CoHousing Comes To GR

October 7, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — Construction of Newberry Place — the first co-housing community in West Michigan — won’t get under way until spring, but as of last week only three of the 17 townhouses in the development remained up for grabs.

A co-housing community is said to blend the amenities of private homeownership with all the social benefits of an old-fashioned, close-knit neighborhood. The community attempts to achieve that kind of cohesion by grouping private residences around a common house and shared open space.

A co-housing community is structured like a condominium association, with every housing unit self-sufficient, said Steve Faber, president of the Grand Rapids Co-housing Community.

Newberry Place
will be built on adjoining properties at 111 and 121 Newberry and
803 Livingston Ave.
, all of which were purchased from the Grand Rapids Public Schools district. The one-acre site in the Belknap Lookout neighborhood overlooking downtown is a “little jewel” of a site, according to project architect Kim DeStigter, owner of DeStigter & Smith Architects.

“It’s in the city but you walk just 50 yards and it feels like you’re in another world, because you go around the reservoir and it’s right there overlooking the whole city,” he said.

Newberry Place
will consist of 17 owner-occupied one- to three-bedroom townhouses, three rental apartments and a common house with a kitchen, large dining room, a small dining area overlooking BelknapPark, a kids playroom, a living room and a storage area for all to share.

The townhouses will be grouped into duplexes, triplexes and quadplexes that have fully equipped private kitchens and an average of 1,200 square feet of floor space. Three of the units will be perched atop the common house. Rental units will be about 900 square feet;  Faber said members haven’t yet determined the monthly lease amount.

He said the group expects to build the units for about $110 to $120 per square foot, though a lot depends on what happens to the cost of building materials in the next several months in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

The development will have 11 parking spaces, five carports and four garages for member parking, plus one guest and one barrier-free parking space near the entry to the common house. Plans call for low-level pathway lighting along interior sidewalks, coupled with existing street lighting, landscaping that maximizes the solar potential of the site, and native and drought-resistant plants to limit water consumption.

DeStigter said the project will incorporate green building principles, but to what extent has not yet been determined.

“We’re going to do a cost-benefit analysis and people have to decide how much they want to spend, but the intent is to incorporate as much as we can financially afford,” he said. “One of the things we’ve had to do is be completely efficient with every square inch of the place to allow them some breathing space in what would normally be considered a ‘small’ unit.”

DeStigter said he had never before designed a common house, which really functions as the heart of the whole community. In a typical co-housing arrangement, members will use the common house most often for evening meals, social interaction and family-oriented recreation.

Like other co-housing communities, the Newberry common house will be owned and maintained by all members of the shared housing group. Members also will share responsibilities such as grounds keeping, gardening and snow removal.

“There’s usually an expectation that you do a certain amount of work, but usually you get to do something that you like to do. Obviously, if we all needed new roofs, we would hire that work out.”

Although the townhouses are still being priced, early estimates put them in the $125,000 to $175,000 price range. But Faber said it’s likely prices will run higher than preliminary estimates. When a co-housing member purchases a unit, the individual is also purchasing a share in the common house, which pays for equipment and furnishings for the shared space, he said.

Everybody pays a $2,000 joining fee to help finance the project, and a membership fee of about $120. The group then depends on a “cash call” system to fund costs as the project progresses. Members volunteer to contribute when a cash call is sounded. One household, for instance, may put in $10,000 and another may kick in $2,000, Faber explained.

“The cash call system is designed in such a way that you get some return on that investment because that money is at risk, so there’s a payout to do that. An average household will have committed between $10,000 and $20,000 in cash before they even go for their mortgage. Once we get a construction loan, to pay off the construction loan everybody will have their own individual mortgage and that’s what’s used to pay off the development.”

Members of a shared housing group pay dues to cover exterior maintenance and upkeep of the buildings. Faber said Newberry members will probably pay condo association dues of less than $200 a month per owner on top of their individual mortgage payment.

Designing

Newberry Place
was unique in that the project has multiple owners, DeStigter said. His firm held a series of charrettes with all the co-housing members over two long weekends to gain a clear understanding of where they wanted to go with the design. Faber said each household completed more than 50 pages of homework regarding what they valued in their personal living space, the community and the common house.

“Then we went through a process of making decisions as a group for what we wanted to see. In co-housing all decisions are participatory and follow consensus,” Faber noted. “It’s not a democracy. Everybody has to, on some level, agree that this is how this decision is going to be made.

“The upside is that your decisions are a lot more thought out and stand up better over time. We believe that having many diverse people in on the decision makes the decision all the stronger.”

The Grand Rapids Co-housing Community was organized three years ago with a core group of three households that included Faber and his wife. By the time the group went into the design charrettes with DeStigter, it was up to 12 households.

“Normally, a developer builds housing, then markets it. We market it, then build it, because everybody’s input has to go into the design,” Faber explained. “It’s designed to meet the needs of that group and what they value.”

There are three co-housing communities in Ann Arbor and one in Kalamazoo, but to Faber’s knowledge,

Newberry Place
is the first urban co-housing community in the state. He said co-housing is part of a national movement. There are 150 such communities either built or being built in the United States. Newberry will be the fifth in Michigan and there’s about three or four others starting to form, he noted.

The concept appeals to baby boomers that are starting to downsize, young families that don’t want to move to the suburbs, and older people that want to be part of a “thriving, vibrant community,” he said.

To date, the Newberry co-housing group includes young families, young couples with no children, seniors, some empty nesters and a couple of single people.    

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