What is cohousing? Charles Durrett, who literally coined the phrase, explains what cohousing is, how it’s funded, and how the communities are set up. We also discuss how tiny house cohousing communities are a solution to homelessness and how any concerned citizen can use the cohousing model to solve the issue of homelessness in their own area.
In This Episode:
- What is a cohousing community?
- Benefits of cohousing
- The magic number: why 50 is the ideal community population
- Challenges of maintaining affordability
- Tiny houses and homelessness
- How to get started planning your cohousing community
Links and Resources:
- Cohousing Communities by Charles Durrett
- Sacred Economics by Charles Eisenstein
- Opportunity Village: Interview with Amanda Dellinger
- A Solution to Homelessness in Your Town by Charles Durrett
Charles Durrett is an architect, author, and advocate of affordable, socially responsible, and sustainable design. He has made major contributions to community-based architecture and cohousing. Charles has designed over 50 cohousing communities in North America and has consulted on many more around the world. He also designed an equal number of affordable housing projects. He is the principal architect at The Cohousing Company, based in Nevada City, California.
In addition to numerous awards for his contributions to cohousing and community-based architecture, he has given many public presentations, including two to the U.S. Congress and The Commonwealth Club of California.
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50 people seems to be the magic cohousing community number
Cohousing communities will have community buildings to host things like dinners
Cars are in the periphery, allowing peace and safety
Many generous donors often come forward to help fund the projects
Community members share common areas and responsibilities
Charles Durrett 0:00
That's one of the key things that makes cohousing unique. The folks that create it are feeling like we're creating a modern day village. But this was the concept that now we have to consciously create what used to happen naturally.
Ethan Waldman 0:16
Welcome to the Tiny House Lifestyle Podcast, the show where you learn how to plan, build and live the tiny lifestyle. I'm your host, Ethan Waldman, and this is episode 228 with Charles Durrett. My guest, Charles Durrett, literally coined the phrase cohousing, and he has designed over 50 cohousing communities in North America and has consulted on many more around the world. In this interview, we kind of do two parts. First we talk about the basics of cohousing. What is it? How does it get set up? How does it get funded? And I think this information is very applicable to those of you who are looking to live in tiny house communities because the model really does apply. And then we actually turn to looking at tiny cohousing as a solution to homelessness, which is the focus of Charles Durrett's new book. So we talk about how you or any concerned citizen can use a tiny cohousing model as a way of solving homelessness in their town or area and we talk about how tiny houses can be used for cohousing for everyone. I hope you stick around because this is a really great conversation full of strategies, knowledge and wisdom about cohousing.
I'd like to tell you about the sponsor of today's episode, PrecisionTemp. PrecisionTemp is making one product to solve two issues that I know everyone deals with in a tiny house, running out of hot water and heating your tiny house. PrecisionTemp has made the amazing TwinTemp Junior propane tankless water heater, which provides unlimited hot water for your tiny house and hydronic heating. This means you get warm heated floors, so there are no cold spots. It's designed specifically for tiny houses and features whisper quiet operation as well as high efficiency. If you want more information on how PrecisionTemp can help make living tiny easier and more comfortable. Visit precisiontemp.com. While you're there, use the coupon code THLP for $100 off the TwinTemp Junior plus free shipping. That website again is precisiontemp.com, coupon code THLP for $100 off the TwinTemp Junior plus free shipping. Thank you so much to PrecisionTemp for sponsoring our show.
All right, I am here with Charles Durrett. Charles Durrett is an architect, author, and advocate of affordable, socially responsible, and sustainable design. He has made major contributions to community-based architecture and cohousing. Charles has designed over 50 cohousing communities in North America and has consulted on many more around the world. He has also designed an equal number of affordable housing projects. He is the principal architect at The Cohousing Company based in Nevada City, California. Charles Durrett, welcome to the show.
Charles Durrett 3:24
Hey, thanks so much. Appreciate it.
Ethan Waldman 3:25
Yeah, thank you for taking the time. So what it doesn't say in your intro and your bio, is that you actually coined the phrase cohousing. Can you tell me a little bit about how that how that came together? What was the first one like?
Charles Durrett 3:42
Well, the Danish word is bofællesskab which is literally translated as living together community. And one Thursday afternoon and in 1985, the Danish Ministry of Housing, I was in Copenhagen at the time, called me up and said, "Chuck, tomorrow we're going to release a book about bofællesskab in English and we need an English translation. Otherwise, we're just going to leave it as bofællesskab." So I ended up staying up all night that night and came up with 35 different options and ended up at dawn settling on cohousing. You know, I just looked up the word "co" or the prefix "co". And anyway, he looked at it, it looked like people were set on cooperating at some level and certainly that's what cohousing is. People who feel like their own lives will be easier, more convenient, more practical, more economical, more healthy, more fun, more interesting if they cooperate with their neighbors than if they don't. And it's certainly true. I've been living in cohousing for 35 years now. And I feel like like my life is infinitely easier because I have neighbors that know me care about me and support me.
Ethan Waldman 5:03
So, in that definition that sounds pretty broad, like that could really encompass a wide range of different kinds of housing arrangements. Is that true?
