Co-Housing, Millenials, Retirees, and the Importance of Flexible Housing

I spend one week a year hanging out with Jewish hippies on a hilltop in New Hampshire at the National Havurah Committee‘s Summer Institute. It’s a really lovely space that largely exists outside the bounds of institutionalized Jewish community, a space that is truly cross-generational and empowers people of all ages and background (I run the kitchen, monitoring kosher and food need concerns) to lead, teach, and learn.

Part of what makes Institute tick is the series of workshops given by attendees on a wide variety of topics in which they have personal interest or expertise (in that order). On Tuesday I had the pleasure of attending a workshop on the topic of Jewish co-housing, a topic that seems totally stereotypical for a hippie retreat but is also of interest to me as a planner. Interestingly, attendance at the workshop was split just about 50/50 between people my age (twentysomethings) and people at or approaching retirement age, with virtually no one in between. And it was the older folks who tended to be more vocal, perhaps because the need for them is more urgent–many of us younger people like the idea of sharing housing with friends to some extent, but for those approaching an age where physical concerns and safety become paramount, having others around to help out becomes almost a necessity.

Several of the older folks in attendance did, in fact, express that they had planned to be dragged out of their own homes or apartments feet first when the time came, but had more recently come around to having more flexibility on the topic of housing as they aged. And while the older folks are Havurah are certainly a group that exhibits selection bias–these are aging hippies, after all, and they have, as a group, willingly handed over leadership to my generation, which is EXTRAORDINARILY rare in Jewish communal contexts–I found it a powerful demonstration of the ways people can come together across generations to work for better housing options.

And the key word there is indeed options. This was a crew for whom, for a variety of reasons, the “traditional” single-family home, and to a large extent the nuclear family model that underpins it, does not work. That the nuclear family is declining in America is conventional wisdom to the point of cliche, but most of the discussion about the future of American housing has focused on Millenials and our alleged desire for multifamily urban housing. But we’re not the only ones looking for options beyond the single-family home. Surely, many older Americans are stubborn and set in their ways (I have a grandmother who is very set on staying in her house despite a total inability to care for it, and, increasingly, herself); but perhaps there’s significant room to articulate a positive vision of flexible, semi-shared housing that is neither an increasingly unsafe residence nor a nursing home or care facility.

The discussion of Jewish co-housing was particularly poetic given an article I read later that night laying out the sale of Newton, MA’s historic Mishkan Tefillah synagogue to Boston College. The person who lead the session is actually from Newton; a widow, she had tried to attract various people to share her large, expensive house in that wealthy town, but had come to the conclusion that co-housing simply wasn’t going to happen in Newton. And here comes the news that a 300-family synagogue–significantly larger than the perfectly functional communities I grew up in–is selling their property because they can’t financially sustain it anymore. Why? Because the shul (Yiddish for synagogue) is shrinking and because the property they built on back in the day is 24 freaking acres. 

Map of the Mishkan Tefila property from the Boston Globe article.

Map of the Mishkan Tefila property from the Boston Globe article.

24 acres! Even the largest synagogue, with parking lots built to accommodate thousands of worshipers on the three peak days of the High Holidays, could only ever use a fraction of that space. The Globe article notes that the site came with significant legal restrictions on use, so using some of it for desperately needed housing might have been tricky, but I can’t help but wonder how things might have been different if places of worship–Jewish and otherwise, though the need for walkability is greater in an observant Jewish context–had thought more creatively about the future housing needs of their communities.

As I observed on Facebook in relation to the news a couple of weeks ago that Kehillath Israel–another Conservative congregation located in fairly urban, but still expensive, Brookline–is revamping their facility to accommodate senior housing, there’s a crying need for congregations to think about the housing needs of their membership. Suburban congregations whine constantly about how no young families move to the neighborhood–but the entire system of suburban homeownership is designed to benefit existing homeowners while pricing out newcomers. In towns like Newton (or Sharon, where my partner grew up), single-family zoning and the emphasis on homeownership make it virtually impossible to replicate religious–or any–community across generations. And it’s not all about some Millenial preference for cities or urban living; it’s about inflexible housing stock that can only accommodate one vision of familial, economic, and social being.

