New cohousing group plans development

Residents build community, affordable houses



Cori Kauk has been house hunting in Bellingham for eight years. The search began after she graduated from Western Washington University and found a job in her field at the Bellingham Parks and Recreation Department.

“I’m one of the lucky few who found a job and could stay in the area pretty much right after college,” Kauk said.

Though the job pays $45,000 a year, which is above the county average of $30,881 that’s still not enough for Kauk, 34, to purchase a house on her own.

“Just saving the money for a down payment on my own is difficult because rent is pretty high here,” she said. “It’s frustrating for me as a city employee because I can’t afford to live in my own community. You cannot buy a house on a single income in this town.”

Last month, however, Kauk signed off on a $660,000 home on 1.77 acres in Happy Valley. She did so as a member of Millworks Cohousing LLC, a group of six households who banded together to purchase the property with the intent of developing cohousing.

This will be the second cohousing project in Bellingham. It is smaller than the first, which was completed in 2001 and has 33 units located on 5 acres along Donovan Avenue in Happy Valley.

Millworks cohousing is planning for eight to 10 units, including the existing house, built in 1941, which will be used as shared space. Then each household will be responsible for building its own home on the site. In addition to each complete home, residents will have use of the community space for cooking for groups, doing laundry, use as a children’s play space or other activities.

“The outcome is we’re going to have brand-new homes for the price of a one-bedroom house in Bellingham,” Kauk said.

The project comes on the heels of the city’s second planning academy, which focused on ways to promote urban in-fill and curb residential sprawl. Cohousing is one type of in-fill development where residents play an active role in the design and upkeep of their neighborhoods. The units are often smaller and situated around a central green space, connected by pathways and parking is consolidated on one portion of the site.

But since cohousing projects come in all different shapes and sizes — from 27-unit, multi-story developments in Seattle to small projects such as this one with six to 10 individual homes — it’s hard to walk down the street and point to cohousing.

Rather, cohousing could be defined by what it’s not: it’s not the typical suburban housing development with large homes lining a street, each one with its own garage and front lawn with a fence.


Making cohousing affordable

Millworks Cohousing currently consists of six households — the group is looking for up to four more members — with a range in age and number of family members. But the one thing the group shares is a desire for comfortable and affordable housing.

Perry Fizzano, a computer science professor at WWU, helped start the group in late 2007 after he and three other members found the property for sale in Happy Valley. At the time, they had been looking for individual homes that were all close together so the group could share resources and be neighbors.

But this property was big enough to allow up to 10 small homes and the price tag required more investors. So the group held community meetings at the Community Food Co-op to attract new members and it grew to its current size.

Then came the legal part. To purchase the land, the group had to form a corporation, which was as simple as filling out a form with the Secretary of State’s office, Fizzano said. Then, the “company” applied for a corporate loan to buy the land and each household put up a down payment.

This process was fairly easy, Kauk said, because other cohousing projects have laid the groundwork. However, Millworks Cohousing differs from other cohousing projects in that the company will own only the land and each household is responsible for its own building project.

“Millworks is only responsible for the land and the land improvements,” Kauk said. “Whatever I put into my house is my equity. If someone wants to pay off their portion of the land in five years they can do that and if I want to pay off my portion over 20 years, it’s no different.”


Group dynamics

Now that the group owns the land, it is faced with the task of coming up with a site plan. And in figuring out the details, problems could arise.

Rob Staveland and Rose Lathrop of Aiki Homes, the company overseeing the project and doing the house construction, said that cohousing projects are known for taking longer than normal because the group must come to consensus on everything from stormwater systems to house colors.

“There’s a lot more group decision making in a cohousing project than in a conventional project,” Staveland said.

“It’s not like a standard development where one guy makes all the decisions,” Lathrop added. “Now we have to go to a group and have them collectively make a decision.”

Combined with the lengthy permitting process, Staveland estimates that construction on the homes won’t begin for at least a year.

So far, communication among the group members, some of whom live in Seattle, has been good, Fizzano said. They regularly keep in touch via e-mail and meet roughly once a month to discuss important issues, such as what kind of community rules they want.

Cohousing groups often have a set of bylaws that define how the community will function. This can include group meetings and a list of frequent chores, such as mowing the lawn or sweeping the community house.

But the members of Millworks Cohousing don’t want to force residents into a designed appearance of community, Kauk said.

“When people think cohousing they think weekly dinners and we don’t really fit into that image, Kauk said. “That’s not exactly what we’re trying to achieve. I guess we fit into the cohousing model but the more we talk about it, we want to call it intentional living. We’re picking our neighbors and purposefully making an effort to communicate.”

The consensus among the group is to let the community dynamic evolve once everyone is settled in.

“I don’t know if we’re being idealistic in that thinking, but our motivation is to keep it simple and to keep an environment that is not so strict,” Kauk said. “We just want to be good neighbors.”


What defines cohousing?

There are six major characteristics that define cohousing. These attributes aren’t true for all projects, but serve as a way to distinguish cohousing from other types of group housing.

  1. Participatory process. Residents participate in the design of the community to ensure that it meets their needs.
  2. Neighborhood design. The layout and orientation of the buildings encourages a sense of community. The dwellings typically face each other across a pedestrian street or courtyard, with cars parked on the periphery.
  3. Common facilities. The common house is designed for daily use and often includes a common kitchen, dining area, children’s playroom, laundry and sometimes guest bedrooms. It is always supplemental to the private residences.
  4. Resident management. Residents manage their own cohousing communities and maintain the property.
  5. Group decision making. No one person has more authority than the rest in making group decisions.
  6. No shared community economy. The community is not a source of income for its members.



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