Charles Durrett 5:14
Well, no, there are lots of different housing arrangements, including co living in Denmark, they call that collegiums. That is where you have, rent usually, a room and a bathroom, and together with up to 20 rooms, you have a kitchen, dining living room, for example. The are shared houses, of course, they've been around forever. Just about everybody's lived in a shared house, a house that was made for nuclear family now it's made for several families.
Ethan Waldman 5:41
Charles Durrett 5:41
There's hospice. There's any number of - there's memory care, there's assisted care. There's any number of housing arrangements. If I had to guess dozens and dozens. But cohousing is unique. Cohousing depends on a group of households that get together and plan a custom neighborhood around the notion that 'I'm going to have my own house still complete with kitchen, etc. But when it makes sense, we're going to cooperate in another level.' Like where I live, we formally have dinner six nights a week. These days, it's been less. And, you know, we have about 100 things that we share together like a lawn mower and a swimming pool and a hot tub and all that stuff that makes again makes our life easier, for sure. And less costly, hugely less costly. I mean, I've done a survey with about well with 200 people. And the dollars amount saved per month ranged from $200 a month to $2,400 a month that people felt like they were saving living in cohousing. So but there is a definition, the definition means that the future residents participate in the creation, that there's extensive common facilities. Third, that is designed to facilitate community long after the honeymoon has gone. Usually that means with our cars delegated to the periphery, or is is completely self-managed. Five is that there's no hierarchy whatsoever. And six is that there's no shared economy, other than what we buy together. You know, we have about a $200,000 a year budget in our 34 unit cohousing. We've created that budget together and we spend it together.
Ethan Waldman 7:29
So oh, man, so many questions, just from just from what you just said there. You know, when you first started talking, I was almost going to make the joke that like, "Oh, it sounds like a condominium." I live in a condo. We have a shared budget, we have a shared thing. But I think that the difference is that sometimes it seems like the people who live in condos don't actually want to cooperate with their neighbors, they kind of have this idea that, that they want their own space and then they kind of have to cooperate together out of necessity. Not because it's something that they actually want to do.
Charles Durrett 8:05
Yeah, they're gonna try to figure out how to put up with each other and codify the best of their ability. Yeah, you know, we're, we're a condominium in house ownership type only. I mean condominiums have five or seven people on the board out of 50. Where I live, every single adult on the board, for example, we do everything by consensus. And everybody who moved there came to cooperate. That's the big difference.
Ethan Waldman 8:32
Charles Durrett 8:32
I know that my life will be better if I cooperate with my neighbor than if I don't. And, you know, my basic feeling is if you don't want to cooperate with your neighbor, there's a whole other world out there and everybody who chooses to live in a cohousing knows that.
Ethan Waldman 8:46
I like that. Yeah. Tell me a little bit more about the idea of cars being delegated to the periphery?
Charles Durrett 8:53
Well, you know, in essence, when you get together with 40 or 50 people and you make a custom neighborhood, it doesn't take long before that's the ideal. That's, that's determined to be the better solution. When you start talking about things like kid friendly. You know, we moved in with 37 kids and lots of two year olds and three year olds, who literally want to just run out the front door and play with or without parents. And and the parents like that too. And our environment is completely safe. If you want to know a lot about the design. I mean, look at this or you can't look at it, but if you look at our new book called Cohousing Communities, by Wiley, you will see hundreds and hundreds of child friendly environments, and hundreds and hundreds of - 900 photos in the book. Hundreds and hundreds of photos of senior friendly environment, hundreds of photos of dog friendly environment and family friendly environment. And you just know that if you keep the car out of the way you can, you can create that.
Interestingly enough in the design of 55 cohousing, nobody has ever asked me for anything close to a typical summer, basically, where you have your own house. I mean, you bring the cars in, you not only bring in the threat, the physical threat, but also the noise and the smell. And, and the noise by itself has a major adverse effect on subconscious. You know, there, we have no enemy to our personal being anywhere near as much as a car today. And it reminds me of I, I've been to the Serengeti plains in Africa. And when you're there, it's the roar of a lion that makes your buttocks quiver a little bit. In this country, it's the roar of a motorcycle, or the roar of a hot rod or the just the car that you're constantly looking around to make sure that you're safe from. And it doesn't take long for people to realize that villages historically didn't have cars going through the middle of them. So we don't want this village.
In fact, that's, that's one of the key things that makes cohousing unique in that the folks that create it are feeling like we're creating a modern day village. And that's what makes it unique. And, and you know, they're right, radically. The first one was built in 1972. Of course, there were villages long before that. But this was the concept that now we have to consciously create what used to happen naturally, you know, it just fell into place for lots of different reasons that topography or the farming or, you know, they just need people just needed each other, etc. In that proximity kind of landscape. Now, people want to be next to each other, because there's so much to be gained from it, like a child friendly environment now and peers for your children. I mean, my daughter, a two year old, wanted to run out and find other peers to hang out with and, and play with and shouldn't you know, when our parents were being more boring on a Saturday morning, and so it really fosters the growth of every individual who lives there, for sure.
Ethan Waldman 11:57
In a lot of ways, it sounds like the antithesis of the typical American lifestyle or dream of like, okay, single family house with a big yard and two cars and a driveway. And just kind of this you know, it's all going to work on a do it ourselves, we're going to kind of be the kings of our own little domain here.
