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Prairie Sky, Alberta’s original co-housing development, is an 18-unit community of townhouses and apartments built in northeast Calgary in 2003.

Prairie Sky

The road to establishing successful co-housing communities can be a long and arduous one, driven by small groups of people passionate about redefining the way they live.

Nearly 15 years after the completion of Alberta's first and only co-housing community, two further developments are finally taking shape.

Leading the way is Urban Green, a community in the works in Old Strathcona, south-central Edmonton. Urban Green is working with Communitas Group, an Edmonton-based project management company that specializes in community development, co-housing and housing co-operatives.

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"Co-housing is not a form of tenure or a building type; it's a type of community, a lifestyle," Communitas managing director Lynn Hannley says. "Co-housing communities combine the advantages of private homes with the benefits of more sustainable living, including shared common facilities and ongoing connections with neighbours. They're intentional neighbourhoods, created and managed by residents."

Urban Green has been in the planning stages since January, 2011, with the merger of two groups aiming to form a co-housing community in the city. Currently, the group consists of 10 shareholding members, who have each committed 5 per cent of the down payment for their units.

The finished development will have 26 units, ranging from one- to three-bedroom apartments with roughly one-third for families, one-third for single adults and one-third for seniors. Urban Green will be built on the principles of being a walkable, environmentally friendly and multigenerational community.

The rezoning application was approved in July, which means the group is "finally getting down to the nitty-gritty," founding member Della Dennis says.

"We spent the first few years establishing membership protocols and the values we want in our community," Ms. Dennis explains. "Then, in 2012, we formed a land-search committee and in 2013 we bought three houses in Old Strathcona, we added a fourth in 2014. We've been renting the properties since then to pay the mortgage, while trying to find a way to build that works for the site.

"One of the challenges of the infrastructure is that we have to build a non-combustible community because there isn't enough pressure to the fire hydrant. Otherwise, we'd have had to replace the whole water line, which could cost up to a million dollars. That's why we landed on modular steel construction, which will help keep the cost around market value," she says.

Apartments in Urban Green will be prefabricated from shipping containers. The communal building, a larger structure with 11-foot ceilings that will house a shared kitchen and dining space, will be constructed from steel. Team members are working on the final designs, floor plans and unit distribution with their architect. They'll submit this to the city in October and hope to break ground next year, with move-in by spring of 2019.

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Urban Green is trying to attract more members to join their community.

"It's not inexpensive," Ms. Dennis says. "Buying into co-housing, you're paying a premium for 4,000 square feet of common area and, in our case, also green features. The difference is that we're selling it at cost. There's no mark-up for a developer, so we hope to keep our prices as close to market value as possible."

One-bedroom units in Urban Green are expected to cost up to $300,000, with two-bedroom units at up to $440,000. The capital costs of the communal areas are included in the unit price.

Ms. Dennis, a senior, says one of the challenges in fleshing out Urban Green lies in attracting enough families to create a balanced multigenerational community.

"In the early stages, it's hard for people with young children to dedicate the time to building a co-housing development. Right now, we have four families with young children in our membership, so we have a good mix, but we're keen to attract more."

It's a concern that Mosaic Village, a planned co-housing community in Calgary, is also facing.

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Mosaic Village has five equity members, each committing $5,000 toward seed money for the project, plus several associate members. They recently appointed Communitas to support them as they establish membership processes and look for an acre of land for 25 units in the northwest of the city.

"Interest has been pretty good, but there's definitely more interest from seniors than families at this point," says founding member and real estate agent, Wes Morrow. "I think that stems from the fact that people with young families are generally working and raising their kids and it's hard to find the time to commit to a project like this when you're at that stage in life."

Mr. Morrow would know; he and his wife, Lindsey, had their first child in January but, he says, they're more committed than ever to raising their family in a co-housing environment.

"We're living in a suburban community right now where you only see your neighbours over the fence on the way to the garage and you don't see them at all in winter. Everybody's so disconnected from each other and I think that's kind of a sickness in our society," he says.

"With a multigenerational co-housing community, the seniors benefit from the youthful energy of the families and those families grow up with a multitude of grandparents and aunts and uncles. When you've been in the trenches with these people building this thing, there's a trust that develops."

Sarah Arthurs, a resident of Prairie Sky, Alberta's original co-housing community, 18 units of townhouses and apartments built in northeastern Calgary in 2003, agrees that co-housing communities offer benefits across the generational spectrum. "Our family moved here nine years ago, when our kids were 8 and 10, so they've grown up in this environment and they speak very highly of it," she says. "There's not a lot of turnover in Prairie Sky, so we feel very lucky to have had this experience as a family."

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Ms. Arthurs is an enthusiastic advocate for co-housing; she was involved in the seeding of Mosaic Village. She says getting foundations in the ground for co-housing communities is a complex process.

"There are so many moving parts to starting a co-housing community," she says. "You have to find people who are willing to take on the challenge and then you have to educate them all the aspects of it. Then there's figuring out how you're going to finance it and the zoning. Then there's creating and agreeing on the design," she says. "And if one of those pieces goes sideways the whole project goes awry. It's almost a miracle that any co-housing community actually makes it into the ground, which is a real shame."

Ms. Arthurs says Prairie Sky receives a couple of inquiries a week from people interested in co-housing. She says there's enough interest in the concept to build more communities, but says there needs to be infrastructure in place to support that transition from interest to action.

"In Denmark, where this model came from, they've created a way to replicate it. They have waiting lists of people interested in different geographic areas, and when they reach a critical mass they begin a process with that group to get a community off the ground," she says. "We need that. We need builders and developers to help people live in this innovative space and collaborate with co-housing groups in a way that's scalable and replicable so that we're not reinventing the wheel every time."

Ms. Arthurs says collaboration with developers could not only kick start more new co-housing developments, but could also also help existing ones such as Prairie Sky to grow.

"Prairie Sky is primarily townhouses, and some of our residents who were 60 when they moved in are now turning 75. At some point we would like to build more single-level apartment-style units for those residents," she says.

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"There's an empty lot next to ours right now and the owner wants to sell it. What would work for us would be to partner with a developer interested in expanding Prairie Sky on one part of the site and building another co-housing development on the other part. I think it would be easy to find 30 families interested in that," Ms. Arthurs adds.

"The hard part is finding a developer interested in investing in innovative new communities."

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