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Money, Homes and Trust:
Economic Diversity Issues at Wild Sage

by Ellen Orleans

This article to appear in the Cohousing Anthology, 2004.

Links to Bridge-Building Activities:

Points of View
Communal Dust under the Rug
Outer Circle, Inner Circle

Excerpt from the Wild Sage Vision Statement:

“We are a community of individuals that supports connections and relationships at all levels, consciously seeking and valuing diversity and the challenges it brings.…"

At the core of most cohousing communities is a statement which spells out that group’s vision, values, or mission. Common to many of these statements is a phrase about welcoming or honoring diversity among its members. My cohousing group, Wild Sage, includes economic diversity as one of the differences it values. 

Formed in Boulder in Spring 2000 (and, four years later, on the verge of moving in), Wild Sage community meetings often begin with the reading of our vision statement.  During this part I often find myself thinking—why does a group seek economic diversity?

Is it because it makes for a more interesting community, because it’s a socially responsible position?  Are vision statements written from the point of view of people with more money saying they value the presence of people with less money?  Is it equally true that people with less money consciously seek and value living among people with more money?

These questions flit through my head, then beat a hasty path to the back of my gray matter, pushed out of the way by talk of parking and participation, pesticides and pet policy.  Sometimes, though, I wish our group could spend two full hours (guided by a skilled and objective facilitator) really talking about this.

Before I go any further, and because this essay is largely about honest communication, I think it’s important to be up front about my own prejudices and perspectives. Here’s some background on me.  At the age of 42, I am purchasing a 640 square foot, Permanently Affordable carriage house that I—along with two other Wild Sage members—helped design. “Permanently Affordable” means that this unit, part of a deed-restricted housing program, costs $105,000, about two-thirds of what one would normally pay for a home this size.  As for “Carriage house, ” that’s an upscale term meaning  “living above three garages. ”   Resale restrictions and gas fumes aside, I’m pleased as punch to be buying my own place, especially having lived in a 360 square foot garret above a single carport for the last seven years. 

As for my work history, since my arrival in Boulder in 1983, I have worked a series of jobs, from art store clerk, baker and weed puller to technical writer, computer lab manager and adjunct faculty at CU. My true profession however is that of writer (I’ve published five books of lesbian and gay commentary and humor)—which explains why I won’t be buying a market-rate home anytime soon…

Why Affordable Housing?

Now that you know a little about me, here’s some background on Boulder and Wild Sage.  For a long time an unassuming college town of 20,000, after World War II, Boulder grew furiously. Shopping centers and large tracts of housing soon overshadowed downtown. Between 1960 and 1970, Boulder’s population doubled from 33,000 to 66,000.  Growth management followed; its objective was “to seek a balance which respects our environment and accommodates new growth in a harmonious manner, preserving what is good in the community and redeveloping what is poor.” Sounds like a cohousing mission statement, doesn’t it?

While condos, townhouses and apartment buildings sprung up throughout Boulder, new single-family homes became increasing larger and more expensive. Small houses and bungalows in older sections of town were bought up and remodeled, often doubling or tripling in size. Other times, these small homes were simply scraped off the land, the lot more valuable than the house itself.

 In 1976, Boulder voters approved the Danish Plan, which restricted the number of city-issued building permits. According to Boulder historian Silvia Pettem (in her article “Boulder Comes Of Age”):

By the 1990s, vacant land was scarce in Boulder…Many Boulder workers could no longer afford to live in town so they moved to surrounding communities, which increased Boulder’s commuters. In 1993 the city initiated the Integrated Planning Project to examine the trade-offs of growth, affordable housing, transportation, the economy and the environment. The project’s motto became “What’s best for what’s left.” …Surrounded by greenbelt and with little land left for expansion, city planners are now addressing in-fill development and mixed uses of retail and residential space.

One of these in-fill spaces was the former 27-acre Holiday drive-in theater on Boulder’s northern edge.  Opened in late 1960’s, by the late-80’s the theater had gone the way of Wang word processors and Betamax videos. In 1998, Boulder’s housing authority acquired the site and began a public-private partnership. Seven for-profit and not-for-profit developers were chosen to build out the site. Wonderland was one of these developers; they planned a New Urban 34 -unit cohousing community on an acre and a half.