So yes, congregations like Mishkan Tefilah have doomed themselves. But those choices were made decades ago, in many cases right as the congregations moved out from the areas of first and second settlement. And that’s where we come back to the promise that I think our little hippie workshop on co-housing showed. There is a possibility of cross-generational cooperation on housing issues. There are common threads between what young people need (or want) and what older people need. There is a possibility of rebuilding aging and dying communities by thinking creatively about the founding assumptions that shaped them. All of this would require significant creativity and a willingness to take on conventional wisdom and fundamental assumptions about housing and family structure that I’m not sure everyone’s ready for. And surely, some people, and some communities, will prefer dying on the hill of the suburban model to living on a different model. But let’s not give up hope for reconciliation just yet.

The Urban Regulatory Regime and the Left

Anthony Flint had a piece on CityLab on Wednesday titled “The Tragic Comedy of Small Business Permitting,” lamenting the calcified, regressive nature of many rules and regulations applied to small (and large) businesses in urban settings. He writes,

At the place I’m staying at through the new year, the On the River Inn in Woodstock, Vermont, I inquired why we had the elegantly appointed bistro and bar all to ourselves. Only guests allowed, replied the bartender, because if they want to be open to the public, a specific number of excess parking spots are required. It’s the first time the arcane law has been tested in 40 years—the hotel is the first new building in town in that time—but there’s no opportunity to re-assess the Long Trail Ale-to-parking ratio. The entire enterprise is subject to many regulations a half-century old.

Flint’s piece doesn’t break any particularly new ground—much of it consists of a transcription of an only marginally funny Xtranormal video made by a jaded planner in San Francisco—but it is a decent summary of the challenges facing small businesses that attempt to function in the context of an aggressive, inflexible regulatory regime. And it brought to mind—just in terms of pure outrageousness—a couple of incidents I read about recently that, I think, illustrate the problem nicely.

My neighborhood in Albany recently gained–though I, despite being vegetarian, haven’t been there yet–a new veggie/vegan coffee shop dedicated to “hitting the brakes” on climate change and the carbon lifestyle, etc. It took them a few months to get things together, certainly unaided by the city of Albany’s regulatory provisions. Check out especially what local signsmith Frank Smith had to say in the comments below the post (Red Poppies was the Polish bakery that occupied the space before The Brakes):

There’s very little about this situation that can be described without resorting to profanity. I suppose there might, theoretically, be some justification for permitting signs in windows—though I really doubt it—but the mere existence of a city regulation governing the size and duration of a temporary paper signs is very nearly enough to drive me into libertarianism. Sure, it might not kill the business to not have a sign—but a new business, in particular, does stand to benefit from being able to advertise itself from within its own boundaries—but what, at all, is the point of making a new small business owner spend more time, and more resources, filling out more government forms? Remember, this is a business renting space in a mixed-use building, dedicated to the slowing of climate change and to responsible environmentalism. Entirely aside from its almost-cliched Millennial—attracting properties, this EXACTLY the kind of business somewhat economically stagnant cities like Albany should be desperate to attract and keep. Making the life of the business owners harder is just incomprehensibly bad policy.

Meanwhile, in New Haven, messy zoning has collided with what seems to be a mixture of community prudishness and rent-seeking by local business owners, as the New Haven Independent reports:

A loophole in zoning regulations is enabling a third liquor store to open on a single block across from the Green — unless neighbors succeed in shutting it down… Normally local zoning regulations say stores with package permits must be more than 1,500 feet from each other. But an exception — Section 42.1(g) — excludes that section of the city from the provision, specifically “the area bounded north by Chapel Street, east by Church Street, south by the Oak Street Connector, and west by Temple Street.”

New Haven zoners believe that the exception in the code is an artifact of the time, after urban renewal took its toll on New Haven, when the entire relevant block was a single massive, car-oriented mall. But in 2014, when approached by reporter Aliyya Swaby, the owner of one of the two existing liquor stores on the block was only too happy to join the opposition to the newcomer, which he had previously not known about. There is certainly a case to be made that there is a public interest in restricting the presence of liquor stores near the New Haven Green, or anywhere, but it is hard to see how having three, rather than two, operating in close proximity will seriously degrade community life.