Charles Durrett 12:19
It is the antithesis and frankly, I'm so happy with how many people who come to the table who feel like, "I've been I've been swept up in a consumeristic society for a long time, to the point where I want to instead live out my values. I want to buy less, consume less, have a smaller footprint on the planet and simply live lighter on the planet." And you can only do that through cooperation.
Ethan Waldman 12:46
Yeah, and it just, it sounds like it checks so many boxes. Environmentally, we haven't even talked about that yet, but I'm sure that that the footprint of of cohousing community where there are, you know, 30 families living is less than 30 families living in a suburb. With housing costs going crazy for everyone both renting and buying, you know, you've talked already about the the cost savings of living in cohousing. And, you know, you've designed over 50 of these communities. I'm assuming there are a lot more out there than just the 50. Is an idea whose time has finally come? Is this like becoming a mainstream thing?
Charles Durrett 13:31
Yeah, well, we're only at 200 now in the US. The first one was built in Davis, California in 1991. That we designed and, you know, it's it's still that tip of the iceberg, but that said, there's well over 200 communities in the US that have been inspired by cohousing, so they're kind of cohousing, light or cohousing inspired. That said, you know, I just finished a project up in Port Townsend, Washington, and a lot of those people that lived there came out of a cohousing inspired project, and realized that the physical trappings was nowhere near enough. In fact, this one woman said that she'd been living in that house in one of these little pocket neighborhoods for five years and not once has anybody come to her for work. So that that's where the social structures is not working. And, you know, there's a lot of folks. I can't believe how often it comes up where some mastermind thinks he's gonna create this kind of heightened community on their own. And I've done 55 And I still don't do it on my own. I don't want to do it on my own. I want to do with future residents for two main reasons. One is that design processes where the community is built not brick by brick by decision by decision. And that decision making scenario means that serious relationships and serious kinships are being created. And then number two, I never designed it as well without them as I do with them. You know, when people bring real experiences, real values, real intentions to the table, you know, community is complicated. Villages are complicated. We don't even, you know, if you look at an average village, you don't even begin to see the complexities built into that scenario. If you look at the new book, I've shown a bunch of ancient villages. And you can't even begin to read the complexities, because you probably don't begin to know that that anything about that culture that was living in that village. Well, the same is true of cohousing. You know, there's just a complexity like a well honed machine that really fits like a glove instead of a grocery bag. You know, number one is the lowest common denominator. And that's why single family houses grew to be as popular as ours, because you don't have to think at all in that scenario. All you have to do is be lonely, watch TV, play inNtendo, and, you know, go to the lake for the week and take your boat. But cohousing is a lot more complicated than that.
Ethan Waldman 16:19
Yeah. Can you talk more about the idea of no shared economy? What does that mean?
Charles Durrett 16:26
Well, it means that, you know, just because I make more than the person that lives next door to me, that's my business. It's nobody else's business. And, you know, that just goes all the way, that's all the way around. That said, we had a single mom who moved into our cohousing and then she rented one bedroom and then two bedrooms, and then the rest of the cohousing found a way for her to buy a house when the couple that she was renting from died. So that people take initiative on the economy, but they do it as individuals and at their own inclination. And because they start to care about people. So housing is really based on the notion that people give a damn about each other, not because they have to, or they should, but because they grow to based on having things to do together. Like this weekend on Saturday, we've got to do a bunch of fire safe work because we're in Northern California. It's actually Nevada City, California, by the way, but anyway. And, you know, we'll cooperate in doing that. Well, everybody up here in this part of California has to do fire safe work around their house, cut down the bushes, cut down the grass, on site, etc. But it's a lot more fun when you're dealing with 33 other households, not by yourself.
Ethan Waldman 17:47
Yeah. And so are you as a community doing the physical labor together, like the landscaping and the fire safety work and that kind of stuff? Or do you sometimes decide collectively, "Okay, we're gonna hire a landscaping company to come in and, you know, maintain our lawn."
Charles Durrett 18:07
Precisely. I mean, it's very much a hybrid.
Ethan Waldman 18:09
Charles Durrett 18:10
I mean, people only do what they can, for example, and some people have the tools we need, etc.
Ethan Waldman 18:21
I get the sense that each one is different, especially when you're working with the people who want to live there to design it. Is there is there an average, or I don't want to use the word average, but is there a typical kind of layout or house size, unit size, for these these cohousing communities?
Charles Durrett 18:43
Well, it's interesting, I've been showing this slide at when I start with a cohousing community. I don't remember what page it's on. But there's an ancient Chinese village in our new book. And I basically tell the group when we start that, it's probably going to look like something like this. And because so many of them have. The first one in the US looks like an ancient Chinese village, frankly, you know, a pedestrian row with buildings on both sides and a larger place to me that in that case, it's married with the culture, the land, the topography and the farm and cohousing. You know, we obviously we can't turn our back entirely on the car, but we are very much reflective of who we are mostly as pedestrians and in wheelchairs, etc. Not as a beast roaming around in a four wheeled two ton piece of steel. I think it's on page 16, the image that most cohousing communities gravitate towards.
If you're if you're able to share that with me you know as a as an image. I can put it on the show notes page for this episode just so people, people who are listening can check that out and see what we're talking about.
