Big box affordable housing?

vacant walmart

Walmart Realty lists 583 properties for sale or lease. There are 9,300 big box properties set to be closed in 2019.

This is a Request for Ideas (RFI). Since I first posted this story, there’s a project brewing in Colorado Springs, Colorado that I was contacted about and cobbling the pieces together.

The main beef I hear about cohousing is about the price of the homes. I agree and have been talking to anyone who’ll listen to me about how to lower the cost of cohousing through retrofit options.

I happened to be having a facebook conversation with a colleague who I hadn’t been in touch for many years. In fact, I can’t remember where or under what circumstances we met. Nonetheless, when I mentioned about my interest in converting an abandoned big box store into affordable housing, she responded she had a similar idea about retrofitting abandoned commercial buildings with housing, “Why not Colorado Springs?”

There are plenty of vacant buildings sitting empty around the country, now that storefronts of all sizes are becoming obsolete in favor of on-line retail and pop-up stores. The COVID-19 lockdowns are likely to force even more of them out of business.

Do you want to get up off the couch and help solve the affordable housing issue? It doesn’t matter where you live, because housing affordability is an issue everywhere.

walmart rehabit

KTGY Architects + Planners in Los Angeles came up with some renderings about what their “ReHabit” places could look like.

What’s the project? The idea originally came from an article called “Re-habit: Transforming Big Box Retailers into Housing for Homeless.” While housing homeless people is definitely a population in need, my more general concept is for other housing configurations like co-op rental housing and owner-occupied cohousing meeting the needs of other demographics, which include most people who can’t afford a place to live.

The most well known shopping mall retrofit is the Arcade Providence, that’s now apartments in Providence, Rhode Island. There’s an old convent in Denver that was retrofitted into a cohousing community, so the idea isn’t that “out there” and unproven.

Site Location: While the project would fit anywhere there is a vacant big box store, some places are better suited for a pilot project than others:

  • Low Cost Cities and Neighborhoods: There are 9,300 big box stores slated to close in 2019. There are literally hundreds of big-box stores currently for sale or lease around the country. The city of Colorado Springs and the business community are in conversation about the potential benefits of down-zoning so as to create more mixed use opportunities in commercial districts that would include affordable housing options. Like most places, there are plenty of expensive housing options, but not so much on the affordable end. The ideal pilot project is a property that has been fallow for many years and there is an owner willing to be an equity partner and cash out at the end. Rather than attracting more businesses, these days, that’s a nonstarter. But, adding more residents to a slow commercial area provides more vibrancy from more customers frequenting existing businesses like food stores, coffee shops, and other retail.
  • Existing Cohousing: There are some locales better suited to the cohousing concept. Likely those would be places where intentional communities currently exist. Colorado Springs fits that bill with the Case Verde cohousing community located there at 1355 Lindwood.
  • Zoning: Cities and towns with wider open zoning and land use regulations that allow mixed uses by right, or are silent on mixed use development are more inclined to be accepting of a retrofit affordable housing development. From my conversations with Colorado Springs officials and realtors, there is little if any mixed use development, a Planned Unit Develop (PUD) district has been seldom used, which is part of the impetus to create zoning districts with more flexibility.
  • Advocates: There should be at least one “burning soul” interested in the project. That would be my friend, who has garnered the ear of the city of Colorado Springs Community Development Office; several city council members; and now myself. I’ve been in touch with a realtor who is helping inventory potential sites. The Cohousing Association of the United States (CohoUS) can provide some technical assistance. Other helpful resources would be from the local housing authority and other affordable housing advocates.
  • pollard coliving profile

    A pedestrian-friendly coliving space is planned for the former Pollard car lot in Boulder, Colorado.

    A Live Example: Jim Leach from Wonderland Development; architect Bryan Bowen of Caddis Collaborative, and myself, a community development gadfly with ECOS, are planning a pedestrian-friendly and car-less co-living project consisting of co-op rental units and owner-occupied cohousing condos in Boulder, Colorado called the Boulder Co-Living Community. The location is 3/4 of an acre of property owned by the city of Boulder.

Coincidentally, a regional cohousing conference is being planned in Colorado Springs in mid to late July depending on the COVID-19 self-distancing protocols. The conference would be geared to real estate professionals, local government officials and bankers. One topic would be the Colorado Springs cohousing retrofit pilot project.

This could be a pretty good activity that a community could Get Up Off the Couch and take on as a project.

Get up off the couch and SHARE

share logo

Get up off the couch and SHARE is a quiet means of of saving the world one person at a time.

