By Milton Friesen, August 17, 2023
Providing adequate housing across the country is perhaps the major challenge for Canadian society today. Solving Canada’s housing crisis is an undeniably daunting task, in part because the wrong approach could negatively impact nearly every sphere of Canadian life. The wrong approach could lead to environmental degradation, financial instability at every level of government, and a whole range of social issues. There is no magic key, enacting a plurality of housing policies will be essential, but there is one candidate that could simultaneously address several issues: cohousing.
Cohousing is a form of private housing that trades off smaller private spaces for better quality common use areas such as laundry, dining and entertainment. Participants work together to design, build and then live in the housing complex together.
The development of a cohousing project can deepen social connections, lower the threshold for home ownership, support multi-generational communities, meaningfully reduce environmental impacts of housing, and strengthen the civic fabric of communities. None of these dynamics are independent from each other in practice and they must therefore be addressed together in finding scalable housing solutions.
Last year, the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) estimated that to address affordability alone, we will need an additional 3.5M affordable housing units by 2030. Overall housing demand is also greater than the available supply but affordable housing is urgently needed and is a good place to start to address the overwhelming demand generally. The environmental impact of building and maintaining 3.5 million units of new housing stock using traditional approaches is substantial. Given labour demands, inflation and supply chain dynamics, adding 3.5M units in a conventional way is very unlikely. We need to explore solutions not being met by current approaches.
Aled ab Iorwerth, Deputy Chief Economist at CMHC says:
“… Canada’s approach to housing supply needs to be rethought and done differently. There must be a drastic transformation of the housing sector, including government policies and processes, and an ‘all-hands-on-deck’ approach to increasing the supply of housing to meet demand.”
The cohousing approach reflects an integrated and scalable strategy to improve the Canadian housing crisis. What has been missing is a creative dialogue with the question of scale as a central tenet. What if half of the 3.5M units needed in Canada by 2030 were cohousing units? What are the current barriers to developing 1.75M cohousing units? Beginning with the CMHC estimate and a cohousing figure of 35 household units per community, Canada would need to develop 50,429 cohousing communities to meet 50% of affordable housing demands. What would have to change in the cohousing approach for us to begin to think at this scale? What would have to change in the noted legislative, market and cultural structures across Canada to make such scaling possible?
Cohousing is a well-established approach to housing development. Distinct from coop housing or condominium ownership, cohousing communities collaborate from the very beginning in developing the project, learning to work together to design their housing before they move in and live as neighbours. Cohousing communities have smaller privately owned spaces offset by larger and higher quality common use areas. These common spaces are significant in sustaining the neighbourhood connections that provide an antidote to social isolation.
The reduced need for privately owned space means more people per given land and building area. Moving to a larger scale, this could be tuned to lower home ownership costs permitting access to the housing market for people who would otherwise be priced out of a single detached home. At the very small scale of current cohousing developments, these cost savings are not being fully realized but in a scaled form the savings could be significant (alongside other noted benefits).
Cohousing in Canada is rare enough to ensure that most people have never seen or visited a cohousing community and even fewer have lived in one. When we consider our own housing choices, almost none of us have had the chance to choose any real alternative to mainstream home ownership options. Condominium development is structurally designed to maximize private space and minimize common space because the market model is structured to reward that approach. This leaves most condominiums with high private ownership density and low social interaction dynamics by design. Condominiums are compact housing without a corresponding level of actual community. Being lonely in well-appointed boxes has a social and health cost that we are only beginning to understand.
The long-standing cohousing movement provides benchmarks and insights from which new strategies can be developed. Denmark has the most significant level of cohousing globally but has faced challenges that we will need to address and learn from in Canada: How do you scale cohousing so that it becomes a viable option for Canadians rather than an anomaly? What are the legislative, market, cultural and perceptual barriers that prevent scaling of a cohousing approach?
The benefits of cohousing are the key drivers. How would our villages, towns and cities be influenced by the presence of 50,429 communities with higher levels of belonging and economic stability alongside a much lighter environmental footprint? What happens when we can generate significantly more neighbourly well-being, reduce social isolation and permit a far greater proportion of Canadians to own their own homes?
The physical design of cohousing communities incorporating about 35 units is well established and lends itself to becoming the standard. A cohousing community on new land will be different than an adaptive re-use cohousing community in a suburb, a downtown core or in an apartment/condo tower. Modifying from a basic format can speed up development and remove some uncertainties for investors or financial institutions that support these kinds of projects. Localized models should base their cohousing communities on the existing housing and available land types provide common forms from which to work. Scaled up cohousing could adopt and refine these available options in a way that builds into the current system.