Oh, Okay, and that is more rural or suburban solution. Okay, you know, obviously, we just finished the project 20 units in downtown Santa Cruz, California, that's 20 units on point two, four acre on a quarter of an acre. So, you know, four stories, three stories about parking. And that's a reality. And in Sweden, there's co housing that is like the second and third floor of a 10 -story high rise. So there's no limitation based on the architecture, there's, there's just because even in those settings, you can design it to function well.
Ethan Waldman 20:36
Right, right. In terms of size, is there like, is there a number that that seems to work really well, and when it gets either too big or too small? It's just there aren't enough people or there's too much, too many people?
Charles Durrett 20:51
Yeah, thanks for asking that. And it's a it's kind of a lengthy conversation, I will, I will give you a piece of it. But I and I hate to advertise this book again. But I really go into the detail about that, because it makes a big difference. The Danes would say, and they have a lot of empirical data on this, the Danish cohousing has many hundreds more co-housing than we'll ever have, I don't know, they just they have a proclivity towards it. And they would argue never more than 50 adults. Because, you know, you know getting consent, it's hypothetical, except they have empirical data on it, they built one at 36 houses that they decided to lower the number. And they built another one where they built two common houses because it worked better with two common houses. So that's a significant cost to build another common house talk. So anyway, they have a breakdown, and they don't build any anymore at all since the early 70s that have more than 50 adults.
So 50 adults means that you have that number to get consensus with, you have that number to get to know really well and to talk to, you know, "Hey, Jane, that tree right next to your house looks diseased. And we the landscape committee really thinks it needs to go." As opposed to Jane finding out about it when she comes home from vacation. You know, that kind of stuff just creates acrimony. And you don't need it at all. But you get it when you have so many people that you start delegating everything too. And it starts to feel more like a small town, and or university where things just get delegated, things happen and surprised people all the time. That said they would also they had like eight reasons for that said, they also were clear that if you can have as close to 50 people as you can, because at 50 people, every individual is going to have five or six or seven people that they closely relate to, and become good friends. So when you come home from work on a Friday night, we just had a difficult week and you need to cry in your beer to somebody, there's going to be somebody there that isn't interested.
Ethan Waldman 23:09
Charles Durrett 23:10
You know, they they've really worked that number. There's lots of communities, though, that are 15, 20 households, and they work fine. We also have lots of empirical data that says, you know, under a dozen households, it gets a lot more complicated because it's obviously almost more personality driven. If somebody chooses not to come to work days that bothers people as opposed to bigger numbers. It doesn't bother people, stuff like that.
Ethan Waldman 23:38
Yeah, that makes sense, like 5050 adults, you know, and that not everyone's going to be coupled but roughly 25 households 25 or 30 households.
That's right. Exactly right in is it less expensive.
It sounds like it's less expensive to live in a cohousing community. Is it also less expensive, like to build a cohousing community than it would be to build like 25 single family homes?
Charles Durrett 24:07
Well, if you do it, right, it is for sure. I mean, you know, there's a 200 projects. And, you know, by the way, the New York Times has done seven full page articles about cohousing, which is by itself remarkable. But they just wrote another article about an eighth article about a project in Connecticut that failed. And that failed because they were trying to save money I mean, never got finished and people spent a lot of money making it happen. And, and it and it makes sense because they they employed a lot of false economy. It can be a lot safer, but the more people you have around who know what they're doing, the more likely I'm not safer, but less costly. It can be a lot less costly. But the more people you have around who know what they're doing, it's more likely to happen because they've learned all the lessons basically I know how to get a a project through city hall, that doesn't take a year. It takes a couple months. I know how to make housing where it's not maintenance ridden, but it's not costly either. What really adds to the affordability is when like in Stillwater, Oklahoma, we had six people who came to the table who could not spend more than 150,000. And so we had everybody's on board once those relationships are built, to make sure that Maryland gets into a house for 150,000. In other words, it becomes a lot of personality driven, which is okay, that's where, you know, you could, you could argue that's where love makes a difference, and countability makes a difference. And relationships certainly make a difference. And over and over, I'm in that situation where there's like, I just finished that project import Townsend, there were five people who had a low threshold. And that helped the whole group, stay disciplined around making something where those five households could move into. So in Oklahoma, it was pulling a rabbit out of a hat. It's actually always pulling a rabbit out of a hat when it comes to magically figuring out how we're going to make $150,000 units when everything else in town, average household is $425,000, or some ridiculous number like that. I'm doing a project right now. I'm rain County. And I just found out two days ago that the average house in Fairfax, California is $1.49 million, but we're going to be the ones who tries to make some affordable housing. You know, it's interesting when Kate and I moved into our first cohousing, which was built very affordable. Our our house price our house payment was less than rent. That happens a lot where we're trying to accomplish that. But again, you have to know exactly what you're doing.
Ethan Waldman 26:55
Yeah, no, it sounds. It sounds like it. If it's done, right. It just has so many benefits, but there are so many ways for it to potentially go wrong. You know, I live in Burlington, Vermont. So it's a small city, college town. A lot of people want to live here and what happens is, housing has always been very expensive in Burlington, but the effects of the pandemic has been that there have been more people wanting to come in and basically work from home here. A lot of transplants from New York, Boston, Connecticut, New Jersey with with kind of salaries from those locations and the cost of housing here has just gone insane. And so, how are there any measures put in place in cohousing to kind of keep the prices of these houses low so that when you know so that when you decide that you want to leave your your cohousing community that your home is affordable to someone like you or someone you know who's entering the phase of life who are ready to live in a cohousing community?