One of the main impetuses in developing the Drive-In site was to significantly add to the number of affordable homes in Boulder. The thought was that helping to keep Boulder’s middle class (such as teachers, nurses, store managers, police officers, and city employees) in town would cut down on commuter traffic and raise the overall quality of life.

Of the 329 units to be built on the Holiday site, 43% were to be Permanently Affordable, available to families of both low and moderate income. (In Boulder, a single person can earn $45,000 a year and still qualify for the program; a family of two can earn $52,000.) 

Generally speaking, Affordable homes are modest in size and sell for about two-thirds the cost of a comparable Market-rate home. The catch is, when Affordable owners choose to sell, they are limited to no more than a 3% increase annually. (In the 1990’s, many Boulder homes were increasing in value 10 to 20% per year.)

Using a formula of square footage and individual units, Wonderland was required to build about 40% of the units as Permanently Affordable. As a result, of Wild Sage’s 34 units (mostly attached townhouses and flats), four are Habitat for Humanity homes, nine are Permanently Affordable and 21 are Market rate.

The Dreaming and Planning Stage

Those are a lot of numbers, but what’s the human reality? When I joined Wild Sage in March 2001, the group was a mix of Affordable and Market Rate buyers. A Wild Sage subcommittee was working with Habitat to help find families who would be a good fit for cohousing.  During this time, our group had land (from the start we knew we’d be living on the site that Wonderland had secured), but we hadn’t yet chosen units. Individual unit design was still evolving and price estimates changed monthly. It was a nebulous time, and that cloudiness carried through to the buyer categories.  I saw no obvious distinction between the three.  When one prospective member asked me (probably not knowing that I was an Affordable buyer myself), “Are Affordable buyers taking as active a role as Market Rate buyers?” I could honestly answer, “Yes. Both groups have equivalent numbers of workers and slackers.”

During my first year with Wild Sage, most of the frustrations I experienced were minor and came in the form of generalizations. At many of our community meetings, I’d hear assumptions such as “Since we’ll be moving from larger homes to smaller ones…” or “Let’s have a meeting about timing the selling of our current houses to match the purchase of our cohousing unit.”  Such remarks didn’t recognize that many Affordable buyers were moving into larger homes than those in which we currently lived. Nor did the comments acknowledge that nearly all Affordable buyers were first time homebuyers who would be more concerned about the timing of rental agreements than house sales.

These comments were not devastating but they did emphasize a lack of awareness. Although the Wild Sage visions statement talked about “consciously seeking and valuing diversity,” some Wild Sage members seemed pretty unconscious about the whole matter.  While I mentioned my frustrations to a few folks on my Wild Sage teams (Marketing and Process), I didn’t push the matter. I was still in the cohousing stage that group process guru Shari Leach calls “Dreaming and Planning.” During this stage, she says, community members don’t know each other well enough to question and challenge each other. The emphasis instead is on fitting in.

Year Two: Building Begins

Two things changed during my second year with Wild Sage. The first was personal: I left my job as adjunct faculty at the University of Colorado and went to work for Shari at Wonderland.  Besides offering me an opportunity to enhance my facilitation and group process skills, Wonderland offered me a steady salary. No longer relying on my unpredictable, semester-by-semester adjunct faculty income, I could now qualify for a mortgage on my own. Moneywise, I was less freaked out about future mortgage payments, which would be nearly double what I paid for my charming, but rundown apartment.  Happy in my new job, I remember one Wild Sage member (I’ll call him Pete), asking me how much I was making.

“Thirty thousand a year,” I told him.

“Wow, that’s practically volunteer work,” he said.  He worked in high tech.

I didn’t tell him it didn’t feel like a volunteer salary, that in fact it was the most I’d earned annually in all of my 41 years of existence.  More importantly, I didn’t tell him, as I should have, that I felt insulted. For me, this conversation simply drove home the salary gap between me and some of my future neighbors. I had a similar insight a few months later, when another Wild Sage member was job hunting. I casually mentioned a job opening at Wonderland. He smiled and said, “Wonderland can’t afford me.”

