Communal living in Calgary could solve housing issues

James Wilt explores the idea of co-housing in Calgary. Where people live in private units, but have shared common spaces, and some common rituals. He tells us how what could seem like faux-communism, may actually be a Calgary problem solver

Communal living could move Calgary toward viable housing option

Cohousing is an option that could work in Calgary if only its residents could get on board. (Prairie Sky)

Originally published Feb. 25.

On first glance, they seem like communes. Or maybe some kind of religious community. And within the context of rugged individualist Calgary, co-housing can appear borderline cultish.

But what could seem like faux-communism, may be a Calgary problem solver.

The idea — birthed, of course, in Scandinavia — is to live in a community made of up private units, but with shared common spaces, and some common rituals. It's supposed to be socially and environmentally preferable to residing in a suburban fiefdom on the city's outskirts — where gophers roam and buses rarely venture.

Although co-housing has been kicking around in North America since the late '90s, there's only one such community in Calgary.

Communal Calgary

Located in Winston Heights, Prairie Sky Cohousing features 18 separate units, a shared 3,400-square-foot common "house,"  an underground parkade and a weekly communal meal (at which attendance is optional, because it's not actually a cult or anything).

The front doors of Prairie Sky's units are literally turned inwards to face each other. Such a feature, common to many co-housing complexes, increases the probability of daily interactions between residents.

As a result, social capital — a "bougie" description of trust between community members — can reach far higher levels than allowed for in the suburbs, where even an annual block party seems a tad invasive.

Sarah Arthurs, a director at First Calgary Financial and longtime resident at Prairie Sky, says when people drop by her community for the first time, "they come in and their jaws drop, and their eyes get big, and they just go, 'Oh wow.'"

All up, co-housing could be the ticket to tackling a lot of the housing challenges that are going to plague Calgary in future years.

Residents of Prairie sky gather group meal to celebrate the 10th year of communal living. Sharing meals is often considered a perk of cohousing. (Prairie Sky)

Calgary fixer-upper

First, it offers an obvious option for densification, if Calgarians are willing to participate. (It means sharing a lawnmower  and giving up their three-car garages.)

Then there's the impending grey tsunami.

By 2042, 15 per cent of Calgarians will be 65 or older. That's up from 10 per cent in 2014.

Older people have different housing needs.

So issues like isolation and mobility could be met with an option like co-housing — given the condensed design and communal attitude.

"This is where it might have a lot of potential in our context, because we are really looking at a rapidly aging population and alternatives to the institutional model in assisted housing or housing for seniors," says Sasha Tsenkova, professor of planning and international development at the University of Calgary.

But getting there won't be easy.

What's mine is yours

Co-housing experiments have been around a long time. Many have failed.

The problem? Neighbours, for one.

Conflicts between personalities. Negotiations over what's private property and what's not. Even figuring out who scoops up the unclaimed dog poop.

But projects in Calgary tend to fall apart for even duller reasons — like bylaws and construction prices.

Dragonfly Cohousing is the most recent failure.

The idea for the community was whipped up in 2010. A communal housing complex situated on an especially hilly part of Bridgeland.  But small complications compounded.

The first issue was our city's zoning regulations.

At the time of initial design, the city's building code prohibited wood-frame construction more than four stories. That delayed development approval and plans had to be redrawn.

Then, in 2013, flooding spiked labour prices. The redesign came back 70 per cent over budget. In the following months, core members gave up and the team collapsed.

"All the little dominoes fell, and they didn't fall our way," says Jasen Robillard, a co-housing consultant who joined Dragonfly in 2011 with his partner.

The project never made it past the planning stage. The group formally disbanded in 2014 and the land is now up for sale. It's a classic ideology-runs-afoul-of-reality tale.

Ideology vs. reality

And the demise of Dragonfly points to a key challenge for aspiring co-housing groups in Calgary: matching an ambitious vision with the constraints of a very competitive and profit-driven housing industry. One that thrives on efficiency and uniformity.

Part of the appeal of co-housing is the chance to be involved in the design process. You can pick in Sims-like fashion how the path should wind from the parking garage to the common building and deciding whether the shared workshop/tool collection should be housed.

But that doesn't exactly fit the model of what most developers are interested in doing.

