Cohousing in Australia

Plus other low-cost, low-tedium options for secure habitation

September 25, 2021 — September 15, 2023

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Figure 1: For your entertainment, a photo from Burj al Babas, the abandoned McCastle Development.

Scruffy notes from my cohousing working group on our research into how to find for ourselves some cheap, low-fuss, convivial cohousing in Australia. These notes were not written for public consumption, but they will do for now. There was enough interesting stuff that I thought it worth copy-pasting to the internet for others. If you want to get in touch about anything discussed here please do, or join one of the meetup groups/reddits mentioned.

UPDATE: Looks like I am moving to Melbourne. Currently barn raising a cooperative house, in the Ouroboros project.

Related: Community governance, housing in general, squads

1 Models we have discussed

  • Joint purchasing of apartment blocks etc
  • Formal housing cooperatives
  • Moving somewhere more propitious
Figure 2: Cohousing models

2 Collective housing governance structures

So, there are varied governance and ownership structures for collective housing, and TBH I have no strong opinions about which model is most awesome, there seem to be many perfectly good ones, and I’ll mention some stuff.

collaborativehousing.org.au collates a few different options. Also Renew Magazine did a pretty tops story on these recently. There is also a cooperative that support housing cooperatives, Cohousing australia. I’ve put myself on the mailing list for all these organisations. There is a book that everyone recommends too.

Figure 3

2.1 Housing cooperatives

Housing co-operatives are a classic. In NSW this seems to mean going through Common Equity. A major example to be aware of in practice is our local Alpha house.

Some fun resources on housing co-ops for folks to take a look at (Commentary by Mike McKenna).

2.2 Non-profit apartments

I believe there are several but here are some I know of:

They ain’t housing cooperatives; they are something a bit newer and different. I would call them non-profit developers who hack the ownership framework to make apartments that are a little more sharing-oriented than a classic apartment and also rather cheap because minimalist. They also incorporate needs-oriented allocation.

Plus: low effort, low-ish cost (but not as low as a co-op).

Minus: less collective and participatory, apartments tend to be oriented to singles or couples but only somewhat collective.

Personally, I regard this kind of option as a backstop; If I can’t rally a solid crew to do a more collective option, falling back on this weird architect-driven model looks OK to me, and I’m pursuing it low-key on that basis. (NB they have a stated policy that their model is not viable in Sydney in particular because the land is too absurdly expensive.)

Also, a hybrid option I learned about was Urban Coup, who are launching at the moment: they have a resident-led twist on the Nightingale model (and in fact contracted Nightingale as the developer).

2.3 Buy a thing jointly and DIY your preferred collective design (“cohousing”)

Also interesting models, there are organisations that exist to facilitate some DIY, roll-your-own collective purchase models for housing such as Built for Good and Property Collectives. They seem to be interested in a wide range of different degrees of collectivism from saving a few percent off the normal purchase price though to more elaborate organisations. e.g. here is the Built for Good spiel:

What do I want?

We convert your ideas and wishes into professional speak so you can talk to real estate agents, architects and lawyers effectively.

How much can I afford?

We plug this into a financial tool and teach you how to use it so you can make decisions to make the most of your budget.

Find others who share your dream!

If you don’t already have a community for your project, we help you find those people who share your values.

Go shopping for the right location.

Getting this right is critical.

We give you the tools and the process to work out what properties suit your goals and be the right canvas to create your project.

Are they any good? They have facebook likes from people I like, FWIW, and a vaguely positive reputation in my networks.

Here is their info pack.

There are several examples of this, e.g. Bega’s Bend.

Figure 4

2.4 Stacking the body corporate of an apartment block

A new one I’ve just heard about: Stack the body corporate with your friends and then you can do whatever you want with the building. The nice thing here is you don’t need to buy a whole building, just a enough apartments that you feel like you might make it to majority. Downside: you may never achieve majority, and you could be stuck with wowsers in the mean time.

Corollary: if you own an apartment in a block and you are not trying to stack it, then someone else might be.

3 Acquiring a posse

Next thing I was interested in was trying to accumulate critical mass for a collective/cooperative/gang to get housing solved with.

There are groups for this. I know that Newcastle does it with NewCoh (see also their facebook). In Sydney there is a meetup group which has been going for a while.

4 How much to share

Essentially, do you have your own kitchen or do you share a kitchen?

There are a lot of different communality appetites here. If you buy a bunch of apartments, you share a garden but essentially nothing else. If you co-build or renovate you can consolidate more resources—workshop, bathrooms, event spaces, living rooms, kitchens, co-working offices… The more things you share, the cheaper it can be but also the more people you are intimate with. People have varying appetites for community; Some people feel they need 10 square meters of private space, and some feel they need 100 square meters. What are the arguments for these different degrees of communality? There is a famous TED talk arguing that you want at least some communal space.

For people who share lots of stuff, there are resources like the intentional community reddit (i.e. share houses with long-term commitment).

5 Finance

There is probably much to say on this, but I think that probably the right way to think about this is in connection to the founder-worker equity question, since housing is ultimately also a kind of financial venture.

6 Where to live

6.1 Conveniences

Microburbs provides data-driven mapping of areas’various qualities. Their data is a little old now (2016 IIRC) but they have lots of good stuff—public transport, “hipness” ethnic diversity indicators…

One thing they do not include is political leverage of various areas. I care about that, so I mapped it for you.