“Get Up Off the Couch” is a call to action. It’s largely an initiative of the Cohousing Association of the United States. The idea is to build a grassroots network of cohousing communities, their members, groups, organizations and other individuals who want an alternative way of bridging social and cultural divides plaguing our country today.

Get up off the couch and SHARE:

Cohousing Nation, by definition, lives a “New American Way” that emphasizes balancing the good of the whole over that of the individual; accepting that all people are different and all are welcome and valued; power and strength are replaced by consensus and shared decision making.

As such, cohousing communities have the potential to bridge cultural, social, and economic divides that plague the United States today.

Change has a better chance of happening from efforts by cohousers. The average cohouser has at least some social justice blood running through their veins.

The data define a typical cohouser as having these characteristics: Caucasian, high perceived social class, high income, highly educated, 65 percent of the time an introvert, and 70 percent of the time a woman.

What if cohousers, who largely are members of the dominant culture, become gatekeepers who work together and become allies with marginalized groups, rather than marginalized groups trying to break through the glass ceiling, with few allies there.

Inclusion will happen organically as the dominant culture becomes more inclusive. There are around 170 existing cohousing communities and another 150 in formative stages. That’s 30,000 cohousers.

adventures superman flag

Cohousers can redefine Superman’s American Way.

Remember the old 1950s TV show, The Adventures of Superman? The narrator told my friends and me to model Superman’s can-do behavior because, “he fights a never ending battle for truth, justice, and the American Way.”

Superman’s “American Way” is based on rugged individualism; cultural divides narrowed by assimilation; and quests for power and control.

There isn’t anything inherently wrong with the “Old American Way,” but it needs to evolve along with society and one way that can happen is through a collaborative approach that results in truth, justice and a “New American Way.”

The current political climate continues to fuel a growing fear among 30 percent of the U.S. electorate that the country will soon lose its 1776 version of American cultural identity.

Current events around over-crowded detention centers for illegal immigrants and those seeking asylum are indicators why we need to become better cultural change-managers, rather than controllers of cultural change.

What does the cohousing and “get up off the couch” solutions look like?

secret sauce

Cohousing Secret Sauce is the main ingredient that can be poured over any housing configuration.

Cohousing brings individuals together to form a community. Housing is housing, but what differentiates cohousing from other housing configurations is the “secret sauce” that mixes several ingredients. The recipe can be altered to meet differing tastes:

  • Relationships – Neighbors commit to being part of a community for mutual benefit. Cohousing cultivates a culture of sharing and caring. Neighborhood size is typically between 30 and 40 homes that promote frequent interaction and close relationships in a variety of housing configurations.
  • Balancing Privacy and Community – Cohousing neighborhoods are designed for privacy as well as community. Residents balance privacy and community by choosing their levels of community engagement
  • Participation – Decision-making is participatory and often based on consensus. Selft management empowers residents, builds relationships and can save money.
  • Shared Values – Cohousing communities support residents in actualizing shared values.

A certain ilk of the citizenry, mostly Baby Boomers and older, who experienced the Cold War, will try to reposition the conversation by calling intentional communities “creeping socialism.” Granted, this lifestyle isn’t for everyone.

Cohousing isn’t about over throwing the government, but rather a reaction to how the general market is changing because it’s basically less expensive to live more collaboratively (higher density neighborhoods) and sharing resources (five households don’t each need a lawnmower).

The wave of the future is the Millennials generation making change today, mostly for survival. They being saddled with the the national debt of their parents, grandparents and great grandparents; forced into a college tuition system that will keep them under the thumb of Wall Street until they are old and gray are two reasons why young people are de-commodifying the American Way.

Millennials aren’t interested in living in huge homes in the suburbs far from their jobs, cultural, and entertainment activities in the urban core.

The tenets of the Millennial generation’s New American Way would say, a home is where we live, not an investment. The only time a house should be commodified is when it’s time to move.

Rather than saying, “The yard needs more trees because it will increase our property values,”  The New American Way perspective is, “The yard needs more trees because they will improve the places where kids can play.” As a side benefit, property values may increase.

ssv davidson

Cohousing communities can offer up their common houses to grassroots groups.

For cohousers, getting up off the couch should be second nature. As individuals, join groups that align with cohousing values.  Host events and participate. Show the way!

Offer your Common Houses space to local grass roots groups for their meetings and/or actions. Finding inexpensive or free space is an on-going challenge for many organizations.

Get up off the couch and SHARE the cohousing “secret sauce,” soon available at a farmer’s market near you.

By: Alan O’Hashi