Mar 4, 2019
by Angela Conte
On one side of the housing controversy in Sonoma County is agriculture and natural public land advocates, (which are needed, but we also know we need more homes for an economically vibrant county with a growing population.) On the other side of the housing development battle is commercial developers who are not solving today’s social and ecological issues-they are making a living while staying in business.
This leaves much of the fight for development between environmentalists and property developers with public municipalities in the middle. This has created a 20-year development stalemate. We need to break this stalemate by creating an alternative development process that works for everyone, and I believe Sonoma County can be ground-zero for this new type of development.
What I’m suggesting for ending the housing crisis in Sonoma County is cheaper and a more efficient way to bring quality housing to Sonoma County. It also builds stronger and healthier communities. What I’m talking about are intentional communities, (also known as co-housing communities), where homeowners collaborate on building their own efficiency housing in shared eco-friendly pocket neighborhoods thatimprove the quality of life for everyone in the county.
I’m not saying we don’t already have co-housing because there’s at least half a dozen or more in varying forms and sizes here but what we don’t have is a coordinated government that encourages and supports their development in an impactful way.
Intentional communities are created when groups of people band together and design and build their own “green” homes in “eco-friendly” neighborhoods which can include things like shared food gardens and community centers with pools, shared workshops and tool libraries, and shared transportation so fewer cars are on the road.
These types of communities are safer and more socially productive because people get to know each other and share their knowledge and skills within the community. There can also beshared childcare and elder care, and people can start small businesses together, or build insurance cooperatives and investment schemes, solving many of today’s socio-economic problems as communities.
All the data shows, in neighborhoods where people know each other their health improves, their quality of life goes up, and theircost of living goes down along with unemployment and crime. It's places like these where many future innovative ideas can come from through social engagement.
Yet Sonoma County and its cities don’t encourage them or support them with access to government-backed supportive services for their development. These are people powered developments that need more support from the government to produce them. So, while we wait for our local officials to figure out how to build more "affordable" housing with incentives and financial support to commercial developers who'll have to destroy our natural landscape with concrete and tarmac to make a profit, we fall further behind in housing while our quality of life dwindles with it.
Even non-profit affordable housing agencies have huge overheads and salaries to pay so they often cut corners on construction and provide less social and ecological benefits. If a group of regular people wants to combine their resources to develop quality housing for themselves, they shouldn’t be held to the same zoning and permitting requirements as commercial housing developers which requires an entirely new type of government development process with a support system geared towards non-professional developers and non-investment housing.
With cohousing, the high cost of land, labor, and materials can be shared by multiple homeowners making home ownership more affordable from the start.
Building costs are also lowered because there isn’t a middlemen investor/developer to add 30% on the cost of homes. In an intentional eco-friendly development, there could be entire neighborhoods with shared solar power, greywater reuse, and geothermal HVAC systems keeping future utility costs down for municipalities. This allows everyone to benefit from more beautiful, healthy, safe and ecologically supportive land development- while providing affordable housing.
As an alternative to the status-quo housing development, we need to find entirely new ways to build homes, and we need to include participation from the people who will live in them from the beginning.
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