Best Affordable Housing Design of 2018: An Experiment in Communal Living

The affordable housing crisis in America may be most acute in senior living.

As a result, developers are looking at avenues to build affordable senior housing without government subsidies that bring a sense of luxury and comfort to residents, while instilling a renewed sense of dignity.

The challenge is likely to become even more acute in coming years, due to public policy trends. For instance, the Trump administration’s FY 2020 budget proposes slashing the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) budget by more than 16%.

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One alternative is Garden Spot Village Cooperative Living House, a 3,973-square-foot home within Garden Spot Village Retirement Community in New Holland, Pennsylvania. The house — constructed without the aid of tax credits — is the 2018 Senior Housing News Architecture and Design Award winner for affordable housing community, and is notable for its small scale and for being an experiment in communal living.

The concept

The idea of building a cooperative house started with a strategic planning meeting, exploring ways to add an affordable housing component to Garden Spot Village, CEO Steve Lindsey told Senior Housing News.

affordable senior living, cooperative senior living Alise O'Brien/Garden Spot Village
Garden Spot Village plans to build four more cooperative houses on its campus in New Holland, Pennsylvania.

Most affordable housing built in the U.S. relies on securing tax credits to make the construction budget work, but Garden Spot discovered during its research that gaining access to tax credits is difficult, mostly because of the competitive environment for them.

Furthermore, the Congressional Budget Office predicts every penny of the federal budget will be earmarked for entitlements or to pay down interest on existing debt by 2025. With this knowledge in hand, Garden Spot Village went back to the drawing board.

“This set us off on a process of thinking how to provide affordable housing without government funding,” Lindsey said.

The concept Garden Spot Village eventually settled upon was to build a cooperative house. Traditionally, cooperative housing tenants buy “shares” in a corporation that owns the building. These shares entitle stakeholders to lease a specific unit within a building and share common areas. With this project, there are no shareholders, only renters.

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However, the house remains a co-op in the sense that the residents live communally. They can use Garden Spot Village’s resources to shop, dine and participate in activities together, as needed. Garden Spot Village facility and campus teams assist the residents with house and groundskeeping.

As the owner, Garden Spot Village decided to keep the cooperative house’s scale small. The independent living building can house a maximum of five unrelated residents. Each resident has his or her own private residence and bathroom, but shares common living areas and the kitchen.

As part of the greater Garden Spot Village operations, the residents have full access to the community’s campus and all of its attendant amenities except for health care, Lindsey said. Rent is charged at a sliding scale of 30% of a resident’s average monthly income, regardless of how much one earns.

Garden Spot Village found the ideal architect partner in SFCS Architects, which was also looking at ways to build more affordable senior housing, Vice President David McGill told SHN. He calls affordable housing the “Holy Grail” in senior living.

“How do we provide decent senior housing that provides dignity, is social and safe?” McGill asked.

affordable senior living, cooperative senior living Alise O'Brien/Garden Spot Village
A look at one of the private suites inside Garden Spot Village Cooperative House

The design called for private suites for residents, including their own bedrooms and bathrooms. The shared spaces such as the kitchen and living quarters, meanwhile, are designed to foster an intimate sense of place and fight isolation. The smaller scale allowed for cabinets, flooring, finishes and other design touches not normally seen in traditional affordable housing, yet are durable and built for prolonged use.

The construction

Building affordable housing without government subsidies presents several challenges, the most obvious being keeping construction costs down.

Inspired by the surrounding community of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, Garden Spot Village reached out to local groups to volunteer their time and resources to assist with the construction, Lindsey told SHN.

“We’re familiar with Amish barn raisings and working to clean up after natural disasters,” he said. “What if we started incorporating some of these as a community-wide effort to provide housing to people who need it?”

After its initial outreach, Garden Spot Village was able to form a steering committee of 10-12 people, comprised of local business and church leaders, and community members. This committee helped secure volunteer labor from high school and college students, groups like the Rotary Club and Garden Spot Village residents. One construction company volunteered to build the cooperative house’s roof, and McGill even volunteered to assist in the construction.

Lindsey estimates the success of the outreach program saved Garden Spot Village nearly $200,000 in construction costs. The cooperative house was built for just under $300,000.

Zoning proved to be another challenge, McGill said. Local officials did not know how to address the concept of five unrelated seniors living under the same roof, in a non-institutional setting.

affordable senior living, cooperative senior living Alise O'Brien/Garden Spot Village
A view of the kitchen and dining area inside Garden Spot Village Cooperative House.

The development team worked with local zoning and code enforcement officials to identify the right size building that could be built, as well as put together a feasible development plan. The initial plan was to build the cooperative house on a lot, but there were challenges related to parking and impervious cover, Lindsey said.

The project was moved to another location near the Garden Spot Campus to satisfy those issues.

The completion

The cooperative house has been well-received by its residents and the greater Garden Spot Village community, Lindsey said.

Before the building opened, Garden Spot Village identified residents on campus and trained them as ambassadors, to welcome the cooperative house residents into the greater community.

“The sense of welcoming was very real and a powerful part of the entire experience,” Lindsey said.

Garden Spot Village also has a social worker serving a liaison role with the cooperative house residents.

McGill said two of the cooperative house’s residents he spoke with had only positive things to say about the experience thus far.

“It seems to be satisfying a number of their needs,” he said.

Direct Supply – Aptura Managing Director Chris Frommell, an SHN Awards judge, was impressed by the scale of the development, and that this does not look like a standard affordable housing project.

“The size and scale was unique,” he said. “Normally, affordable housing is rows upon rows of apartments with no character.”

StudioSix5 President Dean Maddalena, another SHN Awards judge, was also impressed by the finished product.

“Affordable housing usually looks cheap,” he said. “This does not look cheap.”

Garden Spot Village Cooperative House serves as a viable option for affordable senior living in the future, and both Lindsey and McGill believe it is scalable. In fact, SFCS is already working on plans to adapt the cooperative housing model to larger projects.

“We’re already working on a way to take this to a new scale,” McGill said.

Lindsey, meanwhile, believes this is only the beginning of Garden Spot Village’s foray into affordable senior housing. It plans to build four more cooperative houses on site and Lindsey believes this can be adopted by municipalities across the country to combat the affordable senior housing crisis.

“This is a model that we can build on any site we can find,” he said.

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