Money, Homes, and Trust: Economic Diversity Issues at Wild Sage

Ellen Orleans, Wild Sage, Boulder, Colorado

Sustainability is about more than environmentally friendly appliances, sustainably harvested lumber, and organic farming; it’s also about the overall satisfaction of people. Can they sustain a high enough level of involvement in the civic life of the neighborhood to maintain what has already been created, and even continue to improve it?

This piece by Ellen Orleans demonstrates that sustainability also includes qualities such as economic fairness and diversity.

—D. L. W.

“We support connections and relationships at all levels, consciously seeking and valuing diversity and the challenges it brings. … ”

At the core of most cohousing communities is a statement spelling out the group’s values. Common to many of these statements is a phrase about honoring diversity among its members. My cohousing group, Wild Sage, includes economic diversity as one of the differences it values.

At the start of our twice-a-month community meetings, we usually read our vision statement. During this part, I often find myself thinking, “Why does a group seek economic diversity?” Because it makes for a more interesting community? Because it’s a socially responsible position? Are vision statements written from the perspective of people with more money saying they value the presence of people with less money? Is it equally true that people with less money consciously seek and value living among people with more money?

These questions flit through my head, then beat a hasty path to the back of my gray matter, pushed out by talk of parking and participation, pesticides and pet policy. Sometimes, though, I wish our group could spend several hours (guided by a skilled facilitator) really talking about this.

Economic diversity is a hot issue in Boulder, Colorado, where rental and housing prices have spiraled upward since the late 1980s. Having survived the last fourteen years by living in increasingly smaller apartments, at age forty-two, I am now purchasing my first home, all 640 square feet of it. At $106,000 (about two-thirds of market value) this carriage house is part of Boulder’s permanent affordable-housing program. This means if I ever sell, its price will remain proportionately low. (Boulder County has about 3,000 such permanently affordable homes.)

{Figure 64, 65 Wild Sage Residents Salvage Solar Panels; Habitat Sweat Equity at Wild Sage

Boulder began its affordable-housing program with the intention of helping middle-income households—such as those headed by teachers, nurses, store managers, police officers, and city employees— buy homes in town. Some affordable housing is in mixed-use developments, where homes are clustered with shops and offices. My home is in one such area—a former drive-in theater in North Boulder.

The city-affiliated Boulder Housing Partners acquired the drive-in site in the mid-1990s and began a public-private partnership with for-profit and not-for-profit developers, such as Jim Leach’s Wonderland Hill, which has a long history of building cohousing communities.

A major impetus in developing the drive-in site was to significantly increase the number of affordable homes in Boulder. Of the 329 units to be built there, 43 percent are to be affordable. Of the thirty-four units at Wild Sage, twenty-one are sold at market rate, nine are permanently affordable, and four are for Habitat for Humanity. (Habitat is a nonprofit Christian housing group. Using volunteer labor, donations, and sweat equity from its homeowners, they build and rehabilitate houses. Habitat then sells these homes at no profit and finances them with affordable, no-interest loans.)

When I joined Wild Sage in March of 2001, the group was a mix of affordable and market-rate buyers who were working with Habitat to find families that were a good fit for cohousing. Unlike communities that have to search for land, we already had the drive-in site, but we hadn’t yet chosen units. Individual unit design was evolving; price estimates changed monthly.

It was a nebulous time, and that cloudiness carried through to the buyer categories. Only a mild friction existed amongst us. For instance, during my first year with Wild Sage, I’d hear assumptions such as, “Since we’ll be moving from larger homes to smaller ones, … ” or “Let’s have a meeting about timing the sale of our current houses to match the purchase of our cohousing unit.”

Remarks like these didn’t recognize that many affordable buyers were currently renting and would be moving into larger homes than those in which we currently lived. These comments were not devastating, but they did lack awareness. Although the Wild Sage vision talks about “consciously seeking and valuing diversity,” some members seemed pretty unconscious. I didn’t push the matter though. I was still in the group-development stage known as “dreaming and planning.” During this stage, community members don’t tend to challenge each other. The emphasis is on fitting in.

Two things changed during the next year. The first was personal: I left my adjunct faculty job at the University of Colorado and found steadier work. Happy in my new job, I remember one Wild Sage member (I’ll call him Pete), asking me how much I was making.

“Thirty thousand a year,” I told him.

“Wow, that’s practically volunteer work,” he said. He worked in high tech.

I didn’t tell him it was the most I’d ever earned. More importantly, I didn’t tell him, as I should have, that I felt insulted. For me, this conversation drove home the salary gap between me and some of my future neighbors.

The second change was that money conflicts began brewing at Wild Sage. Boulder Housing Partners clarified and changed some rules about required square footage and prices of affordable homes. This created an overall price increase. To absorb the increases, the prices of our units went up—market-rate homes disproportionately more than the affordable ones. Increasingly at meetings, talk arose about market-rate buyers “subsidizing” affordable buyers.

The conversations felt condescending, but since none of the other affordable buyers were speaking up, I didn’t either. Finally, at one meeting, when Pete again said, “Yeah, but we’re subsidizing you, so … ” I lost my composure.