Charles Durrett 28:06
No, thank you very much Ethan for asking that question because the very important question people talk about portable cohousing. I think the number one thing is missing, which is a cap on equity to those houses per year like 4% or 5%. Some cohousing has done that one in Virginia has done that. And one in Berkeley, California has done that. I think their cap is 4% - 4.5% percent a year on appreciation. And that's important. I mean, you know, the funny thing is about those those two projects is you never hear anything about them because they're never advertising they you know, they sell right away if they do sell and both of those cases are hardly anybody has sold because there's so economical from the beginning. But certainly the worst part of my job is that, you know, I work like crazy person to keep their houses affordable, affordable, affordable, and then they sell them two years later for twice as much as they bought them because cohousing, cohousing just does not have enough supply anywhere. And all the sudden when that's done is very attractive. So where I live, the prices have actually doubled since they were built. And it's very destabilizing to the community, somebody wants to be entrepreneurial and go start a second career. They just take a ton of equity out of their house and go that way. So you know, anything we can do to promote equity caps in the future, it's the way to go.
Ethan Waldman 29:36
So how would that actually work with the additional because like, you can't control the value of the house and what you're saying is that the value goes back into the community somehow.
Charles Durrett 29:48
No, no, you can. You can have codes and you know, you have codes, covenants and restrictions so perfectly cohousing you can only sell your house for 4.5% more than you bought it for per year.
Ethan Waldman 29:59
Per year? interesting?
Charles Durrett 30:01
Ethan Waldman 30:03
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It's funny, like my own, I'm just like feeling the reaction to that like in my body like wow, you know, like, kind of like when am I going to get mine? I bought a house and I want it to go up in value too. And this is how like so many people end up retiring or that it's kind of like their biggest depreciating asset is their house. But I guess you kind of are flipping it on its head and saying like, you're not going to make a huge, like killing on this house in terms of like, you're not going to triple in value and you're not going to get to cash out. But also your expenses while you're living here. And your lifestyle while you're living here are going to afford you a different lifestyle.
Charles Durrett 32:16
Because you save your money? Sure, yeah. But the biggest important thing is, you know, as described in the really great book called Sacred Economics, where Charles Eisenstein describes in great detail that you know, it used to be as in the rugged individual that your number one asset was your house is your house, but to imagine your number one asset is your neighbors, that the people are the number one amenity that's an a little bit of a new paradigm, but it's it's dead obvious when you live in a cohousing. You know, I don't actually plan to sell my house, you know, I'm gonna die there. We've had seven or eight people that have died in their house already, you know, Meg died three weeks before a 100th birthday. And you know, so and she was dead clear, no pun intended. She was very clear that her neighbors were her number one asset. And I think most people where I live feel that way. Now, you know, after the first people, dozen people made a killing on their house. Now everybody else's just says, you know, this is this is I now have learned the advantages of living people near people who know me and care about me. Yeah.
Ethan Waldman 33:33
Yeah. So I want to I have to turn that around. Well, I could I could pick your brain about cohousing for hours, I think because I find it fascinating. But I also want to bring tiny houses into the mix, which is how we initially connected that. You've started to turn your attention towards tiny housing Tiny House villages as a way to serve people experiencing homelessness.
Charles Durrett 34:03
Right. Yeah, you know, I have to tell you, I went to this conference a couple years ago is brilliant. It's in downtown San Francisco. They had invited 300 housing advocates from the entire state. And there were 10 speakers. I was one of them. And we spent literally eight hours talking about homeless shelters and different means of accomplishing it. And at the end of seven hours, we broken into small groups and spent 45 minutes talking about each group like 10 groups. What in the 10 different speakers were facilitating each group. And how can we get this job done in the short term? And how can we get this job done in the long term? And I have to say, it was based it was, you know, the highest, not the plurality but the majority of people said them number one way, we're gonna get this problem addressed in the very short term. In other words, you know, 10,000 people died on the streets. Last year, 10,000 people died on the streets the year before that 10,000 people died on the streets before that. I mean, so let's do it. As far as I'm concerned, if one person dies on the street, that's too many. So I was surprised to see the, the not the consensus, but the vast majority of people probably 80% plus, said, "Let's build tiny house villages as fast as we can, everywhere, including San Francisco, under the freeways under the underpasses, you know, in the parks, if we have to. Let's just start getting them built." So and I've worked on a number of them now. And I have been incredibly impressed by what you can accomplish in that village like setting, not only with the tiny houses, I mean, as far as I'm concerned, the structure is just the picture frame, the social setting in between the structures is the picture of consequence. And what you can do with that picture is profound in terms of helping people turn their lives around, giving people the support they need, and that setting in that village like setting where again, people know each other, care about each other and support each other.