During this same year, money conflicts began brewing at Wild Sage. Boulder clarified and changed some rules about required square footage and prices of affordable homes. This created an overall price increase within the project. 

To absorb the increases, the price of most of our units went up—Market Rates homes disproportionately more than the Affordable ones. Increasingly at meetings, there was talk about Market Rate buyers “subsidizing” Affordable buyers.

For me, the tone of the conversations felt condescending but, since none of the Affordable buyers were speaking up about it, I didn’t either. 

Finally, at one meeting, when Pete again said, “Yeah, but we’re subsidizing you, so…” I cracked.

 “Actually Pete, Affordable buyers are subsidizing your overpriced salary, which wouldn’t exist if the people you rely for your healthcare, city services and foamy mocha lattes got paid a living wage.”  I wasn’t quite as quick and eloquent as that, and I said it while I was facilitating (which is highly unprofessional) but the effect was immediate. The room got quiet until someone from our process team said, “This sounds like an important discussion to have a later time.”

After the meeting, three affordable buyers spoke to me. One said, “I’m glad you finally told off Pete. I’ve been wanting to say something for a long time.” The other two, one of whom had joined recently, talked about how they were starting to feel guilty, as if they weren’t pulling their weight, simply because they were buying affordable homes. Pretty ironic, I thought, for a group who seeks and honors diversity, which has chosen to live on property developed with low and middle income folks in mind.

When I returned to Wonderland the next day, I talked with Shari at length. After blowing off steam about class warfare and entitlement issues, I asked her for an effective way to get the group talking about income levels and money differences. Shari has a black belt in Process and Facilitation and therefore a dozen activities at her fingertips.  She suggested an exercise that would force members to move beyond their standard mindset. It worked like this:

At the next community meeting I passed out index cards with pictures of lambs, dogs and flamingos. I asked everyone to take one card, any picture they wanted. We then assembled in groups of three, a lamb, dog and flamingo in each. (We used silly animal pictures instead of letters or numbers because it helped reduce tensions).

Once the small groups got settled, I announced that the flamingoes represented Habitat buyers, dogs,  Affordable, and lambs, Market Rate. If a member was holding a dog card, for instance, no matter want category of unit they were buying, during this exercise they needed to speak from the point of view of an Affordable buyer.

Next I posed this question: Currently, Wild Sage’s Finance and Legal team was working on monthly Homeowner’s dues.  They were basing a part of these dues on each unit’s square footage and number of persons living there. Should the category of one’s unit—Market Rate, Habitat or Affordable—also be taken into consideration?  We asked the small groups to talk about this. The resulting conversations, at first awkward and hesitant, quickly grew animated. 

After ten minutes, I asked for feedback from the groups.  Some of the comments surprised me.  A few Market Rate buyers, for instance, were only slightly over the eligibility limit for Affordable Housing and could barely afford their units. Other Market Rate buyers had been, or currently were, unemployed. They didn’t know if they’d be able to put together an adequate down payment in time. One Habitat buyer said she wanted to pay the same HOA dues as everyone one else because she didn’t want to feel indebted to the group.  A Market Rate buyer said she was actually eligible for Affordable status and was considering switching to an Affordable home instead.

Perhaps the most telling comment I heard was that many of us didn’t know what it meant to be in a different purchasing category.  Often, we didn’t understand the limitations of the Habitat program or the restrictions of the Affordable one.  We didn’t understand that the city’s inclusive zoning program required that new developments have affordable homes, and that that cost had to be absorbed by either the developer or the buyers. More than simply educating us, this exercise got us talking about shared concerns and helped us gain empathy for each other as individuals.

A couple of months later, tensions again rose when it turned out that we had fewer garages than people who wanted them.  Part of the shortage was caused by a new rule that allowed Affordable and Habitat buyers to purchase garages. Suddenly, a handful of new garage buyers appeared overnight. Again there were scattered comments about garages being an extravagance for Habitat and Affordable buyers.