It’s hard to see where the opposition to the new store is doing anything other than enabling rent-seeking by the owners of the existing stores. Opposition would be more understandable if this were a national chain seeking to drive locals out of business, but all three stores are locally owned. Maybe a third store will drive all three out of business through excessive competition; I grew up hearing stories of how the two kosher meat plants in Sioux City, Iowa (where my family went to synagogue for a couple of years when I was little) drove each other out business through refusal to merge and cooperate. But liquor is a pretty resilient commodity, and agglomeration economies are strange beasts. Back here in Albany, there are three dedicated mattress stores, plus a Bed, Bath, and Beyond AND two department stores, within a mile or two of each other on Wolf Road and Central Avenue around Colonie Center Mall.

mattress stores

It’s well-documented that liberal (especially old, Northeastern) cities are generally presumed to have more restrictive regulatory regimes than their Sunbelt counterparts. Often, in political discourse, this gets lumped together with high taxes and a functional welfare net as being part of a climate of “business-unfriendliness.” But there’s no particular reason that needs to be the case. Given that many liberal cities continue to enjoy higher quality-of-life ratings, and that demand for housing in places like New York City, Boston, Washington, DC, San Francisco, and Los Angeles has kept housing prices stubbornly high, there’s clearly little or nothing about the high-tax climate that’s intrinsically a turn-off to business. Rather, businesses large and small are willing to accept the trade-off of higher taxes for better public services (transit, clean streets, libraries) for themselves and especially for their employees.

But the restrictive regulatory regime that is all too characteristic of many “blue” cities doesn’t fit neatly into that framework—and it IS a turn-off to businesses, and especially to small ones. There is an apt comparison to housing policy. As Derek Thompson wrote in The Atlantic last October, liberal cities tend to be less affordable than their conservative counterparts. There are, as with any complex policy issue, several elements behind that phenomenon, but the primary one is that conservative cities simply tend to be more pro-development: they allow much more housing to be built. For whatever reason, liberal cities have taken a turn towards following the (perceived or real) interests of existing homeowners, rather than promoting the public good through allowing new development as they grow. Ilya Somin wrote in the Washington Post’s Volokh Conspiracy blog that

As is often the case with perverse regulatory policies, excessive zoning is in part the product of a “baptist-bootlegger” coalition. Well-meaning, but badly misguided Baptists supported Prohibition out of genuine moral concern about the harmful effects of alcohol. Meanwhile, bootleggers backed it because it put money in their pockets. Housing policy in liberal cities is influenced by a similar implicit unholy alliance between well-meaning progressive voters and unscrupulous economic interest groups.

Hmmm, sounds like the case in New Haven with the liquor stores, does it not? Housing policy may be the best, most obvious example of the overzealous regulatory regime in “blue” cities, but it is not the only one. Small businesses, too, suffer from the same restrictive environment–and an environment in which the ability to play the system is arguably more important than the ability to do business well or ethically tilts the playing field not towards small business, but toward the giant chains that liberal voters tend to despise. A major corporation can hire a lawyer to swoop in and prepare a business application that will meet all of the relevant city codes in ways that a small business will never be able to.

So what’s going on? And why, among generally sophisticated and well-educated liberal voters, does the tendency to make such poor and anti-progressive choices about development and business policy still hang on? Analyses of the attitude of the urban Left toward development and business have typically focused on more recent iterations of liberalism–identity politics, anti-gentrification activism, and the like. But I’d like to trace the origins of the Left’s “urban problem” back a couple more decades, to a time simultaneously more visionary and more paranoid.  The anti-gentrification Left of today is quite good at drawing media attention to itself (indeed, probably better at that than at most other things). But as someone who has lived in several of the liberal cities at question (New Haven, Chicago, NYC, Albany) there are two factors in the over-regulatory attitude that above all that stand out to me, and both can be traced to a different generation of liberal activists: the white liberal tendency towards controlling policy behaviors, and hangover from the period of white flight and urban renewal.

When we moved to Albany, I made a point of subscribing to the local neighborhood association listserv, so that I could see how homeowners (the NA is open to renters too, but most of the participants own) in an urban setting think. In general, the people on the listserv tend towards the professional-class and managerial, unsurprising in a part of Albany that re-populated with people from that general demographic after the Empire State Plaza brought more state office jobs into the immediate area. Whenever the question of a new business, or modification of an existing one, comes up, the listserv lights up with commentary, most of it taking the attitude of “we should tell the owners to do X, Y, and Z.”  On the one hand, I admire citizens who are so willing to be involved in the affairs of their neighborhood. On the other, the most privileged members of the community throwing around their weight to tell local business what to do can be stifling to precisely the kind of spirit and innovation an urban neighborhood needs. Center Square and Hudson/Park are areas where people literally sit on their stoops to socialize; it could be right out of a Jane Jacobs textbook, had she written one. But the Neighborhood Association class seems to have missed the part of Jacobs (and so many other urban thinkers and observers) where she emphasized that the spontaneity of urban life is precisely what makes it special.