And especially what I saw in in a, probably the best known one in the US is called Opportunity Village in Eugene, what I saw there was when, you know, seven people, seven residents are on the council there that does the management, they've been nine years, they've had to kick out three people, mostly for abusing their girlfriends. They probably abused them before they lived in there but the girlfriends didn't feel like they had any choice, blah, blah, blah. But I the metamorphosis I saw of people who get into that management situation, they ended up how they shift as an individual blows my mind. And they are constantly mentored there by seven local clergy, so seven volunteer managers, seven volunteer clergy, who are mentoring those individuals all the time. They turn into different human beings, largely because they feel accountable to others. And people feel accountable to them. If they vote you off the island, you're out of there. But they've only voted off three people in nine years. That's not bad.
So anyway, I did a seven unit, Tiny House 450 square foot cottages in Napa, California, and mostly homeless, and mostly vets. And it's due they moved in a couple of years ago. It's a remarkable place. And I wrote a book about it, A Solution to Homelessness in Your Town. Because I was so happy with the whole dynamic of that project, including they had 16, funders, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, you know, all kinds of people who kicked in a few, lots of thousands. And you know, the painting company, the consultants who worked on the project, including me, you know, did donations and how it came together because everybody all 16 funders felt like we're part of the solutions. I've never seen a groundbreaking, you know, a big mud site, where all 16 funders showed up I usually in fordable housing, I usually see about three or four out of seven or eight funders show up. But the attitude in this project was giddy, the nonprofit has done a great job of making everybody feel like you're now part of the solution, this problem that we talk about incessantly in this country, that we have two to 3 million homeless people, depending on who you are, who's doing the counting that weekend. And thousands and thousands are dying.
I'm starting a project in Spokane, Washington, that 162 People without a roof of their head die last year, last winter. And it's just really pathological. If you ask me, I mean, as a species, we know how to do so much better than that. As a culture we need to grow, where we do not accept this problem day in and day out. Because most other civilized countries do not accept this problem. They do something about it, and we're not doing something about it. And Tiny houses could be part of the solution. We built 30 in Nevada County, and we had about 150 volunteers. It was amazing. We built it over a couple of weeks. And and that's what I saw in Eugene as well. So in other words, all the people that are willing to come together to build all these doll houses, and all the the vendors and the carpenters and the wannabe carpenters and the construction material people who want to help out. And usually all it comes down to is a city or a county that says, "Hey, look, I've got a couple of acres that you guys can lease from us. And when we get a higher and better use, we'll ask you to roll those tiny houses off to another site that we don't have a higher, better use. But in the meantime, we need to help these people get on their feet and stop dying. It's just wrong."
Sometimes I feel like it's almost calculated, all these people won't have any, they won't get their social security. So we'll all save money. I mean, this project in Napa 100% of them are on social security. But now they can get their social security check, because they have an address. Right? You know, when, when we did the grand opening on that project, again, all 16 funders came, and Matt got up to the podium, one of the new residents and said, "You know, that freeway, you guys drove in to town to come to this grand opening?" It was almost 200 people. He says, "I slept under that off ramp for six years, and I'm a Vietnam vet." Under those circumstances, everybody there sees that we're wrong. As a society, we need to get this boat upright. And that not only takes empathy, it takes a process. So I did the absolutely best I could to write about a process in that book called A Solution to Homelessness in Your Town, which, you know, solving that kind of problem only takes two, two things, a vision of its being solved. And a clear set of steps. And that's what I tried to do in that book.
Ethan Waldman 41:37
Nice. So philanthropy is wonderful. And it's it sounds like the villages that you've worked on, you know, you've had funders, like the Bank of America and various people, is there anywhere in this country in the United States, where, like, a city government or a state is saying, "Hey, we need to fund this with like, we need to actually get this done. And not just hope that, you know, the wealthy, you know, that the Bank of America is willing to fund it."
Charles Durrett 42:11
Well, Ethan you're dead, right, and this is government's job, there's no doubt about it.
Ethan Waldman 42:17
Charles Durrett 42:17
Government should be taking care of this, the billionaires should be taxed to the point where this is taken care of. But it's not their incentive, their incentive is to have people need, you know, get low wages, so that they need to work blah, blah, blah.
Ethan Waldman 42:32
Charles Durrett 42:33
I mean, that's been around forever. So, but this project in Napa was started by somebody on the community development, Division of this, of the city government. And, and, and it was actually the little town of American Canyon, just south four miles south of Napa, and a new town, and they decided the first thing that they were going to do newly incorporated, was to get the people off the street, not to met not only because it's wrong, but there's been so many dozens of studies now that showed that any the state, federal, county and city saves about, well, somewhere between 20 and 40,000. Now, I guess the number is 30, and $50,000 per year per homeless person, you know, ambulances, police, emergency rooms, all the different ways that the hot, expensive government has to step in and help these folks. So they put aside three and a half acres and said, "Hey, if you can organize a project, you know, let's do it." Now, what's so interesting about that is, some people can organize it, and some advocates can't. So it always comes back to do you have the skills to get the bloody job done. And it's a very deliberate process, there's nothing random about it, you know, your heart, and being in the right place is absolutely essential. But so is having the left side of your brain to you see the process, you put it together, and you make the proposal and they buy it.