“Actually Pete, affordable buyers are subsidizing your overpriced salary, which wouldn’t exist if the people you rely on for your health care, city services, and foamy mocha lattes got paid a living wage.”

I wasn’t quite as quick and eloquent as that and I said it while I was facilitating (which is highly unprofessional), but the effect was immediate. The room got quiet until someone from our process team said, “This sounds like an important discussion to have at a later time.”

After the meeting, three affordable buyers spoke to me. One said, “I’m glad you spoke up. I’ve been wanting to say something for a long time.” The other two said they were starting to feel guilty, as if they weren’t pulling their weight simply because they were buying affordable homes.

As a way to explore the growing divisions at Wild Sage, our group tried an activity to help members think outside their own experience. We used the activity during an upcoming discussion about the homeowners’ association (HOA) dues in which Wild Sage’s finance team was wondering if the category of one’s unit—whether market rate, Habitat, or affordable—should be taken into consideration when determining dues.

At the next meeting, we arbitrarily divided the community into groups of threes. In each of these groups, the members were again arbitrarily assigned identities, as a market rate, Habitat, or affordable buyer. If a member was assigned, for instance, the identity of an affordable buyer, no matter what category of unit they were actually buying, during this exercise, they needed to speak from the perspective of an affordable buyer. I then posed the question about homeowners’ dues.

The resulting conversations surprised me. A few market-rate buyers, for instance, were only slightly over the eligibility limit for affordable housing and could barely afford their units. Other market-rate buyers were unemployed and concerned about down payments. One Habitat buyer wanted to pay the same HOA dues as everyone one else because she didn’t want to feel indebted to the group. A market-rate buyer was eligible for affordable status and was considering switching to an affordable home. This exercise was a success; it got us talking and helped us gain empathy for each other.

A few months later, tensions again rose with a sudden “garage shortage.” In part, this shortage was caused by a new rule that allowed affordable and Habitat buyers to purchase garages. Again there were scattered comments about garages being an extravagance for Habitat and Affordable buyers.

What underlies this attitude is a false belief that one group of people knows best what another group needs. For instance, one of Wild Sage’s many single moms told us that, for her own sanity, once a month she treats herself to a day at a spa. A market-rate member commented that someone buying a discounted house shouldn’t indulge in such luxury. But who are we to judge how someone prioritizes their money?

Such judgments aren’t a one-way street. One time, a potential member, another single mom, was considering purchasing our most expensive home. A few days later, an affordable buyer apparently remarked, “What is she, a princess?”

Maybe this potential buyer was a princess or perhaps she simply had a high-paying job. Perhaps she’d invested well or had recently moved from a part of the country where homes cost more. The point is that when we make snippy comments, whether based on envy or distrust, it’s a sign we aren’t taking the time to learn about an individual. Assumptions are walls; we need bridges.

One bridge-building exercise we used at Wild Sage took a hard look at communal dust we’d swept under the rug. For this activity, I wrote twelve statements that summed up, in tactless and thoughtless ways, unspoken concerns about anxiety, participation, and finances. A few examples:

I’m tired of subsidizing affordable units. I don’t make much money myself.

If Habitat buyers can afford to purchase a garage, they should pay more for their houses instead.

Market-rate buyers are patronizing. I’m sick of how clueless they are about gender and class issues.

I purposefully made the statements harsh to cut through the politeness that sometimes keeps us from honest conversation. For the activity, I again asked the community to divide into groups comprised of at least one buyer from each category. I asked them to read and discuss the statements. Some groups focused on how unrealistic the statement seemed—“No one really thinks that, do they?”—while other groups directly tackled the issue raised. The ensuing discussions succeeded—if not in vacuuming up the dust under the rug, at least in lifting up the rug to reveal the hidden dirt.

Another bridge-building exercise I’ve used is “Standing in Each Other’s Shoes.” For this activity, the group forms a circle. The facilitator reads a statement, and if it is true for an individual, they take a step forward. The resulting inner ring of people is then encouraged to look at each other, acknowledge their commonality, then step back.

If the statements are mild, such as, “I have a dog.” or “I like vegetable lasagna.”, the activity simply encourages connection among members. However, if the statements are riskier, such as, “I have been in an abusive relationship.”, “I have been threatened because I am gay.”, or “Someone I cared about has recently died.”, the exercise drops to a deeper level. When you stand in that inner circle, amid people who have experienced similar suffering or heartbreak, the affinity is more profound.

To help the group explore money differences, I prepared statements reflecting economic concerns. One statement addresses that casual remark I first heard two years ago, “My Wild Sage home is larger than where I live now.” Other statements read, “I am concerned about HOA dues and I’m not sure I can handle my mortgage payment.” For these statements, I imagine buyers from every category will be represented. This, I hope, will remind us that money worries are not confined to a single income level.

As we continue to build community at Wild Sage and participate in bridge-building exercises, my hope is that someday we won’t need them. It’s not that I imagine our conflicts will magically go away, but instead that we will know each other well enough and trust each other deeply enough to initiate discussions on our own, preferably in the common house, over a big slice of vegetable lasagna.