Member Expertise: Lynn Gaffney Architect on the Benefits of Cohousing Communities
Lynn Gaffney is one of several architects who work out of Brooklyn Creative League. With over 25 years of experience, Lynn and her practice have worked on a variety of projects. But her latest interest lies in designing and developing cohousing, a form of social housing that has gained popularity in the United States over the last few decades.
The Cohousing Association of the United States defines cohousing as follows: “Cohousing is community designed to foster connection. Physical spaces allow neighbors to easily interact with others just outside private homes. Common areas including kitchen, dining space and gardens bring people together.Collaborative decision-making builds relationships.”
As the world emerges from Covid lockdowns, Gaffney is betting that the market for cohousing is poised to grow. After all, who couldn’t use more neighborly interactions these days?
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]
Lynn Gaffney Architect expands into cohousing
Lynn Gaffney: The bulk of my architectural practice is comprised of custom single-family residential work here in the city and in rural areas of NY, NJ, and CT. I’m also fortunate to design restaurants and service-oriented nonprofits.
For years now, I’ve been interested in multi-family housing design in general and cohousing communities in particular. Cohousing is a type of intentional community modeled on well-established Denmark cohousing, which originated back in the 1960’s. This interest led me to some great classes and workshops, and most importantly to be trained by Katie McCamant within the 500 Communities Program, of which I’m now an affiliate. Katie is one of the top professionals of cohousing in the country, as an architect in partnership with cohousing architect Charles Durrett, and then as a cohousing development consultant.
As 500 Communities affiliates, we, along with other cohousing professionals, help cohousing resident groups bring their beautiful idea to reality, or as I phrase it on Cohousing Opportunities Group, “Helping You Bring Neighborhoods Home.” Cohousing Opportunities Group is a website that I’ve launched as a resource for those looking to get involved with or learn more about cohousing.
What’s the difference between cohousing, coliving, and cooperative housing?
Cohousing is self-owned, self-managed, and there’s no board and no management agency. Cohousing residents buy into a community – a neighborhood – the collective is more important than the individual.
Of those three, coliving has certainly generated the most buzz here in the city. WeWork had a coliving arm for a while, and that’s probably the demographic you think of: younger, urban professionals, more transactional, and more transient. Coliving is somewhat dorm-like; individuals live there to save costs, have built-in community, and are able to live in the city.
By contrast, cohousing is typically owner-based, although there are some that have rental models. More importantly, it’s usually initiated and developed by the residents themselves. Many resident groups partner with a developer but they participate in the design; they’re an essential part of the project financing, and the core residents are the outreach and sales team for the development. It’s not a typical development process.
Once a cohousing community or neighborhood is finished and residents move in, it’s different than a coop in the way we think of NYC coops. Cohousing is self-owned, self-managed, and there’s no board and no management agency. Cohousing residents buy into a community – a neighborhood – the collective is more important than the individual. It’s an intentional way to live. Cohousers choose a home where they work, play, garden, and cook and dine with their neighbors on a regular basis. When isolation is such a big problem in modern life, cohousers have put the effort, care, and love into building a social fabric. They benefit from being part of a something bigger than their household, a more deliberate and sustainable community.
There are over 100 cohousing communities in the United States but it’s difficult to start a cohousing project in New York State
There are currently about 170 cohousing communities across the country and almost as many in early formation or construction. In 2020, I spoke with or presented to at least four potential cohousing groups in NY, but there are very few instances of cohousing in NY State compared to other states.
NY has unique securities regulations which make the typical grass roots investment difficult. The Martin Act is a “blue skies” law that protects innocent investors in a typical development setup, however it becomes a barrier to individuals who want to pool money together for real estate purposes such as cohousing. I’m currently working with Katie McCamant, CohoUS, and a top housing attorney to address these problems with the NY AG’s office. I’m cautiously optimistic that these efforts will result in much needed guidelines for cohousing communities and exemptions from expensive legal filings and complicated tax implications.
There are some cohousing and intentional communities in the state, such as the Ithaca Ecovillages and Cantine’s Island in Saugerties. I believe these were established before the full press of the Martin Act was enacted. But I’ve seen a lot of enthusiasm for cohousing in NY State. As my colleagues across the country can attest, the interest in living a sustainable life in community has held strong during this last year of Covid.
Community dynamics are crucial to cohousing
Cohousers appreciate all opportunities to improve and enjoy the social dynamics of their home. Most decisions are made via a collaborative decision-making process, such as consensus or sociocracy.
It’s all about community dynamics, from the design, to the number of units, to the committee meetings. Cohousers appreciate all opportunities to improve and enjoy the social dynamics of their home. Most decisions are made via a collaborative decision-making process, such as consensus or sociocracy. Communities may bring in a professional facilitator to work through a particularly sticky issue or big decision. Mainly though it’s a mindset of “we” above “I” and being thoughtful about dependence and reliability instead of being inflexible about personal independence.
A cohousing community works through their vision of home early on in the creation process. The collective idea might be grounded in a few of the following – senior aging in place, it-takes-a-village parenting, intergenerational interaction, urban lifestyle, biodiverse farming, LBGTQs, or neurodiverse inclusion, to name some examples. Whatever the unique focus, the typical cohousing lifestyle is devoted to social connectiveness, curiosity and respect of an individual’s perspective, participation and support of getting it done (whatever it is), civic outreach to the larger neighborhood/town, and responsible stewardship of the earth.
Cohousing is still figuring out how to provide affordable housing options
Cohousing communities still struggle with providing affordable housing options. Most cohousing is market rate and many of those seeking the connected lifestyle it offers are not able to afford the investment. Some developments have affordable units, including one outside of New Haven in Bethany, CT – Rocky Corner. Roughly one third of the 30 units are set aside as affordable—in perpetuity. There was a dedicated effort to get state subsidies, which are not usually set aside for this type of development. People might know Rocky Corner because they did outreach meetings for new residents at the Park Slope Food Coop before Covid.
Affordability and inclusivity are goals of most individuals who seek to start a cohousing community as well as professionals who work in this realm. It’s the natural mindset but construction and land are expensive and there’s a large team of professionals and other soft costs that add up. Some retired boomers with means have bought an extra unit for long-term rental to a young family starting off. A single person has purchased a larger unit and brought in three rental roommates. A group of residents pooled money to bring the purchase price down for a few other residents that might have otherwise been pushed out. Groups have designed units that have bed/bath suites for comfortable house sharing for two or three seniors to invest together.
The future of cohousing looks bright
The need is there for community minded and sustainable housing types. The interest is there and cohousing neighborhoods have continued to form and proceed through design, financing, and construction across the country, even during the darkest days.
When it comes to my work and cohousing, I’ll continue to work with interested parties on a consultation basis, sometimes on my own and sometimes as an east coast collaborator with my mentor Katie McCamant. To date, I’ve worked with communities or individuals looking to form communities in Sharon, CT, Providence, RI, Kingston, NY, Saratoga Springs, NY, Swarthmore, PA, Philadelphia, PA, and Montclair, NJ. I assist them in building local cohousing awareness, interacting with municipalities on planning objectives, and searching for optimum properties.
I think the future of cohousing looks very bright. The need is there for community minded and sustainable housing types. The interest is there and cohousing neighborhoods have continued to form and proceed through design, financing, and construction across the country, even during the darkest days, as we’ve seen in the past year. The examples of successful groups spanning three decades and more are an inspiration to all those who are just learning the word cohousing.
We look forward to bringing you more member news and project updates. Want to share projects, accomplishments, and advice with our community? Reach out to Neil or Erin!