"It will require a different type of builder and different types of design solutions to actually respond to the needs of a very different and diverse population that we have in our cities," Tsenkova says.

As Ward 11 Coun. Brian Pincott points out, city council is still approving secondary suites one at a time, often spending more time debating parking than the unit itself. In other words, Calgary's not exactly on the cutting edge of innovative housing policy.

There are ways to promote co-housing. None are being used in Calgary.

Living spaces in a cohousing model are designed to increase interactions between the people living there, adding to a sense of community. (Prairie Sky)

Promoting the cause

Some European jurisdictions offer a land bank. Municipalities can reserve land for particular purposes such as co-housing. It's a leg up for projects that otherwise wouldn't be able to afford land in high-priced areas.

Calgary doesn't have a land bank for residential properties, only for industrial lands.

The city could also choose to accelerate the development permit approval process for alternative housing models — create a dedicated liaison or distinct application process.

Most prospective co-housing residents aren't experts in multi-family residential development. Co-housing planning —done by the people who want to live there — tends to be more complex than cookie-cutter homes. They may need guidance.

And, bylaws could be tweaked to allow for idiosyncrasies like doors facing inside the community instead of to the street.

"We can't treat co-housing from a land-use perspective the same that we treat an apartment building," Pincott says. "Our land-use bylaw is generally blind to that."

But the major problem is, as usual, money.

Money talks

Co-housing is expensive.

It's mostly older and/or wealthier people who can invest in such an option. It's tough to save for a utopian housing experiment when you're spending $1,000/month on a funereal basement suite.

"It would be really great if we could find a way of getting some lower-income people involved in this process," says John Mungham, a member of a potential new co-housing group.

Constructing some rental units in every new complex would help.

But that may not happen until municipal policy changes, which itself may not change until provincial and federal governments choose to invest.

Sasha Tsenkova, at the University of Calgary, notes that Sweden and Denmark treat co-housing as a component of the "social housing umbrella," with most complexes owned by a non-profit.

Pincott says without investments from higher levels of government into alternative housing models, there's little chance enough "pent-up demand" will emerge to actually pressure city council to examine the issue.

It's quite the catch-22.

But until that gets sorted, there are other options.

Sharing property

In Canada, co-ops — a related form of housing in which residents are shareholders in the property — have tended to fill that gap.

There are 21 co-ops in southern Alberta, with 15 in Calgary.

But federal funds supporting co-ops via the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) are drying up as operating agreements expire.

Brenda Davies, executive director of the Southern Alberta Co-operative Housing Association, says "we keep lobbying and fighting and trying to come up with a way to possibly come up with another stream of continuing housing cooperatives in the mix."

Whether it's concerning co-housing or co-ops, such a conversation usually devolves into a messy combo of federal housing funding, tax levels and zoning regulations.

Resolving that ultimately requires desire from potential co-housing residents to apply political pressure — something Robillard isn't convinced exists in Calgary.

"I don't know if there's really a whole lot of appetite for co-housing here," he admits.

Which leaves Calgary with one completed veteran co-housing project, another in the very initial stages of organization and a bunch of co-ops facing funding cuts.

Our communal future

Another co-housing group dubbed Foothills Rural popped up in March 2015, but little is known about their plans. Aside from that, not much is on the horizon for co-housing in the city.

Since the Dragonfly project's demise, many of the 33 members have remained friends and continue to meet. A dozen of them bought units in an existing Bridgeland development, along with an additional unit to serve as the makeshift common area. (The new co-housing-inspired project has been playfully titled "Dragonstein").

Robillard says his family of four has been sharing a house with another family of four from Dragonfly. It might be in such creative riffing off the sentiment of co-housing, he suggests, that the future of the concept resides.

"There are lots of other ways of addressing community living," he says. "I think co-housing appeals to the boomers and I think the millennials are going to make their own type of co-living arrangements. I can see millennials probably doing a lot of shared housing, because it's going to be much more affordable for them."

Calgary at a Crossroads is CBC Calgary's special focus on life in our city during the downturn. A look at Calgary's culture, identity and what it means to be Calgarian. Read more stories from the series at Calgary at a Crossroads.


James Wilt is a Calgary journalist who has written extensively for VICE, DeSmog and Fast Foward Weekly.


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