people with special needs live in the community, about reserving up to three units for their clients.
While members come from a variety of backgrounds, most of us have extensive experience in the volunteer sector. We listen well, speak with candour and support one another. This has come in handy when, for example, we had differences of opinion about how B.C.’s COVID restrictions would affect a neighbourhood walk we’d planned to hold near our build site last November. While some of us felt that meeting outside would be safe, others disagreed vehemently. We could not reach consensus and decided to cancel the neighbourhood walks until the restrictions are lifted. We all understand that within the group context, none of us will get our way all the time.
The road from conception to ribbon-cutting on a cohousing project can be long and arduous. So it’s no surprise that the membership of our group has waxed and waned as the process has stretched out — we counted about seven members at our lowest enrolment, and about 24 at our highest. When all is said and done, we aim to house about 100 to 110 people, of which 60 to 65 will be adults. As we get closer to breaking ground, we anticipate that more families will join us. Vancouver Cohousing, for example, sold out well before its move-in date.
After Compass Cohousing was founded in 2015, a search for suitable land in Langley ensued. While early members put serious effort into figuring out where to build — looking for an acreage where they could build cohousing and grow local food — their search was fraught with cost and zoning difficulties.
Rather than give up, our members decided to look for property closer to town, and to focus on building relationships with Langley Township councillors and municipal staff in order to educate them about the benefits of cohousing. Group members met with councillors to advocate for the project, and eventually, both the environmentally minded and pro-development councillors began to see the merits of cohousing.
During a meeting in November 2018, we finally had a breakthrough when Compass member Doug Chaffee changed tacks with staff, asking how they could help us move our project forward.
Township staff then suggested several potential sites that were part of the Township’s own inventory. The first property Compass members were shown was an old gravel pit, which we decided would take too much time and work to rehabilitate for development. Next, we saw a property near an intersection that was being rebuilt. We decided it would be too heavily impacted by traffic.
The final property was the one we chose: a site central to many amenities, near 203rd Street and 66th Avenue.
Building here will allow us to densify a property that’s currently close to several bus stops and will eventually be close to a SkyTrain station. We’ll also have space for several electric vehicles operated by members of our car share club — and the capacity to increase the number of shared vehicles if the need arises.
We’ll be within walking distance to grocery stores, pharmacies and the library. There are multiple greenways and walking trails bordering our property — safe places for cyclists and pedestrians, and community members who use mobility devices. We’ll also be close to child-friendly parks and public schools.
The other kind of green space
Our goal is to complete a 40-unit complex, which comes with a price tag that can feel staggering to people unfamiliar with development.
We estimate that our final costs will come to $22.5 million, and we’ve already spent our first $500,000. $100,000 formed the down payment on our land and the rest has funded the planning stages — like hiring Howard Staples, one of the earliest Canadian cohousing pioneers, as our cohousing facilitator.
Because we can’t fund the entire project ourselves, we will be borrowing money from banks in two ways. First, we will need to take out a mortgage on our parcel of land. Second, we will need a construction loan, which works a lot like a line of credit. The bank takes a cold hard look at the personal net worth of all members of the development company before deciding if it is willing to lend to us.
We hired an architecture firm to help us develop our design plans, and, through the builder-developer Lark Group, we have submitted the rezoning application as well as the development permit application for the building site. Now, our biggest risk is that we’ll receive the city approvals we need but fall short on having enough members or equity to secure the required loans.
Cohousing projects need cold hard cash to get going, especially in areas with high land prices. This is why many of the early members tend to be empty nesters who are looking to downsize. Our expectation is that younger families will join later on in the process, when the financial requirements shift, and they can qualify for conventional bank mortgages on their units.
Sharing the housework
As a group, Compass has been working on our cohousing project for six years now. We anticipate moving into our units in 2023.
Prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we were gaining members quite regularly — but since then, we’ve only added one new member. The pandemic has, however, offered down time to make progress in other areas, such as design work and website development.
There’s a lot of maintenance involved in keeping the project going. One member, a retired lawyer, draws up paperwork and maintains our website. A retired photographer speaks to prospective members and runs our Zoom meetings. We split our work into teams, in order to keep organized: development, legal, social, landscaping, finance, membership and marketing.
Compass teams research and collaborate with consultants and develop recommendations for the whole group’s consideration. Our consultants negotiate with Langley Township employees to develop and refine necessary building components like our storm water run-off system and our parking plan.
Pre-pandemic, we did much of this work in-person. Now, our website is doing the work of word-of-mouth; we’re holding Zoom information sessions that have drawn attendees from as far away as the Yukon and Newfoundland and Labrador. We’re also holding coffee chats every second week, so that interested people can get to know us. Soon we hope public health regulations will allow us to resume our outdoor neighbourhood tours.
Building cohousing takes persistence, stamina and courage on the part of cohousing group members. But we’re confident that this early- and mid-project ability to collaborate with others and make decisions by consensus will create a foundation on which to build a strong, lasting community.