PART 2: Criticisms of cohousing and the role of government in promoting this form of housing delivery
In Part 1 of this two-part blog post, I discussed cohousing in the German context and its potential for improving the built environment from an ecological perspective with more energy-efficient buildings, and also from a social sustainability perspective. Cohousing offers a chance for citizens to create and self-govern housing that is suited to personal and community needs, but engenders the question of equal access to this arguably more sustainable form of living.
For all their touted benefits of increased social cohesion, ecological improvements and affordability, cohousing projects are not without criticism. Some point to cohousing as too similar to gated communities in that they are prevalently available only to upper-middle classes (Chiodelli, in Ruiu, 2014) or those who have the means to achieve homeownership. In Berlin, where the movement originated in Germany in the 1990s, baugruppen is commonly associated with gentrification of inner-city neighbourhoods as the middle-class move back into the city and form building groups to create new living spaces. Baugruppen have become a focal point for anti-gentrification activists and renters alike, who fear the introduction of baugruppen into a neighbourhood is a precursor to rent hikes (Fiedler, 2014) and displacement of long-time residents. Other researchers acknowledge a general perception of baugruppen as gentrifiers in Germany (Droste, 2015) although the effect is unintended.
In Vauban, a newly built neighbourhood in Freiburg, Germany, the gentrification criticism may not be as salient as it is for the older inner-city neighbourhoods of Berlin. However, questions of socioeconomic and intergenerational equity remain, as research points to Vauban as having a narrow socio-demographic range of mainly middle-class, young families. Hamidduddin and Gallent (2015) found that in Freiburg, low-income or financially vulnerable groups, and older people were much less likely to have access to baugruppen schemes for a number of reasons. Most baugruppen projects are self-financed by the group of future owner-occupiers, and financial systems tend to give preferential treatment in mortgage financing to younger, more prosperous families. Moreover, privately financed baugruppen projects demand an initial deposit, as well as potential financial flexibility in cases of projects that go over budget. Throughout the baugruppen design and construction process, group members who are weaker financially may be self-selected out, unless there is deep intention for mutual support within the group (Hamiduddin & Gallent, 2015). A significant concern about baugruppen as a community of self-selected individuals is that they may “becom[e] an exclusionary path to housing delivery” (Hamiduddin & Gallent, 2015, p. 17).
So while some cities are recognizing the benefits of cohousing as a housing form with potential to deliver more ecologically and socially sustainable urban development, how are local governments intervening to promote this type of development while ensuring more equitable access?
French attempts at equal access
In Strasbourg, France we encountered a high level of government involvement in the cohousing movement combined with an intentionality to bring this model of housing development to larger segments of society. While our guides in Strasbourg acknowledge that as a nation, France is not as far along as Germany in terms of setting up the planning policy and financing environments that is conducive to l’habitat participatif, interested local governments in France are heavily involved in encouraging this participative housing movement. The movement for participative housing is gaining traction, with the recent creation of the network of interested local governments, le reseau national des collectivités en matière d’habitat participatif, based out of the metropolitan government of Strasbourg. Over 40 municipalities and regional governments have signed on to this network which is dedicated to shaping existing regulatory and planning frameworks to accommodate this new form of housing provision. Each member city or region of the network requires at least one staff member and one political officer’s commitment, demonstrating significant political will.
Specifically in Strasbourg, the metropolitan government has created supporting tools to promote l’habitat participatif projects in approving a new organization named Éco Quartiers Strasbourg that is responsible for advising and supporting local citizen groups through the development process. The City has even reserved a number of urban infill sites explicitly for habitat participatif projects and have already run four competitions for the right to develop these sites. Strasbourg is also actively expanding access to this model of housing development to those who are on social assistance or cannot afford home purchases. In Strasbourg, three forms of participative housing are currently available. The first is based on privately-financed and privately-owned development, similar to the German baugruppen model discussed in Part 1. In the second model, the city sets up partnerships with social housing landlords (les bailleurs socials) to facilitate the development of new housing for those wishing to become homeowners but are on some level of social assistance and thus not eligible for bank financing. In the third model, the city facilitates agreements with social housing landlords to maintain the buildings through rental agreements after construction, giving renters on social assistance access to the participative housing process to shape housing that better meets their needs and to create stronger social bonds with their neighbours. While the latter two models are a promising endeavor in providing more equitable access to cohousing delivery, it is too early to assess how this model will work. As of September 2014 there was a total of 17 habitat participatif projects in the City of Strasbourg, of which 4 are for residents on social assistance to pursue housing through the latter two models.
What about Vancouver?
From our field research, we saw examples of various levels of government intervention in facilitating the cohousing movement toward a greater degree of integration of ecourban principles, from providing technical support of the development process, to specifically identifying and reserving land and controlling land prices for cohousing. In Vancouver, where our research group is based, we are now seeing an emergence of the cohousing movement with the city’s first cohousing project at Kensington-Cedar Cottage which is slated for occupation in Fall 2015. From accounts of the project, it was citizen-initiated without support from the City of Vancouver, leaving open to question the nature of the difference that this project will demonstrate from its neighbours. Nonetheless, the City is becoming aware of cohousing, but will Vancouver, and other local governments, intervene in order to promote the use of this model to advance integrated ecourban development?
Cohousing is a new and debatably more sustainable alternative to typical models of housing provision, but more research is needed to understand their real contributions to environmental and social sustainability in our cities, as well as the role of government in its advancement.
 For more information on Strasbourg’s participative housing projects, refer to their information pamphlet L’habitat participatif – Un autre façon de vivre son logement.
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