Article by Liam McLean
Pictures by Syed Mustafa
This past month, I had the opportunity to have a conversation with Kathy Sayers in her bright and comfortable condo to talk about her experiences with cohousing in Vancouver. In the past few years, Kathy has been working alongside her community at Our Urban Village to integrate a successful cohousing community into the urban space of Vancouver. Along her path to forming a cohousing community in Vancouver, she and her team would face many unique challenges. “Because Vancouver is so pricey, we decided to look at cohousing from a different angle, and that is to try to find an innovative developer that would work with us,” said Kathy. “[The developer] would own the land and we would have less say about what the building would look like. And most cohousing, they [the community] make every choice. They hire the architect and they buy the land. [But] it’s at least 6-8 million dollars in Vancouver.” Over the course of our conversation, Kathy explained to me how her group adapted the cohousing model to make it work within the limitations of an expensive city with its many high-rise buildings. We also talked at length about the values important to building and maintaining a healthy cohousing community, and how these communities thrive on a sense of interconnectedness. By sharing with me her experiences, Kathy taught me about the growing popularity of cohousing in Vancouver and its role in promoting social connections that may potentially solve feelings of isolation in the city.
To bring cohousing to Vancouver, Kathy and her group at Our Urban Village had to discover a way to adapt the cohousing community model to the urban city and all its condo buildings. A typical cohousing or intentional community is located out in the suburbs where all the members know each other beforehand, help buy the land together, and hire a developer to build townhouses or small separate houses. This community will always share a common space and a community building with a kitchen where they can have meals together. However, due to the lack of space in the city, the expensive prices, and the challenges of finding an open-minded developer, Kathy and her community created a new model that they call cohousing lite, one that is adapted to work inside a condo building. “For our cohousing, we found a developer that we’re going to work with and they’re building 12 units and it will include 1,200 sq. ft. of common space. So, we’re smaller than most cohousing,” said Kathy about cohousing lite. “We’re just like a presale, we’re going in and buying units that are already being decided on.” These 12 units and the common space exists alongside other units in a building currently being constructed. By using this less expensive model of city cohousing, Kathy and her community were able to find a developer who was willing to give them the space they needed. “The developer that we were looking for is interested in this novel approach and so they’re getting our input. Not on every detail but maybe on, ‘Do you need a courtyard? What outdoor space do you need? How much community space do you need?’” said Kathy. “So, we’re sort of in between. We’re not making any decisions but we’re getting input in the decisions.” Being able to compromise to make cohousing work in the city is an integral element of cohousing lite..
Although Kathy and her community were willing to negotiate on their space requirements, it still took a long and challenging time for them to find a developer interested in working with them. “We started off by going to the city and meeting with the chief planner two years ago to see if we are crazy or if this idea was even possible,” said Kathy. “[…] We also met with three city councillors. They gave us the names of people they considered innovative.” They started by meeting with five developers, but continued to push and approach others who they thought might be interested. “We met with thirteen [developers], [and] the group we thought that we were going to work with was the fourteenth. So, it was not a slam dunk,” said Kathy about this process. “However, I think that if our model works and we are able to show that it works, more developers would be interested.” Although it has been a time-consuming challenge, Kathy is optimistic that cohousing lite can be a popular model for cohousing in Vancouver. She hopes that any future community that wants to adopt it will have a much easier and faster time than her when trying to find an innovative developer.
Even after finding a developer, Kathy and her community had to deal with the challenge of keeping a community together for the years it would take to plan and construct a new residential building. “In truth, people come in and out of communities,” said Kathy. “[…] Life happens and people come in and out of it, but the personality of the group tends to stick. You just have to accept that people come and go, because the process is a long one.” To help keep the group together, Kathy and her community plan events to attend together, such as potlucks, walks, and pool parties. It is important to foster casual relationships and form friendships in order to strengthen the bond between community members, especially when the living space is not yet built. However, as Kathy explains to me, it is typical to lose a group of people when a cohousing site is first found. “People self-select out. They say, ‘I can’t imagine living with these people,’ or, ‘This is more expensive than I thought,’ or whatever,” said Kathy. “[…] People just self-select, this is a hard thing to do to live with other people so if you’re not in it with both feet… It’s typical for a group to be together for two years before building starts, so you really know each other and at this point we really do know these people.” Although some people may leave, there are always many more who are interested in experiencing the close social connections of a cohousing community, a fact demonstrated by the lengthy Our Urban Village waiting list.
Due to the long process that building a cohousing community can take, I was interested in learning more about what communal values and attitudes that members in a cohousing community share that helps bind them together. “We really spend a lot of time thinking about this. It’s a community that, not always, but almost always puts the needs of the group ahead of the needs of the individual. So, we arrive at decisions by consensus,” said Kathy. She tells me about the time when she first approached her community about working with a developer at the proposed site on Main Street. When asked if it was a good deal for the community, everyone unanimously voted for it. When asked if it was good for their individual family, some people’s votes differed. “Nobody was completely negative, but it was an example of how they put the community before themselves,” said Kathy. “And our particular group, in every instance so far, they’ve made that kind of generous decision of, ‘This is better for the community though it might not be what I want.’” It is also important for cohousing members to be willing to take risks. “You need to have a sense of adventure, and a lot of people in cohousing have had interesting lives,” said Kathy. “They’re travelers because they have that kind of element.” Cohousing is typically a risky endeavour and it is important for members to be willing to compromise, communicate, and work through difficult challenges together. Instead of focusing on the potential problems or negative consequences if it falls through, members must have a positive attitude and a willingness to make it all work.