And so in that project, you know, the city of American Canyon kicked in the land for free, you know, they could have sold it for millions. And the same is true in Eugene, Oregon, that that project is leased from the city of Eugene. And that was one over the city as like $1 a year and it was for the city of Eugene. And first year nine years ago, it was an eight to one vote, and since then has been a nine to zero vote every year that to allow that project to stay there. Especially when you know the management has done really well. They've had no police calls there which is blows my mind by itself. You know, every neighborhood has police calls, but their their you know, their management does a good job of, of helping set people up for success and mitigate concerns. Blah blah blah. In a American Canyon, the State gave money, the Feds gave money, HUD gave some money. So when you get organized and you look organized, you'd be surprised how many people want to be part of the solution. Sometimes the the nonprofits, or the philanthropist or the seed money to make it look like you have your act together, but then when you apparently have your act together, people are pouring money in this problem. And the biggest problem in the US now I think that gets in the way of this being done well, is how many people how many towns are wasting money on this topic. You know, they build like San Francisco, they spent millions on a new navigation center that, you know, the homeless didn't want to be navigated, they needed a roof. And so that got abandoned, you know, so over and over and over again, governments tend to not have the best ideas, but they do have the money, if you look like you can implement your ideas.
Ethan Waldman 46:00
Interesting. So I actually I interviewed someone from SquareOne Villages, who - they they are the people who put together Opportunities. And, and what I found fascinating is that they actually, there's some crossover that they build villages for homeless people experienced experiencing homelessness and then also there are villages that are for people who are very low income, or low income.
Charles Durrett 46:33
Ethan Waldman 46:35
Is this? You know, it seems like there's the possibility for this to either trickle up or trickle down, or both, you know, like, you could start with villages for people experiencing homelessness, and then say, well, people who are very low income also deserve housing also are struggling. So can we use the same model to support them?
Charles Durrett 46:56
Yeah, it's an interesting question. I mean, you know, the project, you know, that my book is about this a social assess solution to homelessness in your town. It's the 70 units, everybody's on Social Security, and their rent is 1/3 of their check, basically. So that turned out to, you know, accommodate most of the costs, etc, etc. So that's probably the most expensive one I've worked on. You know, the, the rent is a couple $100 a month in Opportunity Village. I pretty sure it's the same now. But it started out at $30 a month, maybe it's $40 a month. But that's virtually no income, but you do have to do something, even if you just save cans to get the 30-40 bucks a month. You know, trickle down has been something we've been trying to do since Reagan. And I think we need to trickle up, you know, more like SquareOne did. And in other words. Yeah. And you know, the cool thing about SquareOne is some of those people who lived in, you know, white compromised little tiny houses. I mean, 8 x 12. Yeah, with no heat, no light, no plumbing, no, nothing. They were $1,000 apiece. The thing I love about that project the most is that the residents working with the city figured out how to get fresh water. Previously, it was trucked in. Figured out how to get sewer. Previously, it was trucked out. They have a common kitchen. Now they have so many things that they've created together, that I could live there just as well as living in Emerald, Emerald Village, which is the second one that they did in Eugene, which is low income. And they're you know, they're they're more like 20 x 20 tiny houses instead of 8 x 12.
Ethan Waldman 48:45
Charles Durrett 48:46
And, sure, I think you can go both directions. But I really liked starting from the bottom and going up. Because you know, when I saw when we built our 30 units here is how many volunteers you can get to build these things. Because I think everybody's sick of the homeless problem.
Ethan Waldman 49:03
Charles Durrett 49:03
And the similarly in Eugene, how many volunteers they had with tool belts, and you know, real skills to build those tiny houses. You came out of the woodwork and they did a great job, including the homeless people being involved with it too. So I think can go both directions. But I like up down up myself.
Ethan Waldman 49:24
What was the cost of the one that you did in Napa like a per unit? Obviously not counting the free free labor that you got, but what was the actual like, amount of money spent to do it?
Unknown Speaker 49:40
Alot of money. Those units are about $100,000 apiece. For units that are 450 square foot, so that was the opposite end. So in this book, I tried to show both ends the $8,000 a unit and the $200,000 unit. You know what happens? You know that side had a, you know, unlike Opportunity Village, it's a flat site, this site had a 56 foot drop in it. And every and because of where we got some of the funds from, like the state of California, we were obligated to make 64 units handicap accessible. So that meant that we had to have ramps and handrails and everything all over hell and high water, I might have done that differently. Because they are rentals, you could, you know, there's only a couple of people in a wheelchair that lived there. So if a new person came in with a wheelchair, they could go to one of the handicap units if you only had like, 20 or something. But anyway, there were a lot of activists, including the activists on the board of that project that ended up accumulating a great deal of costs. But the funny thing about that was, you know, frankly, that project turned out to be and everybody could see it from the beginning, that it was a stellar model project. So no matter what an activist wanted to bring to the table, like 100% solar energy, which they did, some sustainably grown lumber, you know, like 85%, handicap accessible, you know, a lot of quality, you know, energy efficiency, for example, you know, really nice kitchens and everything. The interesting thing about that project is every time they had a boost in the cost, there was another donor in the wings wanting to donate to it. So there's a couple of ways to look at it. You know what I mean? On the other hand, I think we could have made those units for $100,000 and built two projects like that. So there's a lot of activism still to do.