What underlies this attitude is a false belief that one group of people best knows what another group needs.  For instance, one of Wild Sage’s many single Moms told us that, for her own sanity, once a month she treated herself to a day at a spa. A Market Rate member commented that someone buying a discounted house shouldn’t indulge in such “luxury.” But who are we to judge how someone prioritizes their money?

This judgmental cattiness isn’t a one-way street. One time, a potential member (a single mom) was considering purchasing our most expensive home. A few days later, an Affordable buyer apparently remarked, “What is she, a princess?”

Maybe this potential buyer was a princess, or trustfunder, or perhaps she was a hardworking woman with a high paying job. It’s also possible that she’d invested well, was a widow with a large insurance settlement or had recently moved from a part of the country where homes cost more than they did in Boulder. Heck, maybe she’d won the lottery.  The point is that when we make snippy comments, whether based on envy or distrust, it’s a sign we aren’t taking the time to find out who an individual really is. Assumptions are walls. What we need are bridges.

One bridge-building exercise we’ve used at Wild Sage was aimed at taking a hard look at the communal dust we’d swept under the rug.  For this activity, I wrote twelve statements that summed up, in tactless and thoughtless ways, unspoken community concerns about anxiety, participation and finances. Here are a few examples:

I’m tired of subsidizing “affordable units.”  I don’t make that much money myself.

If Affordable and Habitat buyers can afford to purchase a garage, they should skip the garage and pay more for their houses instead.

Market rate buyers are patronizing towards Affordable and Habitat buyers. I’m sick of how clueless they are about gender and class issues.

I purposefully made these statements harsh in order to cut through the hesitant politeness that sometimes keeps us from honest conversation.  For the activity, I again asked community to divide into smaller groups, with each of this group having at least one buyer from each category. I then asked them to choose two statements from the box and as a group, to react to and discuss that statement.  Some groups focused on how realistic the statement appeared to be (“No one really thinks that, do they?”) while other groups directly tackled the issue raised. Unfortunately, I forgot to build in time for the groups to report back on their experience, but, as I understand it, the activity succeeded in—if not vacuuming up the dust under the rug—at least lifting up the rug to show that dirt was really there.  I hope to repeat a variation of this activity in the months to come.

Another bridge-building exercise, which I’ve used in classrooms, cohousing communities and race/class/gender discussion groups, is an Outer Circle, Inner Circle activity.  Here’s how it works. The group forms a large circle. The facilitator reads a statement and if it is true for an individual, they take a step forward.   The resulting inner ring of people is then encouraged to look at each other, acknowledge this commonality, and then step back. 

If the statements are mild, such as I have a dog or I like vegetable lasagna or I have a tattoo, the activity simply is essentially an icebreaker, which encourages connection among members.  However, if the statements are riskier, say, I have been in an abusive relationship, I have been threatened because I am gay or Someone I cared about has recently died, the exercise drops to a deeper level. When you stand in that inner circle, amid people who have experienced similar suffering and heartbreak, the affinity you feel is more profound.

To help the group explore money differences, I’ve prepared statements reflecting economic status and financial concerns.  One statement addresses that casual remark I first heard two years ago, My new Wild Sage home is larger than where I live now. Other statements read, I am concerned about impending HOA dues and I am not sure if I can handle my monthly mortgage payment. For these statements, I imagine buyers from every category will be represented.  This, I hope, will remind us that money worries are not confined to a single income level.

Despite the headway we’ve made as a group, our progress on economic diversity has mostly taught us how far we have to go.  We are now assembling a committee to look at divisions within our community, including new and old members, active and less active members, and Habitat, Affordable and Market Rate buyers. 

As we put together this group and continue to facilitate bridge-building activities, my hope is that someday we won’t need any of it. It’s not that I imagine our conflicts and concerns will magically go away, but instead that we will know each other well enough and trust each other deeply enough to initiate discussions on economic diversity all on our own.  Preferably in common house, over a big slice of vegetable lasagna.

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