Thorny problems need out-of-the-box solutions. We all know housing prices in Newton are off the charts—the median purchase price for a house in Newton today is a whopping $1.1 million. Meantime there’s a severe shortage of apartments for younger people, working people earning less than a top income, and seniors who want to downsize but have nowhere to go. And the city’s stock of affordable housing is woefully short of what is ethically and legally right.
Co-housing and other forms of shared and cooperative housing.
I’m not talking communes with hordes of barefoot hippies. I’m talking about allowing homeowners to have more than 4 unrelated individuals living in a single-family house. In fact, 30% of Newton households are non-family households even now. This would allow seniors, many of whom live alone, to have housemates for friendship and support. It would enable young working adults to live in our city, spend their food and restaurant and gas money in our city, and add economic diversity to our population.
I’m talking about co-housing: mixed-age groups of individuals, couples and families who share common spaces, activities, and life. Co-housing, long popular in Europe, is becoming one of the most attractive ways of living in America, filling a widely-felt need for community and connection.
I’m talking about making it easier for Newton residents to build accessory apartments on their property without the need for special permits. To address its severe housing shortage, the city of Portland, Oregon, for instance, is building environmentally low impact “tiny homes” on the property of interested residents who collect rent and then inherit the tiny homes themselves after five years.
What’s so good about communal and shared housing?
These creative arrangements can help address the demand for smaller and more affordable housing for people who now can’t live in our city because there aren’t enough apartments: younger people, seniors wishing to downsize, those on modest incomes, and a future workforce that companies the city is hoping to attract to its new business districts are going to need.
Shareable housing is good for the community and for individuals. It provides natural support and connection, enhancing people’s lives and reducing social isolation. Because social isolation is real. A major study in 2004 found that the number of Americans who had nobody to confide in had doubled since 1985.
Shareable housing is environmentally green. Denser living uses up less energy per person, promotes sharing of power guzzlers such as cars and laundry machines and lawnmowers, and can often be carved from existing buildings retrofitted for that purpose.
Shared housing is based on cooperation, a respect for bonds, a desire to connect and live with mutual care and concern. This can spill out into the world around it.
Why is co-housing and other communal housing a natural for Newton?
Newton has lots of spacious homes. 65% of its current housing stock consists of 3+ bedrooms, many homes much larger. Yet demographic studies all point to future of smaller households. Even now, 25% of Newton’s population lives alone. As residents downsize, their large homes are ready-made for retrofitting for collective living.
At the same time, our population is aging rapidly. By 2030, more than 30% of Newton’s population will be over 60. We owe it to our long-time residents with deep roots in the community to provide them with ways to remain in Newton and age in place. Co-housing, for instance, is one of the most optimal ways for living happily during one’s advancing years.
What can the city do to make this a reality?
The city’s zoning can be written to accommodate and promote shareable housing, and city planning can take shareable housing into account. The city can host informational sessions about these forward-looking arrangements and can offer help to residents seeking to retrofit their homes for these uses. Most importantly, the city can view itself as a partner in these efforts, not an adversary.
Let’s use creative ways to meet our housing needs for all our residents. The character of our city depends on it.