6.2 Climate change

On the timeframe of a 30 year mortgage, which was one of the time scales we discussed, climate change is definitely a factor. tl;dr: Under a business-as-usual world economy, Sydney is projected to sit on the mid-slopes of a climate disaster mountain. From here on north it is increasing risk of firenadoes, and drought seasons are going to make the last bushfire season seem tame. So if we want to invest in a real-estate with higher probable value at the time the mortgage is over, a higher value retirement nest egg is to buy in Vic or Tas with the option to rent out the basement to a displaced Byron Bay refugee family. To be clear, we are all looking at firenadoes; the question is one of relative importance and strength. Here are some local tools to explore this:

Firstly, the CSIRO tools are probably the best local models, which means, for what it is worth, the most precise and adapted to local circumstances

However, it is hard to get the real juicy stuff out of them, like flood and fire risk.

For those, we need to resort to more generic global apps:

  • Inland floods: Aqueduct

  • Coastal floods: Seeing

  • Firenadoes: No good resources for Australia yet, so we need to guess it from the CSIRO extremes data.

These gives us interesting maps. TL;DR THE INNER WEST IS IN A DANGER ZONE CHECK THE ELEVATION OF ANY PROPERTIES. ALTERNATIVELY: BUY IN THE INNER WEST NOW AND YOU WILL HAVE A BEACHFRONT PROPERTY IN A COUPLE OF DECADES.

Figure 6:

6.3 Pollution

In an urban context, you might be interested to see this map of the lead levels in Sydney soil by Macquarie university’s Vegesafe.

In a rural context, bushfire smog is a non-trivial risk to health, and is obvs also related to climate change. Does anyone have up-to-date statistics on this in Australian context? There is an excellent list of resources and challenges for lung health from California.

6.4 COVID and other contagions

COVID looks like it will be with us forever, and we don’t know the long-term trajectory of that bad-boy, but it might seriously change the trade-offs of urban living. Or not.

For now, here is a piece by Elizabeth Van Nostrand for some risk calibration.

7 Buyers’ agents

Buyers agents might be good for people with specialist housing purchase needs. Do any of us know how to choose amongst them? There are a few top-ranked results from google:

I don’t have much understanding of the incentives facing these people.

8 Governance

Two things here:

8.1 Legal/financial

structure of the entity which owns the development and determines the rules and procedures for who lives there and when.

8.2 Community/procedural

Figure 7

How does a group doing co-housing decide stuff? This is a classic Community governance question.

urbancoup’s members thought about this for WAY TOO LONG and tried many governance structures. I did learn about Sociocracy from them, which sounds like a low-lift governance model.

Sociocracy is a system of governance that seeks to create psychologically safe environments and productive organizations. It draws on the use of consent, rather than majority voting, in discussion and decision-making by people who have a shared goal or work process

9 Finances

10 Housing theory and policy

I am no expert. There are people who study housing policy in general; in Australia, specifically; and for cohousing in particular. There is LinkedIn activity about policy setting for co-housing, for example.

11 Questions to answer about goals

Here are some we came up with.

  • Multi-generational
  • Shared kitchen
  • Shared guest room
  • Shared workshop
  • Shared event space
  • Shared garden
  • City?/Country?/ Urban fringe?
  • NSW/Qld/Vic/Tas/NT?
  • Build from scratch?
  • Convert apartments?
  • own/rent?
  • co-op/strata/corporate title/other?
  • How much capital can you stump up now?
  • What do you want to do if someone needs to sell?
  • How much can you raise as a loan?
  • Price

12 Incoming

fractalnyc.com:

…is an unlikely assortment of writers, designers, musicians, clowns, entrepreneurs, artists, coders, and scientists slowly cultivating a flourishing neighborhood within a neighborhood in Bushwick, Brooklyn – one of NYC’s creative hubs. ? Currently, our collective consists of 10 living rooms within a 5min walk of Morgan Ave L. Communes r cool, but we’re something else: a friend network that shares spaces, manages projects, and raises each other’s aspirations.

  • What Communes and Other Radical Experiments in Living Together Reveal

    “Today’s future-positive writers critique our economies while largely seeming to ignore that anything might be amiss in our private lives,” writes Kristen Ghodsee. Even our most ambitious visions of utopia tend to focus on outcomes that can be achieved through public policy — things like abundant clean energy or liberation from employment — while ignoring many of the aspects of our lives that matter to us the most: how we live, raise our children, and tend to our most meaningful relationships.

    Ghodsee’s new book, “Everyday Utopia: What 2,000 Years of Wild Experiments Can Teach Us About the Good Life,” (Ghodsee 2023) is an attempt to change that. The book is a tour of radical social experiments from communes and ecovillages to “platonic parenting” and intentional communities. But, on a deeper level, it’s a critique of the way existing structures of family and community life have left so many of us devoid of care and connection, and a vision of what it could mean to organize our lives differently.

13 References

Brooks. 2020. The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake.” The Atlantic.
Ghodsee. 2023. Everyday Utopia: What 2,000 Years of Wild Experiments Can Teach Us about the Good Life.
Weinersmith, Weinersmith, Abramitzky, et al. 2023. To Each According to Their Space-Need: Communes in Outer Space.” Space Policy.