Mel Coulson has sent us a cautionary tale with a happy ending. For an update on this cohousing project please visit telkwacohousing.com
A Cautionary Tale!
A Case Study of Missed Opportunity
The story of the B V Senior Cohousing Project related below is a sad tale of missed opportunity. It highlights the fact that many local governments are completely in the dark as regards the many benefits of senior cohousing, and they need to be educated.
The B.V. Senior Cohousing Working Group formed in April, 201, with the intent of building a senior cohousing complex in the Bulkley Valley. Three key goals for the project were: Sustainability, Community and Affordability. In November, 2012, they formed a Non-profit Society.
Through grants kindly provided by their local Credit Union, Community Forest Corporation and AgeFriendly BC, they completed the first three phases of the five-step Nielsen’s Method, a process designed in Denmark to bring a cohousing project on stream with the minimum of fuss. These stages are: the Feasibility Study, the Public Engagement Phase and Study Group 1.
Study Group 1 is a period of self-discovery where, in 10 facilitated discussion sessions, interested families explore issues of ageing and what it means to age in place successfully and in community. 28 people took part in Study Group 1, representing 18 families. At the end of the 10 sessions, 14 families emerged who were keen to press on with a local senior cohousing development.
The 4th phase of this 5-step process is called Study Group 2. It is the “Participatory Design” process where the whole group works together with an architect to design the project from the ground up. In order to start Study Group 2 a group needs a site, as the first workshop is designing the Site Plan.
In April, 2012, the group made an offer on an ideal site owned by the Town of Smithers, the principal town in the Bulkley Valley. Although a “brownfields” site (an old Highways maintenance yard), the site was within walking distance of all downtown amenities, a key feature for a seniors’ project, and it had good southern exposure required for their proposed passive solar design. Sadly, after 6 months of “in camera” discussions with Smithers Town Council the group could not reach agreement. The stumbling point was the amount of land they needed to undertake a successful project. The group required a minimum of 1.2 acres for their proposed 16-unit project, which included a 3,000 sq. ft. Common House and other community amenities such as gardens, greenhouse, workshops, meditation space, recreation equipment storage and so on. The Town would release only 0.82 acres and the portion of the site offered to the group did not guarantee the southern exposure needed. They were at an impasse.
To try to break the log jam the group proposed that the Town consider a Land Trust option. These have been used by many progressive jurisdictions to bring affordable housing on stream. Essentially the land is held in trust. This removes the land cost portion from the project and therefore helps meet affordability criteria such as those required to obtain BC Housing construction funding. In return, a covenant is placed on the houses limiting their resale price to inflation so that the units remain affordable into perpetuity. This suggestion was rejected by the Town.
Subsequently, 9 other possible Smithers’ sites were explored, but all had major issues. For example, a large (48,000 sq. ft.) Middle School, which had been closed for 5 years and was up for sale, required a massive demolition job with all the debris having to be trucked to a landfill site 70 km away. There were asbestos issues involved too. A Crown Land site, another option, had a previous Notation of Interest on it by the local School Board as a site for a possible future school which they were not willing to relinquish, notwithstanding the fact that the Board was in the process of closing schools and trying to sell them. The group also advertised for a site but nothing suitable emerged.
In March, 2013, a three and a half acre site became available. The group immediately made an offer based on the full asking price, but requesting a 6-month closure period to allow time for the rezoning application required (it was zoned for a church), geotechnical work, preliminary designs and
cost estimates to ensure financial viability. The owner would not agree to that 6-month closure period and began negotiations with a local developer. After 4 months, the developer pulled out and the group were given a second chance. The site was twice as big as they required so they sought to subdivide the site, sell half, and use the proceeds to help subsidize the cohousing units. When they explored this idea with the Town of Smithers they found out that if they subdivided the property they would be required to develop the adjacent roads to Town Standards. This was a very costly process and one which negated any savings.
During this long hiatus of almost two years, the size of the group diminished. Older members needed to make alternative plans, some burned out, a couple decided to join another cohousing group as they already had land and they saw better progress being made there. Some just moved on. Sadly, some decided to leave town due to the lack of suitable local seniors’ housing. This seemed rather ironic as as a 2010 Smithers Housing Task Force Report had flagged as a “community development priority” the need to …. ensure that adequate, high quality housing is available to meet the needs of older adults, and … Encourage diversified housing types to both retain residents and attract retirees. This is precisely what the group were trying to do! In the end the group lacked the critical mass needed to make that second offer.
Had they found a site they would have qualified for up to $120,000 in Seed and Project Development Funding from CMHC, which is designed to encourage the building of affordable housing. Also, BC Housing, the provincial housing authority, had agreed to provide the group with 100% of the Construction Loan at a very low interest rate, provided that 51% of units were “affordable” by their definition. At the end of construction they would also have arranged low-interest mortgages for any future residents who needed them.
The project had the backing of all levels of government, Smithers Community Services, Northern Society for Domestic Peace and their local health authority, Northern Health, who gave them a very strong endorsement, recognizing the preventative health value of senior cohousing. For example, by reducing feelings of isolation, encouraging social interaction and supporting members through illness and bereavement and also by the ability to provide unobtrusive medical care by visiting care aides or live-in care givers, residents can live independently longer and stay out of institutions, thus reducing the cost to government.
This was a missed opportunity. It would have been a feather in the cap for the Town of Smithers, perhaps the second senior cohousing project in the whole of Canada (currently there is only one). It would have been a $4 million project, funded by the members’ equity, and with most of the money spent locally. It would have brought 16 purpose-built affordable and low-impact housing units on stream in a supportive and inclusive community setting at a time when there is an ageing population and very little seniors’ housing available locally. It would have been a textbook environmentally sustainable development employing passive solar design, natural ventilation, super insulation, triple glazing, low embodied energy, low toxicity, environmentally friendly and sustainable materials, solar hot water pre-heating etc. As part of this low carbon, sustainable initiative, the local Wetzin’kwa Community Forest Corporation had agreed to provide beetle-killed timber for the proposed timber frame design as part of their Community Outreach program. The units would have been age-in-place design, including all 19 measurable SAFERhome criteria with a view to becoming SAFERhome certified.
As for that original town-owned site which the group tried to buy back in April, 2012; it remains undeveloped, a complete eyesore in the middle of town. And the other site on which they requested the 6-month closure period? It is still for sale one year later.
Happily the story does not end there! Having licked their wounds, the remaining members of the group bounced right back and decided to try their luck in Telkwa, a village of some 1,350 souls
located 11 km to the east of Smithers.
Telkwa had always been a possibility for the project and the Village Council there had been very supportive from the start, urging them to locate the project there at the very beginning. However, a straw poll conducted by the group after Study Group 1 revealed that, whereas 14 families preferred Smithers, only 7 families were prepared to locate in Telkwa. The main reason being that Smithers has many more amenities, including a hospital.
The group has also found an ideal site in Telkwa, on bench land above the village with 360 degree vistas of the surrounding mountains. Realizing that Telkwa is not the ideal location for a “Seniors’” cohousing project, due to lack of local facilities and amenities, they have decided to drop age restrictions making it, in effect, an inter-generational project. They are also in the process of dropping “Senior” from their society name.
At their March, 2014, meeting, the core group of 8 equity status families decided to press ahead with a site plan and financial feasibility study. After 2 years of spinning their wheels, they are on their way again!
Anyone who would like to explore joining the group or to find out more about cohousing, please contact Mel Coulson – (250) 846-5649. Also, check out telkwacohousing.com