Betting on Cohousing: How Did BCC Reach the Finish Line?
Updated: Feb 26
Just as we were moving into our new building in February 2022, the following headline appeared in the New York Times:
They Took a Chance on Collaborative Living. They Lost Everything.
The article's subtitle was bleak:
A group that sought to create Connecticut’s first experiment in collaborative living fell short. Some of the investors lost their life savings.
Friends, family, and coworkers sent us links to the story, asking, "Hey, did you read that story in the New York Times? Are you guys OK?" Yep, we read it, and yep, we were OK. As sad as the story was, its details helped us clarify how our journey worked out so differently.
An early meeting between architects and members on building design
Rocky Corner Cohousing
The NYT story concerned the Rocky Corner cohousing community near New Haven, Connecticut, which had spent a decade in planning and had started to develop 33 acres of property into an ecovillage. A dozen or more houses had been built and a lot of infrastructure completed. But the project fell into debt and foreclosure, with the bank repossessing the property and houses.
The Real Deal, a real estate development website that reported on the Times article, summarized some of the headwinds the Rocky Corner project faced: "Problems for builders included navigating the bureaucracy to get approvals from the town’s planning and zoning commission, having unforeseen building obstacles such as a large amount of underground rock that had to be removed, and the cost of a water treatment system demanded by the regional water authority when planners intended on just digging wells."
One of the article's heartbreaking conclusions was that "the increasing complexity of the project proved more than the group could afford or manage."
A post on the Rocky Corner website took issue with some of the article's conclusions and opinions. Some Rocky Corner members felt the Times story painted them in a harsh light as innocents who were out of their depth; instead, they wrote, they had consulted with experts all along the way and were aware of the hazards. They also cited the county planning department's many delayed decisions, and state law suited more to traditional real estate ventures, as major hindrances to the project. (The Rocky Corner website, which is still up as of this writing, has not been updated since February 2022.)
If you read the NYT story, note the hundreds of comments left on it. Many are from residents and advocates of cohousing communities from across the country saying that such projects are indeed viable and can be completed in a sound and economic manner.
The Cohousing Association of America does not have recent statistics on the number of collaborative communities starting, in process, established, or failed. The most recent analysis covers the years 1994-2017. Its conclusion: "Of the 461 communities listed in cohousing directory from 1994-2017, 317 failed to get built (69%) and 144 succeeded (31%)."
How did BCC succeed?
The BCC project started in earnest in 2017-2018, and it was not all smooth sailing: members joined, members left, we were sold out then we weren't, construction costs rose as fast as new condos in downtown Durham, which raised the costs of local labor and supplies, and then pandemic-related delays threw everything into confusion. By February 2022, when we finally started moving in, the building was still officially under construction.
And so the publication of the Times article, during the month of our move-in, carried an eerie tone of "Are you sure? Really? Is this whole cohousing thing a safe bet?"
BCC's chat listserv in February 2022 shared lots of ideas and observations on the Times story, along with a few factors that members felt contributed to our success. The following quotes are drawn from those chat messages.
Marketing BCC at International Day, one of many in-person events we did to get the word out before the pandemic shutdown drove us to Zoom events
Christine noted that one factor contributing to BCC's success was our lender imposing a constraint that--while we chafed at the restriction--nevertheless proved sensible. "One thing that really struck me," she wrote, "was the final comment [in the New York Times article] that communities should 'get their homebuyers lined up ahead of time.' [Our lender] made things difficult for us by requiring that 100% of our homes be sold before we broke ground. But that did protect us from this kind of scenario."
(In fact, a few of our members committed to purchase two units to get us to that 100% target. After we broke ground and started building, and new members joined the BCC community to purchase those units, those generous members were reimbursed.)
In part due to that 100%-sold constraint, Jen said, "we were able to delay borrowing money on our construction loan and used our own funds rather than outside investors, so we never had that large 'carrying cost' [Rocky Corner] had. It is amazing that we never took a loan draw before November 2021. The delays could have been so much worse for us financially had we not been sold out and had all the equity we did."
Zoning & Soil Remediation
Another key factor, noted by Jen, "was that our land was already zoned for the type of development we wanted to build (I have a new appreciation for that now). And, I'm grateful that we are on city water and sewer."
Jen added: "Our contact at Resolute said many times the biggest cost risk is what you find in the ground. That is probably a big reason why the cone of uncertainty is so wide at the beginning [of a construction project]. We spent quite a bit rectifying the soils on our small plot of land. It is easy to see how a larger rural property could rack up some serious bills if it had issues with the ground."
A Community Friendly to Cohousing
Another, perhaps obvious, factor: Durham is already home to several collaborative communities. The Triangle area now has about 10 cohousing communities, with a few moving into their second decade.
Still, there is much education to be done for the general public on what cohousing and collaborative living are, and the state and local legal and financial frameworks more easily accommodate traditional real-estate projects.
Yet, when BCC planted its property flags in Durham, it did so in an area with a track record of cohousing successes and a friendly attitude toward intentional communities. We were also able to tap the experience of people in those communities for advice, guidance, and the occasional pep talk.
Another artifact of pre-pandemic marketing
People with Special Talents & Skills
One of the aspects of a project that cannot be controlled or managed on a spreadsheet is ... luck. One of BCC's key success factors was being fortunate in having a deep bench of talented people with skills they could adapt to a large construction project.
Cornelia said: "I believe that if you want to see cohousing through, there needs to be a lot of brain power and special expertise in the group. And our group has a lot of members with amazing talents. I am in awe of that and grateful for it."
Christine, BCC's project manager for the construction and one of our founding members, was a project manager for Durham Central Park Cohousing's construction; the skills she grew on that job she brought to this one.
She agreed with Cornelia: "It truly was an interdisciplinary challenge. It required, and we had, people with expertise in development, finance, and law. And also--because we're building a community--communication, facilitation, and group dynamics. Those skill sets were all equally important to our success and we were lucky to have members who had them. And then it also required all community members to be reasonable, cooperative, compromising, patient, kind, and willing to give for the good of the community--no small feat! I learned that it takes a village to create a village!"
Claire, one of the last members to join BCC, had attended some of Rocky Corner's organizational meetings. She commented that finding property to support an organic farm was a priority for the group, which considerably narrowed choices of suitable locations. An apple orchard near a more urban location, for example, was not chosen due to prior pesticide use on the site. The rural location ultimately selected was ideal for an organic farm but was located in a town that had concerns about the housing density of the project. Being further from New Haven and the rail line to NYC may also have made marketing more difficult.
"I wonder if the agenda to have both a farm and a cohousing community were just too much," she wrote. "As I learned about BCC, one of the things that really struck me was the breadth and depth of knowledge of the community, which I think was critical to the success of BCC."
Samuel remarked on the other uniquely human, non-spreadsheetable qualities BCC members brought to the project. He wrote:
All of us contributed. We contributed more than our share of the required funds. Several of us were committed to purchasing more than one unit. But it wasn’t just about money.
It was an experiment that involved hope, optimism, conviction, resilience, and grace. We had faith and trust in the project and each other, which I am not smart or eloquent enough to express adequately now. All of us, including me, have bruises and scars to show for it, but I am a better person for it.
Thank you, BCC. I love all of you.