Once established, a major element of a healthy and interconnected cohousing community is the ability to work together and bring out each member’s strengths. For Kathy, a cohousing community is enriched by a variability of different personalities and lifestyles. Inevitably, some of these people will clash with each other, but you have to have the ability to communicate, reach a mutual understanding, and strive to acknowledge the strengths of another. “You have to believe that the other members of the community basically have good will. I think that that is pretty key. […] When somebody comes into your community, you’re looking for what do they bring that enriches the community and figuring out a way to let that loose,” said Kathy. “If you look for the gifts and people are contributing those gifts, then it really is a rich community. If you try to force somebody to do the gardening when they hate gardening, just because it is a work detail, it’s not going to be a great community because you’ll build up these kinds of resentments.” Cohousing members are generally open and accepting people that will strive to find a way to connect and promote the strengths of others for the benefit of their community. But what if there is a prevalent internal conflict? “Communities vary this way,” said Kathy. “Some communities write it into their bylaws that if they reach a point where the community members can’t agree, they will have an outside facilitator that will do a binding agreement. Some communities never have this happen.” Although Kathy has encountered communities that have needed an outside mediator, most communities and its members are flexible and are used to working things out due to the nature of cohousing. They possess the social attitude and understanding that is compatible with making the necessary compromises for living in a small community.
Kathy described to me the many benefits for living in a cohousing community, including an emphasis on multi-generational connections and support. “I think, financially, most cohousing communities cost the same. Even if you buy the land yourself and you’re not giving the profit of, say, 15-20% to developers because you’re doing the work,” said Kathy. “Because of the common space and other amenities it still turns out to be the same. But living in cohousing I think is cheaper. You tend to live in a smaller space because you have the common space.” Cohousing communities tend to share resources among themselves, such as toys, clothes for children, and athletic equipment, cutting the costs that many young families face when raising children. Some members may even occasionally volunteer to babysit, pick up groceries, or share their vehicles. However, it is the multi-generational aspect of the cohousing community that may bring the most sustainable benefit to the community. “The idea is that it’s not built in babysitter but that other people care about your kids, and not having to arrange playdates and maybe somebody to teach your kids how to play chess when you have no idea how to do it. It’s an enriching experiencing,” said Kathy. “Plus, these kids grow up together. So, for them, especially since people are having smaller families, it’s like a pack of siblings. For the older people, some of them want to age in a community where they’re not living in an isolated situation.” For Kathy, it is a privilege to be involved in the lives of someone else’s children and she loves the close relationships between multiple generations within cohousing. It is a community that tries beyond anything else to support, accommodate, and be a positive influence in the lives of each member.
For many people in Vancouver, the idea of cohousing as an alternative community is growing in popularity. “I asked the groups in the city, there are four other cohousing groups that are forming or built, there is only one built now which is Vancouver Cohousing, how many people on your waiting list and how many people on your email list? And I think it was 900 for all of us,” said Kathy about the increasing appeal. Without doing much advertising, Kathy’s community is already fully occupied and she receives multiple inquiries on availability a week. A few years ago, when she was involved with her first cohousing community, a meetup event at Kerrisdale Community Centre drew a crowd of around 100 people. The interest in cohousing is definitely growing in Vancouver and there is a potential plan for a regular cohousing conference in October. If people are interested in starting a community, they just have to possess the drive and leadership to begin the process and people will sign on. Kathy believes that cohousing is only beginning to grow. “If cohousing lite succeeds, it’s another little model which I think might be easier because there just is no land in Vancouver,” said Kathy. “The developer we’re talking to wants this to be the first one and wants to do subsequent urban villages. I don’t know if they will call them urban villages, but they want this model to be duplicated across the city.”
In the future, Kathy hopes to continue communicating to the public the idea and benefits of cohousing. The city has requested that she document the development of her current community to help others that may be interested in starting a cohousing project. She also hopes to write a book and give presentations about cohousing. “I think that Vancouver is not unusual. I think that every city in North America is struggling with gentrification, with how do we keep our young families in the city,” said Kathy. “To me, this seems like a worthwhile thing to be spending my time on.” Many people living in the city feel a sense of isolation and social discontent. An urban cohousing community is a great solution for those who desire interconnection and close social relationships without leaving the convenience of the city. “Just, personally, I have in me a real desire to do something new, to do something that hasn’t been done before that can be helpful,’ said Kathy. “I think cohousing lite may at least be one model.” Kathy and her community at Our Urban Village are just beginning to introduce a more compatible cohousing model to an urban space dominated by condominiums, giving people the opportunity to bring a little village into the big city.