Down the Rabbit Hole

July 3, 2017

Alice chased a rabbit. (And who wouldn’t chase a rabbit that muttered audibly to itself while pulling a watch from its waistcoat pocket?) Lately, it has seemed to me that we, too, are chasing rabbits. They’re less exotic than the one that caught Alice’s attention but each in its way is no less distracting. They represent worlds—legal, financial and others related to the business of putting up buildings—with which we’re mostly unfamiliar. They’re leading us, if not through the looking glass, then to a very different place.

 

To put the matter more plainly, we need professional advice—from lawyers, architects, accountants, developers and others—in order to build what we have in mind. In the past few weeks, we have been making some calls and getting a few interested responses in return. One who responded positively was Tim Welch.

 

Tim runs Tim Welch Consulting Inc. out of Cambridge, Ontario. He was involved in getting the Market Commons condos built (they’re at the corner of Waterloo and Gordon streets n Guelph) and has partnered with Habitat for Humanity in developing the Cityview Village project, also in Guelph. His practice is focused on affordable housing, whether through cooperatives or through condominiums built roughly on the pattern set by Options for Homes. 

 

Last Monday (June 26), Tim sat in on our general circle meeting. He discussed some of the options that are open to us, and some of the obstacles in our way.

 

I won’t attempt to recap the whole discussion. It touched on topics ranging from what exactly it is that we want to build (townhouses? stacked townhouses? mid-rise apartments?) to dealing with developers, financing construction and deciding how many parking spaces we’ll need. These all are topics we have been wrestling with, while warily monitoring the recent spike in property prices in K-W and Guelph. The acreage we acquire will be a factor in all these decisions, a factor that somehow has to be reconciled with our original, expansive vision. Where once we might have seen ourselves in townhouses surrounded by greenspace, now, because property is so expensive, we’re contemplating something more compact. The trick is to make sure our vision of community doesn’t shrink too.

 

The planned September workshop on housing options will clarify our thinking. That, at least, is the plan.

 

So what our project ultimately will look like was one topic we explored with Tim Welch. Another was affordability. This was probably inevitable, if only because Tim’s practice has been largely focused on building affordable homes. It’s a topic on which our group holds a diversity of views.

 

This is partly because some people have come to our meetings thinking that cohousing actually means affordable housing. (It doesn’t.) It has also come up because all of us envision a community with a diverse demographic—not just older people with some independent financial means, but also younger people, single parents and families from different backgrounds. I think all of us see this as a worthy goal.

 

But it’s problematic. Virtually all of us (there are exceptions) expect to own their own units and be able to buy and sell them on the open market. None of us, to my knowledge, is in a position to bankroll units other than their own. There may be strategies—Tim outlined some—that would attract subsidies from government or quasi-government bodies, but all come with strings attached. It’s not clear that our vision for a participatory, self-selecting and self-governing community can be made to work without getting tangled up in those strings. Certainly, making it work complicates an already challenging task.

 

When Alice fell down the rabbit hole, she found herself confronted by a choice between magical pills. Whichever one she took radically changed her perspective on the world. Our choices are different. Arguably, one of them is between a project driven exclusively by private equity and one that somehow attracts a subsidy that makes an affordable component possible. Tim Welch described a few of the paths that might lead to the latter option. But it might need some magic too.

 

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