Seems everything has a cohousing reference to me these days. On a quick trip up to Estes Park last week, there’s a place to stay over in Lyon’s Colorado called WeeCasa. It’s a tiny house resort. They rent for the the night or extended stay. It’s laid out like an RV park with a community room.
Now that would be a place for cohousing secret sauce, but how realistic is a tiny house cohousing community?
A couple years ago, I was on the road in Wyoming and spent a night at the Green Creek Inn and RV park. If you’ve stayed in camping / RV parks there’s, generally, an area set aside for semi-permanent places for longer-stay RVers.
In Wyoming, they are seasonal park workers, oil and gas field workers, hard-core hunters and fishers.
There’s been talk about low cost housing types for Millennials paying off student debt, seniors seeking nursing home alternatives and marginalized populations like homeless vets.
As housing configuration alternatives come up, cooperative and collaborative approaches float to the surface. Tiny houses are low-cost to construct and lots of them can be crammed onto a piece of ground. As such, there are cities that are building tiny houses for the homeless population.
Tiny houses make some sense for an intentional community but developing one has more challenges than appear on the surface. The main one being counter to the American Way culture – smaller is better than larger; less is better than more; the group is more important than the individual. But I digress.
In a past life, I used to be a city planner in Wyoming, later a member the Boulder Planning Board in Colorado, as well as the Executive Director of Habitat for Humanity of the St. Vrain Valley in Longmont. I studied ecological biology and environmental politics as an undergrad and grad student. How to live a balanced life in both the human and natural environments has always been an interest of mine and why I live in cohousing.
The cohousing idea is a little bit about the buildings, but it’s more about setting up an old fashioned sense of community in which residents participate in the design, character and culture of their neighborhoods. With an itinerant population like homeless people, creating a sense of community would be a challenge. I would think tiny house cohousing would have quite a bit of turnover, at any rate.
Cohousing originated in Scandanavia, which is a bit more communal and socialistic than in the US. Here, cohousing tries to adapt communal tenets into the “rugged individualism” of America. The mobile American would fit this mold.
Over the past few years, interest in “tiny houses” has been growing. That is, people choosing to live in homes that are from 200 to 600 sq ft in size. There are a couple cable TV shows dedicated to the topic.
They are generally built on a “flat bed” and can be wheeled around from place to place, but also can be built on a foundation, but that kicks in an entirely different set of building requirements. Tiny houses on skids or wheels fall into the land use category of mobile homes or temporary housing. There’s technical jargon that defines a tiny house. In Boulder an accessory dwelling is not is highly regulated so as to prevent too high of a neighborhood density.
They are far different than your standard mobile home. Regular mobile homes can be the size of stick built houses that incorporate some space saving design features. Mobile homes are regulated and have design standards and have a strong lobbying presence. Tiny houses, if too popular, infringe on the mobile home monopoly.
If you google “tiny house” lots of websites and images pop up. There are several cable TV shows dedicated to the topic. The host / developer and an innovative builder work with people – mostly seniors and Millennials – to build their tiny house. The stories are about space saving innovations – steampunk trailers.
The biggest hurdles for traditional cohousing, as well as regular housing, for that matter, are government regulations and money. From a zoning code standpoint, tiny house communities will likely be a land use without a zoning designation.
Money for land, money for the development are also typical impediments. Because cost is such a huge factor, stick built cohousing homes are constructed to maximize profit. This generally means expensive houses crammed onto a tiny space. How about the opposite – inexpensive houses crammed onto tiny spaces, that results in more open spaces?
Tiny houses cost anywhere from $20,000 to $60,000 and can be parked in friends’ back yards. They are often built with sweat equity. Check out one of the cable tv shows to get an idea about downsizing baby boomers, young couples and individuals making the move to drop out of the “bigger is better” society. The guy who comes up with the tiny house gadgetry is Zack Giffin, who is from Boulder.
Some tiny homeowners want to be more mobile, others are sedentary.
With tiny houses, a cohousing organizing “burning soul” wouldn’t need near as much space as a typical coho development. It would depend on the rules, but a tiny house development would likely be more transient. How to raise money? The organizational community structure during the development stage could be a corporation or LLC, maybe an HOA, if allowed by the state laws. It’s likely to be a commercial venture as opposed to residential, so may be more expensive.
It could be a subdivision with private lots that are sold, some may be rentals owned by the community. Is a tiny house a mobile home, an accessory dwelling unit? How do the uniform building codes apply?
Utilities could be “hook ups” like in an RV park. Decisions would have to be made, based on political jurisdiction about individual septic or a septic field or central wastewater collection; individual water cisterns or central water; city spec water and sewer.
I would think there would be some amenities like streets, sidewalks, open space, in addition to the common house.
At the typical RV park, the longer-stay “residents” have access to the common showers / restrooms, laundry, the little store and breakfast available to the overnight campers.
I can envision a common house that is more permanent, though. As a monetary hedge against potentially higher turnover rates, the common house, like at a KOA RV park, could be mixed use with community amenities like the open dining area, kitchen, laundry facilities, TV room, guest rooms, with business tenants or owners like a convenience store, coffee shop, business offices, laundromat and the like.
Because tiny houses are small, neighbors would be more likely to frequent the common house, compared to some traditional cohousing communities in which homes are the same as in suburbia with large living rooms, utility rooms, large kitchens. Cohousers go into their house and you don’t see them again.
There are the unfounded housing characteristics necessary for resale, as espoused by Sarah Susanka author of “Not So Big House.”
Susanka, who is also an architect, says that the sense of “home” has less to do with quantity and everything to do with quality. She points out that we feel “at home” in our houses when where we live reflects who we are in our hearts.
I heard her speak at Denver University a few years ago. The examples that stuck with me are those of the “den” and “dining room.” She asked the huge audience about who uses their den and who eats in the dining room. Not many hands went up. Dens and dining rooms, supposedly, increase resale value, but if nobody uses them, what’s the point.
I’d say that, for the most part, cities still have a bias AGAINST mobile home parks and hold the “trailer trash” stereotype. In a place like Boulder, there would be an uproar about this as a form of affordable housing. The best place to try this out would be where land is inexpensive and there is less of an elitist attitude.
Denver has a tiny house village called “Beloved” for homeless people. It has a common house and is self-governed. The community consists of 11 small houses and has met with some success. Beloved only had a six month temporary zoning permit for the current location and forced to move the entire village.
There’s the social stigma of housing for homeless people. Local mainstream cultures should be open to tiny houses for “regular” people. If the concept works here, why not in another setting? WeeCasa figured it out.
I’ll plant the seed, but it may take me developing the idea in order for me to make a documentary film about it. Anyone interested in organizing a tiny house cohousing community?
This article was originally published in December 2014, updated again in 2017, in part due to a wordpress glitch that obliterated the story.