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Tomo House, rendering seen here, is 12 strata homes on two standard lots.

Tomo Spaces

For Tara Gallen, it started with a cargo bike.

Ms. Gallen was looking through a Facebook page for families who bike and saw mention of a co-housing style project that was cargo-bike friendly.

Because cargo bikes are wide and awkward, they don’t fit into the average bike storage room. Tomo House, on Vancouver’s Main Street, will be a bike-friendly project, with parking stalls for car shares and space for cargo bikes. The co-housing project aims to be family friendly and inter-generational, which means a community of all ages.

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Ms. Gallen, a transportation planner, is living with husband Aaron Donovan and two children younger than the age of 5, in a townhouse rental that they’ve outgrown. They want a bigger place and to be part of a supportive community where their children can grow up in a safe environment surrounded by other children and people of all ages. They joined Our Urban Village (OUV), the group that is buying into Tomo House at 5809-5811 Main St. near E. 41st Avenue, which breaks ground this year. OUV started back in July, 2015, but Ms. Gallen and her husband only joined last year. They’ve discovered that co-housing requires a lot of patience and the resolve to move forward despite any hurdles. You have to be a firm believer that life is better when you share space with your neighbours.

Once they move into Tomo House, they will have that cargo bike parking space as well as neighbours who have already offered to walk their kids to school and watch them after school. The couple works full time and after-school care is both costly and in big demand, so those built-in benefits are already a huge savings for the family. Other cost-saving measures include a wood-frame construction built using prefabricated panels, as opposed to expensive concrete, as well as shared common spaces such as a large laundry room.

“It takes the edge off,” Ms. Gallen said. “We want to stay in the city and we want our city life, but being in the city can be tough on families. After-school care is hard to come across. It’s expensive, so this is something that enables us to benefit from all the wonderful things that being in a city provides, such as being able to bike wherever we go. So having those community supports in place is a huge part of our reasons to go into co-housing.”

Tara Gallen and other members of the Our Urban Village group meet for a Christmas celebration at her rented townhouse.

Tara Gallen

The COVID-19 pandemic has bolstered their decision to join a co-housing community, she said. While sharing common spaces, a kitchen and meals with a group of people might seem like a challenge when everyone is being told to stay two metres apart from each other, Ms. Gallen and other co-housing members say that the benefits outweigh the setbacks.

“It’s about resiliency,” she added. “Where I see families having to do backbends to manage their lives in an urban lifestyle, having a community that is there to mutually support each other means we are more resilient, when things like this pandemic happens. We didn’t get into co-housing to survive a pandemic, but we do all experience those shocks and stresses that put pressure on our lives, and that’s where co-housing really shines, that’s where it makes us resilient. And it’s about both giving and getting help.”

With traditional co-housing, a group of people get together, purchase the land and develop it. In that way, they build affordable housing to suit their own needs, as opposed to what the market designs for them. A key part of co-housing is that it operates as a community, so that meals and child-rearing duties are often shared, and people just look out for each other. But in Vancouver’s pricey property market, it’s not a smooth process.

Tomo House is one of the few co-housing projects to make it as far as it has, and it is not typical of the co-housing model. OUV members are not the developers of the building, so they were not involved in buying the land, or leading the design and permit process, or managing contractors, or assuming the risk. They have some crucial input with the Tomo development team (design workshops are held for the members) but they are mostly hands-off, which is why they call themselves “co-housing lite.” Their model is believed to be a first for Canada and there are still several units available.

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Tara Gallen on her cargo bike. Ms. Gallen wanted to live in cohousing project which is cargo-bike friendly.

Aaron Donovan

Developer Leslie Shieh, co-founder of Tomo Spaces, says their collaboration with the future residents of Tomo House separates them from developers of projects that are for a speculative market, or a “fictional customer who’s based on market trends.” She hopes that co-housing lite will help more people get into co-housing.

“In the co-housing lite model, as the developer, we get to know the families we are building for – who they are and what they like to do,” Ms. Shieh said in an e-mail. “Buying a ready-made home is easier [at an open house or a show home], but I think it’s also important to create models for people to get involved in making their own homes.”

Little Mountain Cohousing, six-storey 25-unit project underway, is following the traditional Danish model of co-housing.

Cornerstone Architecture

Little Mountain Cohousing (LMC), which is also underway, is following the traditional Danish model of co-housing. The six-storey 25-unit project, built to passive-house standards and designed by Cornerstone Architecture, is much further along than Tomo House and opens its doors in the fall. With LMC, the members had to jump through all the same hoops as a developer, including working with the city, obtaining permits, obtaining financing, design, construction and working through the many development hurdles.

