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Cohousing in Vancouver: Living outside the box

What if I told you that you could get more house than you pay for?

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The more vocal opponents to the Vancouver cohousing project have cited the size of the project. The proposal was retooled so that the complex would better match the surrounding houses, but there is no way that it will blend in completely. We've all seen enough new developments in Vancouver to take that as a given. Something's gonna get built on that lot, and that something's gonna be bigger than the houses on either side.

However, it's unclear why yet another block of insular units (regardless of size) would be preferable to one in which everyone knows each other. Is the concept of "affordable housing" getting internally translated as "housing project" by some nearby residents?

The flip side would be the impression that a collaborative-housing structure is a gated community. Despite appearances, it’s not. A cohousing complex is just a series of townhouses with a more deeply-conjoined layout to eliminate redundant space.

One of the complaints aired during the Kensington-Cedar Lodge hearings was that none of the unit doors faced the street. However, a street-facing door is not the same thing as an open door, as Cranberry Commons has been proving all along.

While it’s not about living in a commune, cohousing is also not about keeping the rest of the neighborhood out. Girardi says, “If anything, we want more diversity. We’re almost too middle-class.”

As to whether or not cohousing residents would make good neighbours, it would make sense that the answer would be “yes”. After all, these are people willing to commit to sharing their immediate surroundings and resources, so they’re clearly not afraid of interacting with other people.
Weston says that while her current home at Cranberry Commons is focused on its inward community, the development also engages the neighborhood outside. They host yoga practices and community workshops to which their North Burnaby neighbours are invited. That ethos will be carried over to the East Van cohousing development as well.

Girardi told me that half of  the existing American cohousing developments encountered resistance as they were proposed, and almost as many required zoning changes; even those in rural or semi-rural areas. However, once built, Over 80% had good relationships with their neighbours, with none of them described as bad neighbours.

Cohousing may not be for everybody, but it is a creative solution to the unaffordable-housing problem plaguing Vancouver. We also know that the concept works in other cities. Instead of  “There goes the neighborhood”, maybe the neighborhood is actually coming back.

When can you move in?

The public hearing on the Vancouver cohousing proposal took place March 12 and 13 at City Hall. Mayor Gregor Robertson is a known proponent of the idea, saying, "Vancouver needs affordable housing that fits with our neighbourhoods and makes our city more livable for everyone, especially seniors, students, and young families. This co-housing project is another creative step toward meeting that need.”

Hold your horses, there, Cohousing Cowboy: City Council approval was only the first step. According to a press release from Vancouver Cohousing, there are still a few hurdles to clear:

Vancouver Cohousing spokesperson Brenda Birch said the next steps are to apply for a development permit and attract more members as well as financial backers in a secured, ethical investment to provide more capital for the project.

"If all goes well, we should be able to put shovels in the ground before the end of 2013 and move in about a year after that," she said.

Cohousing across North America

It’s funny how, once you notice something for the first time, you start seeing it everywhere. The New York Times just ran a story on intergenerational cohousing in Ithaca. If you'd like to learn more about cohousing, you can start with the articles below.
    •    Cohousing projects in Canada
    •    Cohousing in America
    •    A history of cohousing (pdf)

Meanwhile, envision a townhouse where nobody will steal your tricycle if you leave it outside.

Cranberry Commons: Common area

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