Seeking Affordable Cohousing Options for Individuals: Part II

[Wendy is responding to an inquiry from a person in Sacramento seeking affordable cohousing options, who writes: I’ve been trying to crack this cohousing egg for many years without luck. We have many new cohousing projects either developed or in development in the Sacramento, California area, but when I ask about affordable units, I get no response. Visit here to read Part I.

That said, I can with confidence tell people looking for affordable cohousing what to do, and these activities, this work, is just as crucial as all of the efforts that I've mentioned above. Specifically, and in this order:

1) We must determine if you qualify for any affordable housing programs--rental, ownership, downpayment assistance, soft seconds, low-interest loans, grants, etc. Here in Denver there is a person at the University of Denver who helps people gratis to do just this--determine whether households qualify for any/all available programs (have to keep up with federal, state, and local changes). Often people don't want to take this step because it seems daunting, red-tape filled, annoying. Furthermore, many people don't want to acknowledge that affordable programs might actually apply to them, and they are often shocked (and sad) to find out that they do qualify. Even if you don't qualify for any programs, we just need to know so that all bases are covered. Since you're not in Denver, we'll have to figure out the best qualification "partner" in Sacramento; it might be a University, a non-profit, a community development organization, a community bank, a credit union; let's start with organizations where you already have a relationship (your bank is a good one). The goal is to get one person or entity in Sacramento to do what we're doing here in Denver, for you or anyone else needing affordable cohousing in Sacramento.

2) If you qualify for any element or aspect of an affordable housing program, find all the proposed affordable housing projects in Sacramento, from those on the drawing board to those in the queue for being approved by planning board, local government, and housing finance agencies. Find out who is developing each one and determine how the political machine, and just as important the neighborhood, views each one. Finding a viable developer with the right mindset to honor and appreciate the principles of community housing, and then more specifically cohousing, is the ultimate goal. PFAC might already know some of these developers from past work, and we can help weed out the good from the bad. We're also good at getting developers to consider cohousing as something that is good for their business, and these very same developers, whether they do affordable development or not, have to deal with affordability in some mandated kind of way, unless they are in a rural or otherwise economically challenged environment where everything has to be "affordable". Our ultimate goal is this: where there is public subsidy involved, projects like cohousing, ones that contribute highly to both the individual and public good, should be involved in some fashion. Don't use public money if you're going to create housing that is &*()! That's how I feel!

3) If you do not qualify for affordable programs, at least you know, and you can find somebody that does. Most new housing projects are mixed income (very popular with most municipalities), and mixed income communities can accommodate a variety of income levels. If, however, you are working with others who do in fact qualify for affordability, your position will be stronger in executing #2, now within the context of a mixed income development, where PFAC has a good developer sense in a mixed income framework too.

4) Contact the Sacramento Area Agency on Aging and ask them whether they know anything about cohousing, and if they do, what do they think about it? (chances are 8 out of 10 that if the Agency "knows" about cohousing, that their information is most probably not correct). PFAC's job here is to give a permutation of the same presentation that we gave at the senior cohousing conference, to convince agencies that they NEED cohousing (really, they do, the case is compelling). We also need to know what kind of programmatic support and funding the agency provides, as this will be important for anyone wanting to Age in Community in Sacramento!

5) Revisit the local Sacramento cohousing communities either already built (i.e. Southside Park one example) or in development (i.e. Fair Oaks EcoHousing, another example). A person who used to live at Southside Park told me that their affordable units were a "failure". This person said this because the units didn't stay permanently affordable, and that the community didn't think that this was "right". We at PFAC want to engage them in this dialogue; we have some thoughts about it going forward, and maybe you could be a part of those. Most important, I think that their program was actually a net success IF the net result for the person(s) who lived in the affordable unit(s) are also considered. Seeing the affordability issue from multiple perspectives is something that PFAC is uniquely capable of doing. Regarding Fair Oaks, creating affordable units might have made their journey to securing neighborhood approval (and land) more expeditious; but that's water under the bridge, so we need to find out where they are now (needing a construction loan, last I heard). Including affordable units could help them get that loan (affordable units = guaranteed pre-sales!). See why you need to know whether you qualify, and/or find others with similar desires to yours who do?

6) In all of this, think about why your financial situation--needing affordability whether you technically qualify for it or not--makes you an asset to the community. Most powerful I find, if you in fact believe it to be true: when we have needs that must be met and no clear or easy way to meet them, we've had past opportunity to learn, to demonstrate that we can both give and receive support just to LIVE. When cooperation is not optional but necessary, we do come from a position of being better at it because we have lots of practice!

There's more, but that's more than enough to get you going, yes? It's work, but IMHO work worth doing. It's really stuff you need to know anyway (and you might already know some of it).

Let me know what you think. I'd be grateful for your input and also your efforts in service of affordable cohousing. Thank you.

Wendy Willbanks Wiesner
Executive Director
Partnerships for Affordable Cohousing (PFAC)