Charles Montgomery, owner of Happy City urban design consultancy, has bought into Little Mountain Cohousing, and he also consulted on Tomo House. He calls the Little Mountain experience enjoyable but also “time consuming and arduous,” and he didn’t even come on board until the group had already purchased the land assembly on Quebec Street near E. 33rd Avenue.

“It’s become clear to me that standardized co-housing in Canada, for most people in this real estate climate, is an option for people who have the money and time. That’s why I’m increasingly thinking that the co-housing lite option is valuable for more people, because in the co-housing lite option the developer takes the risk and the developer deals with the headaches of architecture and engineering and financing and jumping through the hoops at city hall. And the community of future residents gets to focus on considering how they want to be together as a community and relate to the world and each other and support each other, which is what co-housing is all about.”

Mr. Montgomery says so complex is the process that a small industry of consultants has emerged to help co-housing groups. The Little Mountain group hired Cohousing Development Consulting (CDC) to help them navigate the journey, and it has still taken several years.

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“In the olden days, maybe when co-housing was first conceived in Denmark, it was thought to be something where residents could get projects going and start themselves and see through the process, but it’s so complicated here it’s impossible for groups to do it themselves,” says Kathy McGrenera, one of the CDC project managers.

Once a group forms and approaches CDC, the consultants hold an initial workshop to open their eyes. That’s “a sobering moment,” Ms. McGrenera says.

With traditional co-housing, there are the upfront costs. The initial contribution is typically around $30,000 for each household, which goes toward the down payment on the land, she says. Once construction begins, members contribute another 10 per cent of the value of their unit. They pay the balance of the purchase price at occupancy. Purchase prices for Little Mountain run between $460,000 for a one bedroom to $1,080,000 for a four-bedroom unit. They try to build 20 to 30 units, so the ideal is to assemble three city lots.

Tomo House, designed by MA + HG Architects, is 12 strata homes on two standard lots, including three affordable home ownership units with price restriction covenants to ensure long-term affordability. In their unique situation, they do not pay the developers at the beginning of the project. There are no offerings for sale and no deposits made until presale conditions are met. Ms. Gallen and her husband paid $10,000 upfront to OUV, as a commitment to the project, $8,000 of which will be returned to the couple, to be used toward as the down payment on their unit. The remaining $2,000 will be used for various group fees. Prices for each unit haven’t yet been finalized. Once they have bought in, they will form a strata corporation.

With conventional co-housing, the group becomes a limited liability company of shareholders throughout development. Once they gain occupancy, the company dissolves and they legally become a strata corporation, although the building will look and operate very differently from a strata property. But the strata arrangement works best in order to obtain financing, or to buy or sell a unit, Ms. McGrenera says.

There are risks, including the likelihood that the group will change, because people often drop out along the way.

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“There are many groups that fail,” she said. “It’s a big leap of faith, with the cost of real estate in Vancouver, for a group to make the leap to purchase a multimillion dollar property together. And in the early phases, they don’t know each other very well – that’s a stumbling block. I may be biased, and not to be self-serving, but if they don’t have good advice from consultants, it’s hard.

“And the big risk is that if they aren’t tightly managed they will come in over market and then it’s very difficult to attract people to the project. … It’s really crucial that the project is managed really well, so it doesn’t go over.”

Ms. McGrenera has lived at Quayside Village co-housing in North Vancouver, B.C., for 22 years. She works full time on Vancouver’s Little Mountain co-housing project and North Vancouver’s Driftwood Village Cohousing, which began construction last fall. That project still has two townhouses available for purchase. Without the additional developer profit and marketing costs built into the project, she said co-housing groups could save about 15 per cent of overall costs. But in building common spaces, the money gets eaten up anyway, so the goal is to come in at no more than market value. The savings tend to be the long-term benefits of owning in a shared space.

“They get a home and a bunch of extra common space for the same price as a regular home, and they usually put in higher quality construction, and more green building initiatives, so that adds some cost.”

The process, she says, “has to be as quick as a regular developer, if they want to keep costs down.”

“And they get really good at it,” she added. “In doing that, they learn to collaborate, which sets them up well to live together afterward, because they had to make all these hard decisions together.”

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She’s a big believer that co-housing is worth the effort. A few nights prior, her co-housing members had a sing-along while standing on their walkways. Group meal nights have been suspended, but they’re delivering food to neighbours who are in self-isolation. Their movie night went on as scheduled, but everybody sat two metres from each other.

“I love living in co-housing, so I was happy to contribute to more getting built,” she said. “There is a whole community of support whenever anything happens in life. Although the epidemic is going on, I think we still have to have some sense of normalcy or we will go crazy. It’s nice to open my door and see neighbours and wave at them. Yesterday, because everybody knows I work at home, I had four neighbours drop by. It was lovely.”

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