We’ve spoken many times about how sharing a home makes housing more affordable, and reduces the amount of energy and water each person uses. On those two metrics, more sharing is just plain better. However, these relative improvements with increased occupancy don’t argue for any particular occupancy level. So why do we want to enable co-ops with up to 12 members?
Twelve is what people are already doing.
Legalizing what people are already doing makes sense if part of the point is to bring folks out of the shadows, and ensure that everyone’s living conditions are safe. Advocates in Minneapolis cited the tragic Ghost Ship fire in Oakland as part of their motivation for expediting the passage of an ordinance legalizing intentional communities. Nobody wants folks living in unsafe situations.
Some of us are unwilling to allow our intimate household partnerships to be constrained by the existing occupancy limits. That doesn’t mean we want to live with an unlimited number of people. Even those of us who don’t respect this law have tended to live with no more than 2 people per bedroom. Boulder has a fair number of 6 bedroom homes, but not many larger than that, and so we see maximum household sizes of around 12 people.
Without unusual or purpose built buildings (like the BHC’s Masala Co-op with 11 bedrooms, or their Chrysalis Co-op with 13), allowing higher occupancy probably wouldn’t result in many larger households anyway. Many of the co-op households that form will be smaller than 12 people. Not everyone wants to share a bedroom. Not all landlords are going to want that many people living in their property. The vast majority of houses have fewer than 5 bedrooms.
Twelve makes permanently affordable co-ops cost effective.
Lincoln Miller, Executive Director of the Boulder Housing Coalition, supplied City Council with several financial analyses of a hypothetical permanently affordable non-profit owned co-op. Three scenarios were explored, looking at co-ops with 8, 10, or 12 occupants. To highlight the impact of occupancy on the cost effectiveness of public funds, only occupancy was varied between the scenarios.
Based on the assumptions below, the total amount of debt and operating expenses that could be covered by the co-op members while remaining affordable was calculated. The remaining cost of buying the property was assumed to be covered with public equity. How much public equity was required per person changed substantially based on the allowed occupancy.
- With 12 members, the co-op required $25,000 per person housed.
- With 10 members, the co-op required $50,000 per person housed.
- With 8 members, the co-op required $87,500 per person housed.
Each of the scenarios assumed (among other things):
- Purchase of a larger single family home in Boulder, costing $1,000,000.
- Affordability to co-op members making 60% of the area median income (affordability meaning they would dedicate no more than 30% of their incomes to housing)
- A loan with a 25 year amortization, and a 5% interest rate.
- A debt coverage ratio of no less than 1.2 (required by lenders)
- A 10% overhead charge to cover the BHC’s expenses.
- $50,000 in initial renovation costs (e.g. energy efficiency upgrades)
At an occupancy of 8, it takes 3.5x more public funding to house a person than it does with an occupancy of 12.
We have finite resources to dedicate to… everything, including affordable housing. Allowing co-ops with up to 12 members makes them a good value proposition, comparable to other kinds of permanently affordable housing.
Why does it take such high occupancy to make co-ops cost effective? Because single family homes in low density zones are a very inefficient use of a very expensive resource. That resource is land. Land is most of what you’re paying for when you buy an older home in one of Boulder’s low density neighborhoods. This is part of why existing homes are so often replaced with big fancy homes when they change hands. There aren’t many people who want to buy a $900,000 lot, and leave $100,000 house on it. Of course, co-ops aren’t the only way to share high land costs across more people — a 7000sf lot could just as easily provide housing for 12 people in a fourplex. But fourplexes are illegal in low density zones.
This raises the question of what kind of community we want to be. Do we want our low density neighborhoods to become ever more exclusive? With Boulder’s land prices, there’s no way to make low density single family housing affordable without spending an enormous amount of public money per person housed. There’s an opportunity cost to that kind of lavish spending. If it costs the public 5x as much to house someone in a single family home as in an apartment, then for every 1 person we house in low density places, there are 4 people we’ve chosen not to house at all. When we choose to use our public investment in affordable housing inefficiently, we are choosing to have less affordable housing overall.
- If we want to have inclusive, mixed-income neighborhoods,
- and we want to use public affordable housing funds efficiently,
- and we are not yet willing to allow missing middle housing in low density zones,
- then we have to let people share existing homes.