Financing models for existing cohousing often require participants to have significant up-front money with an 18-24 month time period until move in is possible. Existing financial institutions are not amenable to these non-typical construction loan arrangements. Scaling will require significant access to financial tools capable of bridging that gap and reducing risk. Governments could provide guarantees, alternative financial sources like credit unions could make use of greater levels of local knowledge and trust, and existing local homeowners could be part of an investment mix that directs their equity toward their community.
Developers and builders have had difficulty factoring in the social benefit of various housing strategies and therefore tend to discount social connectivity as an investment value. Yet, we know that places people love are more valuable than places they don’t care about. Communities that are neighbourly, walkable, interactive and beneficial to families across the demographic spectrum are highly sought after. Cohousing represents these values but when building or financing the project, social benefit is presently seen as too imprecise to count as a positive offset. Advances in social impact investing, measurement of social capital and trust, as well as the negative effects of social isolation and consequent health system burdens all mean we are in a position today to consider social factors more than has been the case in the past.
Common space calculations should include current development strategies to include parks and other public spaces alongside smaller scale common spaces within the buildings in ratios that reflect what prior cohousing design processes have taught us. We need policies and approaches that deliver strong benefits at the scale represented by 25-40 unit developments. Single detached homes are too small as a social unit while multiple towers and condominiums are too large. This is a critical and overlooked scale for generating many of the social goods we need.
Developers would need to be an integral part of the process of building but with a role that is different than they currently have as single-detached, apartment or condo builders. Municipal governments would need to reconsider current separation by usage zoning and development requirements toward zoning that reflects more integrated, complimentary and use based regulation. More mixed development forms are needed – approaches that allow commercial and residential uses to develop in the same places. Transect planning does this. It is a form of urban planning that regulates building structure density starting from the core and working out to the rural / agricultural space without pre-determining what goes in those spaces. Traditional planning separates commercial and residential uses making walkability, access to transit, sociable streets and other common goods much more unlikely. Planning the overall structure but not the usage allows for commercial and residential development to co-mingle supporting more complete neighbourhoods. Cohousing would fit within such progressive forms of code development. Provincial and Federal support will be essential as various structural impediments are encountered from legacy planning laws that are no longer sensible. Higher orders of government could also support early stages of new cohousing models in much the same way that the benefits of electric vehicles have been given a lower risk on-ramping by means of subsidized purchasing and infrastructure arrangements.
Greater institutional development and civic participation benefits could also be realized through higher levels of cohousing because a cohousing community is a scale of social structure that is bigger than a family unit but smaller than a large corporate or public institution. Social life for individuals requires this wide range of relationships. Civic vitality is also enhanced by social organizations that range widely by type and size. Noted across the past several decades of social science research, the thinning of civic life at an institutional level (clubs, interest groups, sports associations, faith communities, and other voluntary networks) has had a range of negative effects. We have fewer but more powerful and pervasive business and government institutions and waning numbers of the kinds of social infrastructure that act like binding agents to turn our communities into networks of places where people belong.
Cohousing is deeply social by design but gets beyond the hyper individualism that threatens our public square. These little ‘platoons of civic strength’ noted by Edmund Burke and de Touqeville can buttress both the quality of life for individuals as well as for other larger institutional entities across business, legal, health, and education settings.
Transformation of the housing sector is needed across the three orders of government, business, non-profit and civil society. Grappling with the scaling challenges of cohousing will stimulate the discussions and debates needed for those transformations. Cohousing at scale may look different than it does currently but if social, economic, community and environmental benefits can be retained, we will have gained important ground on key quality of life issues in Canada.
Cohousing isn’t a political solution. It is a convergence of interacting, concrete realities reflecting all the dynamics of physical building and social organizing. Like all functioning communities, the proposed model for development is a blend of private and public responsibility, a balance of the need for both private space and community belonging. There is no silver bullet. All approaches to solve Canada’s housing crisis represent difficulties but inaction will continue to be a significant cost. The building of the railway was pivotal for Canada, a defining moment even with all of the consequent benefits and ills. It may well be that solving our current housing crisis is the generational challenge that weaves together various strained social and political challenges facing our nation and results in a solution greater than the sum of those obstacles.
Milton Friesen has served as an elected municipal councillor, and on the steering committee of the Thriving Cities Project at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture (University of Virginia). He also served as a member of the Program Committee for the Computational Social Sciences Society of the Americas. Recent work includes acting as the Managing Director of CitiIQ, a global company specializing in city measurement.