Ethan Waldman 51:45
Yeah, yeah. Well, the the name of the book where you describe the process is called A Solution to Homelessnesss in Your Town. And I got to look through it and, you know, it's fascinating. There are a lot of photos and the units are beautiful, like I could certainly live there. In our last couple of minutes, I want to turn to I am sure that that many of my listeners who are, you know, dreaming of living in a tiny home themselves are also interested in this idea of cohousing. And maybe maybe before listening to this hadn't considered starting a cohousing community with other like minded, tiny house dwellers as a possibility of getting this done. So I wanted to just ask you what, you know, what resources do you recommend people, you know, looking into, to start that potential journey or start that exploration of okay, how do I, how do I manifest this for myself and for, you know, and 50 of my closest friends?
Charles Durrett 52:55
That's a really good, that's a really good question. By the way, in the book, Cohousing Communities. There's a project that is I think it's 20 Tiny houses and 20 condominiums and a common house in Paradise California. You know that that town was wiped out? There's lots of sites, lots of infrastructure. And I don't know where they're going with that, that design that I did for them or not, but we'll find out. They did have one town meeting that I presented that the best way to get a new project build tiny houses or common house or cohousing. I mean, there's nothing mutually exclusive about it, for sure that I want to make that clear. And cohousing communities across the board are quite varied. You know, there's sometimes these little cottages sometimes they're usually when a group gets involved, like like where I live 34 units. It's amazing to me, we had people moving from 100 acres, lots of people moving from 20 acres. And all of a sudden we were doing buildings attached to each other because of the energy efficiency because of the community, the more likely you are to walk next to each other because the desire to leave real open space not all this residual space between the tiny houses. We ended up making attached units energy efficiency alone infrastructure loan costs alone, it was just a lot less costly than spreading out the infrastructure. So anyway, but they're not mutually exclusive. And co and tiny houses by nature are smaller and they're far closer, so there's no reason not to do that.
But what I would do and the way most cohousing projects get built tiny house or otherwise, it's some person in your town one one individual. Every project starts with one individual who says, "You know what? This is how I want to live." And then they they get the books and to the local bookstores you know creating cohousing or the book out the new one called cohousing communities and And they put a little flyer in the book that says, "Hey, if you're interested in this at all, you know, give me a call." And, you know, two or three people call them and they say, "Okay, let's have a meeting." And then they say, "Okay, let's have a Chuck or Katie come out and do a presentation." These days. You know, I was in, in an Anchorage, Alaska a few years ago, and they had 300 people that's kind of par these days, when I do a public presentation for cohousing. So, and two to two to 300 people, you get that many people in the room talking about cohousing, you're going to have 40 or 50 people who want to get started.
Ethan Waldman 55:40
Charles Durrett 55:41
And so, you know, they usually call me up and you know, I charged them a flat fee and the cost and whatever cost there are. And now the average group lives there. Basically, they just was one woman, Mary Miner, who decided, "Hey, I've got a child that needs to be living in a community not here watching TV." And she's very communitarian, too. So she had me come up, she got enough money together to get me up to Anchorage. 300 people showed up. I think we did the getting a belt workshop with at least 30 people, and now they live there.
Ethan Waldman 56:17
Charles Durrett 56:18
That's a very deliberate process, and we try to be as deliberate as possible. In other words, only takes two things, a vision and a clear set of steps.
Ethan Waldman 56:28
Excellent. Are there are there loans for cohousing communities? Like, I'm not imagining that all 30 of those people, for example, didn't have a spare $150k in cash sitting around with that they could put up for the community.
Charles Durrett 56:48
How much did you say?
Ethan Waldman 56:49
I said 150,000 because you...
Charles Durrett 56:52
That's nowhere near nowhere near as much as you need. Yeah. Now, that's how much you're buying your house for. And usually, you would only have a 20% down. So they'd have to come up with $30,000. And that's still real for a lot of people.
Ethan Waldman 57:06
Charles Durrett 57:07
So, but that's the duration of the project. This is a long topic, Ethan. Do our two day workshop just on this topic? Because, you know, we we hire these fantastic mortgage brokers who tell people who don't have a pot to piss in how to buy a house. Yeah, so that's a that's a long topic, but they do it. You know, Davis, California, 23 out of 26 households were first time homebuyers. And the project in Vancouver, Washington when the average house price was $778,000 was started by a 29 year old woman who, you know, who just had the tenacity to get the job done and did get it done. It's on the it's on the back cover of the new book. So no, step number one is don't negotiate against yourself. You can probably do it if you put your mind to it.
Ethan Waldman 57:55
Nice. Well, as I said, I can pick your brain about this all day and you've you've been very generous with your time and you have many books that people can check out if they're interested. There's Creating Cohousing, there's Cohousing Communities, and there's A Solution to Homelessness in Your Town. Charles Darrett, thank you so much for being a guest on the show today.
Charles Durrett 58:17
Ethan, great job, my friend. Thank you very much.
Ethan Waldman 58:21
Thank you so much to Charles Darat. For being a guest on the show today. You can find the show notes including links to all of Charles's books over at thetinyhouse.net/228. There you will also find a complete transcript of this episode. Again, that website is thetinyhouse.net/228. Well, that's all for this week. I'm your host Ethan Waldman, and I'll be back next week with another episode of the Tiny House Lifestyle Podcast.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai
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