Thursday, October 22, 2015

Defying Poverty with Housing

I’ve been on a bit of a tangent lately, exploring various models of effective housing and the creation of interactive, human-scale communities. I suspect some selfish motivation since I’ve passed my fiftieth year and should be wondering where my feeble body is going to prop itself toward the latter part of my next fifty (being a slow learner, I figure I’ll need another fifty to make any sense of all of this).

The other, and far more prominent motivation has come from seeing my friends and acquaintances shut themselves away in isolated houses, alone after work or simply alone. The most ambitious of them schedule activities, which they leave their house to attend in other parts of town, but between those activities the seclusion presses in.

Defying Poverty with Bicycles, is all about providing the freedom and dignity of personal mobility to people in the greatest need. It also delves into career development and inspiring social entrepreneurs to start their own bicycle businesses. It covers transportation, education, income generation, even social interaction during the day, but it does not address the places where people go when all the action is finished for the day.

There’s something terribly wrong with the direction our communities are going in the developed world. Only a hundred years ago everyone expected to interact with their neighbors. Housing was clustered either in downtowns or in rural villages and mixed with businesses and community activities. I understand the long-gone motivation to move away from toxic downtowns into housing-only neighborhoods and suburbs. Unfortunately, that fix and the cleanup of downtowns led to segregated, single use zoning that not only keeps people from choosing to bicycle, it keeps people from other people who seem different from them.

So I started this new learning adventure by researching cohousing. I had been inspired by a cohousing community in Denmark highlighted in the fabulous movie Happy. This Danish cohousing community is a group of a dozen or so families living in houses clustered around a common building where they cook, meet, and play together. Unfortunately, cohousing seems to be something for the well-off.

So I looked into community development that includes the most disadvantage people and found an excellent book called Tent City Urbanism: From Self-Organized Camps to Tiny House Villages. With empathy and a good understanding of the struggles homeless people face, the book shows readers how to create places where homeless people are allowed to sleep. It goes into great depth on case studies of successful camps and even tiny-house enclaves that are sanctioned by cities in order to house “the homeless.”

My problem with this book, the case studies, and all the similar projects I’ve found is that they are following the exact pattern of the segregated zoning that has divided our towns and cities. Every project has a mission of serving “the homeless.” They all seek funding and charity donations because they are serving “the homeless.” There’s no recognition that “the homeless” are anything like the people leading or funding these projects. Even the projects that boast of leadership roles for their residents, still talk about serving “the homeless.”

I get that the best way to raise funds and donations, such as land and building materials, for such a project is to talk endlessly about “the homeless.” I’m afraid I can’t stomach it.

I faced a similar problem when developing One Street’s Social Bike Business program as well as capturing our recommendations in our book Defying Poverty with Bicycles. Leaders of organizations that are providing bicycles to impoverished people often see no harm in appeasing funders. If funders want to give charity to a segregated group of people who they believe are entirely different from them, what’s the harm? I say such one-way, charity thinking is at the very core of the problem and is in fact the most harmful thing we can possibly do. You’ll find in that book as well as Cures for Ailing Organizations a loud and clear message to avoid such charity mindsets.

I’m afraid that the tent city and tiny house movements are suffering from this same temptation. While I was thoroughly inspired by the details of the book such as allowing campers to develop their own camp site and inspiring them to help one another, I missed any mention of integrating such camps into a total community.

My hunt continues for model communities that are truly reinventing what we, in the developed world, lost over this past century – neighborhoods and villages that are designed specifically to welcome the most disadvantage people and thus welcome people, and their animals, from all income levels, abilities, and ages. Places where all-ages means that seniors and young people work and play together; where all-abilities means that even the most disabled people can contribute, perhaps overseeing a playground, running deliveries by electric wheelchair, or welcoming visitors. I’ve found this in developing countries and tribal communities, but these have existed since before records were kept. What I can’t find are models of such communities started from scratch.

I have this vision of a gated, cohousing community (don’t gag yet) that is gated only because dogs run free. Cars enter through the double gates that ensure the dogs cannot get out and park immediately in the single parking lot. From there the pathways lead to the mixed housing, businesses and workshops run by residents as well as the common areas and parks.

Yes, there is a tent area that ensures that the temporarily destitute have a place. There are also tiny houses – love these. But anyone can choose a tent or tiny house whether they have ever been homeless or not. The largest houses would be reasonable, perhaps 1,000 square feet max. A community garden would include gardening classes and result in a surplus sold at the community’s grocery store. The dog park would welcome nonresidents and mark dogs and other pets needing a home. The businesses, parks and ball courts would attract nonresidents to learn about the village and interact. The very design of the village and its homeowners’ association (HOA) charter would ensure that residents and visitors alike pitch in to help everything run smoothly and improve.

The biggest difference from this vision and the cohousing and tent city projects I’ve found so far is that it would follow conventional new development steps. It would be presented as a mixed-use development. Period. Home buyers would purchase their homes in various ways – most often through mortgage loans, sometime full cash, and others through a mix of labor and loan. Owners could rent their properties within the HOA guidelines. From the tents to the largest houses, every resident would be treated the same.

Why have I not found a project like this yet? Are there any out there that I have missed?

Bicycles remain my primary fixation for improving communities, but lately housing keeps creeping into my thoughts. I’d so appreciate any ideas and experience you can offer to help streamline my search. Please write them into the comments section. I’m looking forward to reaching that point in this learning adventure where integrated bicycle and housing programs converge. That will be cool!