–From Tracy Giles
I am a single woman in her mid-50s. I live alone due to divorce and am new to my area. In my tiny community, everyone keeps to themselves and it is extremely hard to make new friends; it can be very lonely. Right now I am fit and healthy, but who knows what the future holds. I realized that my current model of living had a lot of drawbacks for me. I also realized that it was not unique to me and was how many people were living today.
I started investigating some of the local cohousing projects in Sooke. To get further into the cohousing network I attended a two-day workshop called “Is Cohousing for You?” held in Sooke. The course was deemed compulsory if I wanted to join any cohousing groups. In any case, it was a great course, well run and very informative, hosted by a great facilitator, Margaret Critchlow who is a co-founding director of the Canadian Senior Cohousing Society. The course made me think more deeply about the housing model, but only confirmed what I already knew: it was an absolutely ideal model for me.
If you don’t know what cohousing is let me explain. It is basically an intentional community of people who come together to create a model where people live independently in their own, private homes such as small town houses or condo style units but have a social community around them. They feature communal spaces where people can meet, socialize, hold events and share meals. They can also share resources such as tools and equipment, and even car-sharing. Each household doesn’t have to own its own lawnmower or electric drill because these things can be shared. Because of the interaction between the residents of the community there are many social, health, economic and environmental benefits.
Humans have lived in various forms of cohousing for centuries but this modern version of cohousing originated in Denmark in the 1960s. Spurred by dissatisfaction with existing housing, projects were started such as Saettedammen in 1967 which is now recognized as the oldest known modern cohousing community. The concept was introduced to North America by Charles Durrett and Kathryn McCamant, two architects who saw great value in the model. They designed one of the first cohousing projects in North America, Muir Commons in California. They have both authored a number of works on cohousing and senior cohousing.
It is slowly gaining popularity in Canada; currently, there are approximately 13 recognized cohousing projects, 11 of which are in BC. Of course there are many other variations on a theme and intentional communities, but by cohousing I mean recognized by the Canadian Cohousing Network (cohousing.ca). We have some completed here on Vancouver Island—Creekside Commons in Courtenay, Pacific Gardens in Nanaimo, Harbourside in Sooke, and in development is West Winds Harbour in Sooke and Ravens Crossing … which is pending a site announcement but will probably be in Sidney.
However, I see a big problem with the way cohousing is currently being developed. The direction seems to be to find very desirable locations and build smart condos with ocean views and private jetties or other features. The units end up being expensive because of the cost of the site land. Yes, they can be described as market-value, but the high end of the market.
What we actually need to be focusing on is combining all the undoubted benefits of cohousing with the necessities of affordable housing. Cohousing that doesn’t fall in that high-end of the market, but is more realistically priced. This may mean groups forming that look for more affordable ways to build on less expensive sites, or—as the cohousing model grows in popularity—the government putting in place incentives for more affordable projects that follow the model.
We need affordable housing. BC’s poverty rate is actually the second-highest in the country, according to a report just published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternative along with United Way and the BC Poverty Reduction Coalition. They also report that half of BC’s seniors live on $25,000 a year or less and for the very poorest of those households it can be as low as $15,000. It is highly inaccurate to only focus on “average” income numbers because those numbers are heavily skewed by the wealthy top 1-2%. For a large number of citizens, particularly seniors, life is far less affluent. For a number of reasons, single women are most vulnerable. Over their working lives they have been victim to workplace gender and pay inequality which results in unequal pension income. They often don’t have access to private pensions or employer sponsored pensions. Statistics Canada data reports the typical senior woman receives 21% less income than a senior man.
As well as the financial issues we have to consider the health issues, which also have a long-term financial impact for the taxpayer. You may have heard in the news recently that the UK appointed a Minister of Loneliness whose task is to tackle social isolation. Whatever your view on that it has generated more conversation around the issue. According to a study done by the gerontology research centre at Simon Fraser University, around one in five Canadians say they are lonely. This can have a serious impact on both their physical and mental health. The American Psychiatric Association reports an even higher number of one in three with single people (never married, divorced, widowed) much more likely to be lonely. Loneliness has been linked to increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, increased stress hormones contributing to a range of diseases including heart disease, and depression. Anything that combats loneliness can be linked to improved physical and mental well-being.
I think as government and society learns about and accepts this rapidly growing social problem and its detrimental impacts, both on the individual and the bottom line of our health costs, we may see more government backed incentives to drive cohousing projects forward, but it takes the people’s voice to keep asking the questions.
The current National Housing Strategy is the usual disappointment of politico-speak with vague tinkering of benefits and lots of promises of reports rather than actual action that addresses the housing crisis. However, I did see mention of possible transfer of federal lands to housing providers if they met environmental and affordability conditions which could have interest to cohousing project developers.
It is not rocket-science to conclude that cohousing can be a perfect solution for many older people. You retain your independence in your private home, but you have the social and economic benefits of a sharing community around you. But that cohousing must be affordable and the current models being developed are not incorporating affordability. We need more cohousing projects getting off the ground that focus on the benefits of the model for people and less on the “nice-to-have” luxe-locations.
I need an affordable community to live in far more than I need a sea view.