The legacy of urban renewal and white flight, too, has a role in the urban Left’s counterproductive support of the regulatory regime. Growing up in New Haven, and now living a block away from the marble edifice of the Empire State Plaza, the scars of this period have been ever-present in my life, as they are in the lives of many Blue City dwellers. When your physical environment constantly reminds you that your city is little cared for, and primarily designed for suburbanites to get into and out of quickly, is it any surprise that you may develop a mindset that has a hard time adjusting to a 21st-century reality where your city is growing again? The neighborhood associations that dominate white liberal middle class dialogue in many Blue Cities grew out of a period where no one–not government, and certainly not business–gave a shit about the communities that form in urban neighborhoods. They are, fundamentally, relics of a period where to be a middle-class urban liberal was to feel under siege. And they have thus had an extraordinarily difficult time adjusting to what should be their glory years–a time when the cultural narrative in the US has shifted to the opposite pole, from White Flight to The Triumph of the City. The urban left, then, clings to the things that gave it power 40 years ago after the era of freeway revolts and the end of urban renewal–legal protections from development, empowerment of the local community above all in business regulation, and just generally writing everything into law.

It’s really hard to give up power when you feel like it’s the only thing that’s been protecting your neighborhood for several decades. But now, those laws, regulations, and zoning decisions are counterproductive. Some (not all, but many) American cities are growing again. Young people want to live in the areas their parents or grandparents abandoned. And the urban Left, so accustomed to being suspicious of everyone and everything, is going to have to adapt.

Hudson, NY and America Before Zoning

G and I spent the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend in the beautiful little town of Hudson, NY, about 45 minutes driving south of Albany. Hudson is dense, compact town of a little under 7,000, and the county seat of mostly rural (and beautiful) Columbia County. It is also home to a treasure trove of historical architecture, much of it dating to the decades immediately after the town’s founding during the waning years of the Revolutionary War. As the agriculture economy in the Hudson Valley declined, Hudson entered a long period of economic decline, but has been revived (albeit in an apparently unequal manner) in recent years by a second-home crowd escaping New York City, lured by the town’s diverse, beautiful housing stock and accessibility (Hudson has a stop on Amtrak’s Empire Service). The newcomers have established a thriving art/antiquing/high-end food economy; walking down Warren Street, Hudson’s main drag, feels like nothing more than navigating a slice of Park Slope relocated to Upstate.

Warren Street is certainly the epicenter of economic and social life in Hudson, but some of the most interesting individual homes are found on Union Street, parallel and just to the south. Sadly, Union Street is not on Streetview, so we’ll have to settle for a low-res view from a perpendicular street (get on this, Google! Students of planning and architecture will thank you.):


Walking down Union is like a trip through history; the street is especially known for its 19th century houses, but the oldest I know of on the street is the Worth House, which has been there since at least 1794, when Major General William J. Worth, conqueror (appropriator?) of Texas during the Mexican-American War, was born in it. What one notices on Union is the sheer variety of age and style amongst the houses on the street. Just in the blog post linked to above, architectural styles mentioned include Gothic Revival, Queen Anne, Eastlake, Victorian, Italianate, Second Empire, French Second Empire, and Federal. Almost as remarkable as the variety of styles is the variety of sizes. Some homes are quite elaborate, worthy of Hudson’s wealthiest families; others are small and plain. Some are townhouses that would look appropriate in my own Albany neighborhood of Center Square; others could be farmhouses. There are even a few large-city-style apartment buildings sprinkled in. There’s not a shred of coherence of style or size.

The houses of Union Street are a truly remarkable collection that evolved over 120 years or so. And, to channel noted (and regional resident) crank James Howard Kunstler,  it’s a streetscape that would be virtually impossible to build in most places in the United States today. Zoning would, on the principle of seeking to “preserve neighborhood character,” prohibit the presence of houses of such different styles and sizes. Neighborhood and homeowners’ groups have repeatedly shown themselves to be opposed to any new home that disrupts the architectural status quo; had that attitude prevailed in Hudson, the Union Street that exists could never have been built. The last of the historical homes on Union Street were built around 1910, just before zoning began its unstoppable sweep across the American landscape. Union Street offers a useful reminder of the creativity in land use and architecture we’ve lost, and are only now learning to bring back.