That’s what co-ops do, in a respectful, highly structured way. Co-ops aren’t for everyone, but we’ve banned the other more affordable housing types that are “for everyone” by prohibiting ADUs, rowhomes, small multi-plexes, etc. in most of our neighborhoods.
Twelve lets us meet Boulder’s 2050 climate commitment, today.
Boulder has set a community goal of reducing our greenhouse gas emissions 80% below 2005 levels by 2050. The household energy use of twelve member co-ops come close to meeting that goal today on a per capita basis. They do this through demand reduction, and with substantial financial savings to co-op members. Our survey of Boulder’s co-op energy & water use found that on average, co-op members were using 72% less electricity, 59% less natural gas, and 69% less water per person than the regional average. The most densely occupied co-ops tended to be the least resource intensive, even though they were rental properties with minimal investments in energy efficiency. Boulder’s rental co-ops are often indistinguishable from their neighbors on the basis of total energy consumed, judging from the comparisons that are included in our utility bills.
This shouldn’t be surprising, as most household energy consumption is dedicated to uses which scale with home size, not residents. According to the US EIA (see figure below) in Colorado space heating accounts for 54% of household energy use. Plug loads and lighting make up another 26%. Hot water is about 19%. Co-ops may use more domestic hot water (for laundry, showers, etc.), and have slightly higher plug loads (more laptops… maybe a 2nd fridge), but likely have similar lighting loads, and lower space heating requirements, given the heat from a larger number of people. Twelve people generate more than a thousand watts of heat!
Our climate commitment says we are going to reduce our GHG emissions by a factor of 5. The average Colorado household is about 2.5 people. A 12 person co-op thus houses about five times as many people as the average home, but uses a similar amount of energy overall. Allowing 12 people to share one home means that they can meet our 2050 climate commitments today, on a per capita basis for household energy use.
There are many paths to decarbonizing our civilization. Sharing is one of them. We cannot afford to outlaw such a cost effective and powerful strategy.
This is how we want to live.
Cooking and cleaning and chores and accounting and meetings and all the other household systems that make a co-op stable and functional do work better with 12 people than with 6. With 6-8 people it’s harder to maintain these formalized systems, but informal coordination may not be sufficient to keep the household running smoothly. Formalized governance processes also help ensure that everyone can participate meaningfully. A household of a dozen people is large enough that you can have meals together almost every night, but only cook once a week, and never have to cook alone. A dozen is also small enough that you can know everyone intimately, and you can understand the relationships that exist between the other people in the house.
This is not just about household systems & economies of scale.
It is about wanting to live in a different way.
Groups of different sizes encourage and enable different social dynamics. A household of 6-8 functions differently than a household of 10-15. A larger co-op feels like a different kind of place than a small one, and some of us very much want to live in that kind of place.
I don’t want to have to be home alone. I don’t want to eat or cook dinner by myself. To me, when I’m in a house with only two or three other people, it doesn’t feel peaceful, it feels hollow and lifeless. I want to hear morning voices murmuring in the kitchen, inviting me to get out of bed even when I’m experiencing depression. I want to be able to have daily relationships with older people, younger people, and children, even if I don’t end up having my own kids. Especially if I don’t end up having my own kids. In a household of 6-8 people, there are frequently times when nobody else is home. And when one person is sick, or busy, or out of town, it’s obvious, and changes the character of the home. With a larger household, the home takes on a life of its own. It becomes more independent of any individual, more resilient to changes and the ebb and flow of daily life.
Different cultures have different norms and expectations around family. In many places it’s common for members of an extended family to live together in a common household. Aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, and kids, all sharing meals together, contributing to the home, supporting each other. Some of us did not grow up in those cultures, but want that kind of household. They can be nourishing and energizing, educational and challenging in good ways. Some of us want the experience of an extended family home, without needing to reproduce prodigiously or marry into it. Co-ops are a way to get that experience.
We understand that this is an unusual desire in the US today, especially in a community primarily of Northern and Western European descent, but it’s a desire some of us feel strongly. We aren’t asking others to live this way. We are demanding that we be allowed to construct our own experience of family.
“And I say to you that we are full of chemicals which require us to belong to folk societies, or failing that, to feel lousy all the time. We are chemically engineered to live in folk societies, just as fish are chemically engineered to live in clean water—and there aren’t any folk societies for us anymore.”
— Kurt Vonnegut